From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra

Blitz Writing book coverBlitz Writing
by Inez Holden

The latest title from Handheld Press combines two short works by early 20th-century writer Holden – the novella Night Shift and her war-time diaries previously published as It Was Different at the Time. Together, they are a record of life in London during the Blitz the like of which I have never read before.

Night Shift is about workers at a London factory making camera parts for war planes during a week in the middle of the Blitz. They are mostly women, mostly working class and are just getting on with daily (or rather, nightly) life. The war is almost in the background but at the same time it’s ever-present. There’s lots of talk about the Home Guard and volunteers. Sometimes they’re late to work because buses can’t get through the rubble. They hear air-raid sirens and bombs but keep on working.

“The thump-hum-drum of the machinery was only the foundation of noise. From time to time there was also the sudden violent hissing of the stream jets which were used for cleaning out the bits of work, and the clattering sound of someone dropping or tripping over some castings…From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra of airplane hum, anti-aircraft shell bursts, ambulance and fire bells. Sometimes bomb concussion caused the floor to give a sudden shiver.”

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One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot

Life After LifeLife After Life
by Kate Atkinson

Way back when I was working for my student newspaper as the arts and books editor, I reviewed a short-story collection called Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson. It wasn’t her first book, but it was still early in her career. I loved it and vowed to pick up the novels she had previously written. But then more than 16 years passed and my only further Atkinson consumption was the TV series Case Histories starring Jason Isaacs as her character Jackson Brodie. Which was excellent.

In 2013 and 2014 everyone was talking about Life After Life. It won the Costa Novel Award and the admiration of all my favourite book bloggers. And I still didn’t read it until the brief period of snow that we had a few weeks back, which made a wintry book feel appropriate. And maybe that’s for the best. I really enjoyed this book, but I suspect it wouldn’t have stood up to the hype, for me at least.

I like the concept: Ursula is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm on 11 February 1910 and dies a few seconds later. She is born again and lives a few years before dying. The cycle keeps repeating: 11 February 1910, snowstorm, Ursula’s birth. However many years she lives, it all starts again at that same moment, same place.

“Ursula opened her milky eyes and seemed to fix her gaze on the weary snowdrop. Rock-a-bye baby, Sylvie crooned. How calm the house was. How deceptive that could be. One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot. ‘One must avoid dark thoughts at all costs,’ she said to Ursula.”

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They trusted that they might be okay. The war is over

How to be a Kosovan BrideHow to be a Kosovan Bride
by Naomi Hamill

This book has a style that initially put me off and ended with me completely in love with it and the story. It was a random purchase in response to a social-media appeal from Salt Publishing. I love a good random find.

The language echoes that of folk tale, with most characters named for their role in the story rather than having a given name. It seems a little stilted at first, but as I got used to it I was able to admire the ways in which Hamill uses style to great effect. Words and phrases are repeated, drawing powerful parallels between characters and events.

“The confidence didn’t come at first. At first they were like spiders, scurrying from house to house…But when they could walk from house to charred house, only looking over their shoulders once to see if they were being followed, they began to feel better. When the schools started back and the hospital opened and UN tanks were seen only once in a while, then they trusted that they might be okay. The war is over, thank God…We are free. We will live. We will marry. We will move on.”

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Analysing the returning echoes of our memory

The garden of evening mistsThe Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng

This is an extraordinary book. It touches on some of the most horrific human actions of the early 20th century. And yet it manages to be a gentle, hopeful story.

It centres around Teoh Yun Ling, a Malay-Chinese woman who during her life has been a judge, prosecutor, landscape gardener and a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. The book opens with her retirement, following which she travels from Kuala Lumpur to the Cameron Highlands, a tea-growing region of Malaysia where she has friends and property. Here, Yun Ling starts to write her memoirs.

The narrative switches to her first arrival in the Cameron Highlands, when she is a young prosecutor who has quit her job on the War Crimes Commission and needs respite at the home of a family friend, Magnus. She is still angry about the war and in particular the Japanese war crimes committed. She bears physical scars as well as psychological ones. She suffers in particular because her sister did not survive the camp where they were both held.

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Whichever history the whites chose for you

The Gurugu PledgeThe Gurugu Pledge
by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel
translated by Jethro Soutar

This is the first of three books I read last weekend that create fiction from real-life accounts. It hadn’t even occurred to me before that was a genre!

On the Gurugu mountain in Morocco next to the border with the small Spanish enclave of Melilla, people from all over Africa hide in caves and tents in a makeshift camp, waiting to make their attempt on the border wall that could get them to European soil. To pass the time, the people on Gurugu mountain tell stories about where they have come from and play football (which also keeps them warm on this northerly point of the continent).

“There are some five hundred of us, black Africans all, and we just want to live, you know? We just want to live, but living is a serious business in Africa, for it’s often very hard and lots of people barely manage it…we need to eat. Do you understand me, Sir? Eat or manger, according to whichever history the whites chose for you.”

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The time from the other room beats waves

The PassportThe Passport
by Herta Müller
translated from German by Martin Chalmers

I bought this book in Berlin a couple of years ago, attracted by the cover line “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature”. And the owl on the cover, if I’m being honest. I had no idea what the book was about, when it was written or who Müller was.

Having read the book, I am surprised to discover that it’s set in Romania, not Germany, and it’s about events that happened in my lifetime, under a dictator I had heard of but did not know the full extent of his awfulness. (The Berlin connection is that Müller fled from Romania to Berlin and she has lived there since 1987.)

This is the story of a village in a minority German-speaking corner of Romania in the 1980s. Ceaușescu’s regime is increasingly oppressive, and this minority in particular are being killed – or to call it by its true name, ethnically cleansed. Most people in the village are trying to get out, and they will all do whatever it takes to get that precious passport. The main character, Windisch, a miller, is bribing the mayor with sacks of flour, but he knows what all the officials really want and he is trying to resist. He talks unkindly of how his fellow villagers managed to obtain their passports, but it is inevitable that he will have to follow in their footsteps.

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She wonders how much the pain could increase

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

Magda
by Meike Ziervogel

This novella follows the final days of Magda Goebbels. Knowing the bare bones of her story, I knew where this book would go, and expected something powerful. It’s a good book, but I didn’t experience the big reaction I thought I would.

Magda Goebbels was the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and herself a prominent Party member. The couple had six children and were both very close to Hitler. In April 1945 they moved, with their children, to Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.

Ziervogel has fictionalized the facts a little, and fleshed out the tale of Magda’s last days by adding Magda’s childhood and first marriage. Which is a lot to fit into a small space, but does give some context and humanity to this woman who is widely considered a little (or a lot) less than human.

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A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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A piece of a human being but yes, a human being

Sophie’s Choice
by William Styron

I spent most of December re-reading Sophie’s Choice. I wanted to understand what it was about it I fell in love with 10 years ago. I still think it’s a great book, but it has dropped a little in my estimation.

Partly that’s its length. I used to happily read much longer books than I do now. It’s not that I have anything against long books per se, but I have less patience for rambling. I’ve always had a fondness for brevity. This book is not brief. But it is an amazing story.

This is the story of Sophie, an attractive young Polish woman who has survived the Holocaust – has survived Auschwitz – and come to live in Brooklyn, where she works as a doctor’s receptionist and is in a relationship with Nathan, a volatile but charming man who rents a room across the corridor from her. Sophie’s back story is told intermittently between the tale of the second half of 1947.

The title of this book is so familiar, a phrase well known for its hint of torment, but now that so much time has passed since both the book’s publication and the film based on it, many people now will, like me when I first read it, not know exactly what the choice of the title refers to. The novel is structured around gradually revealing Sophie’s secret, but there are plenty of smaller reveals along the way.

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He would name, classify and diagnose every nuance of the human soul

the_memory_of_love_by_aminatta_fornaThe Memory of Love
by Aminatta Forna

I can’t remember how this book made its way onto my TBR, but I picked it up thanks to the Books on the Nightstand Book Bingo, which for me includes the square “Set in Africa”. If not for that I might have avoided this for a long time, expecting a dark, disturbing read. It’s not quite what I expected.

The book has dark, disturbing moments for sure. It is set in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, post civil war, pre Ebola, so approximately when it was written (this book was published in 2010 so presumably written in about 2008). The civil war is a scar for the native characters, creating a distance that can never be breached by the primary non-native character, a white British doctor.

Adrian Lockheart is a psychologist on secondment to Sierra Leone. It is his second assignment to Africa, and he spends much of the novel dwelling on his reasons for being there. He has a wife and daughter back home in England, but his marriage is failing and over the years he has lost the feeling that he is actually helping his patients.

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