THE GARDENER by Salley Vickers

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I was introduced to Salley Vickers’ writing in 2006 by my lovely friend Jane. I was about to set off to Venice for the first time on my own; I’d been there before with others. I must read Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel, set in Venice, Jane told me and lent me her copy. I loved the book so much that after I’d given Jane her copy back I just had to buy my own copy. (I remember having a discussion with another book editor years ago who also felt a need to possess a book she’d read and liked a lot; do people other than book editors feel this need for possession!) Then I took to lending Miss Garnet’s Angel to others setting off to Venice –  ‘You must read this,’ I told them.

Since then I’ve read many other Salley Vickers’ books. I loved The Other Side of You and Mr Golightly’s Holiday but some of her later books didn’t hold quite the same appeal. I was even disappointed in Grandmothers (click here for my review), but this didn’t stop me feeling I just had to buy The Gardener (published in 2021/paperback 2022) as I looked through a display of new paperbacks in my local Waterstones recently. I did approach it slightly cautiously … would I like this one? I can’t say I loved it but I can say I liked it very much. It was a book that grew on me – the further into the book I got, the more I liked it and the more its quiet insight into the redemptive power of nature revealed itself to me.

The story is narrated by Hassie Days – real name Halcyon, chosen as a joke by her father, a birdwatcher (halcyon is a kind of kingfisher). It is her relationship with him that forms part of the many ‘relationships’ Hassie works through in this novel. I say ‘works through’ as there are difficulties, jealousies, disappointments and grief to be overcome. Vickers is a Jungian analyst and thus her books always explore the depths of our experience. There are lessons here, insights, and recognition and so while her books are entertaining as a read, they also offer us the chance to take a deeper look at life and our own experiences.

Devastated by the break-up of a relationship with Robert, Hassie moves from London to help her dying father in his last days. She has always been close to her father and memories of him form part of her foundation as she tries to recover from both the break-up and his death. With their joint inheritance, Hassie and her sister Margot buy a run-down Jacobean house – Knight’s Fee – in fictional Hope Wenlock (close to the very real Much Wenlock and Ludlow) on the Welsh/English borders. Hassie will live there all the time while Margot will continue to spend some time in London. We soon witness their strong sibling rivalry – so well described that it is at times uncomfortable to read. It’s a family belief that Hassie was her father’s favourite child and Margot their mother’s. This has caused a huge divide from their childhood. Another divide is their financial situation – Hassie is an impecunious illustrator of children’s books who no longer enjoys her work; Margot earns a large salary working in finance. Hassie cowers resentfully in the shadow of Margot’s sharp and harsh criticism. Both have fallen into a pattern of confrontational and competitive behaviour but what truth is there in their beliefs of its source? Assumptions have long been made; their parents, particularly the dysfunctional mother, have played their part. ‘It’s hard to come to terms with your parents’ limitations‘ Vickers writes.

Margot is scathing of Hassie’s attempts to befriend their neighbours in the village, who she calls ‘yokels’ and her warning of it causing trouble is horrifically realised later on in the novel. Meanwhile, Hassie befriends Miss Foot, a retired school teacher, who – it has to be said – is a little bit of a cliché, representing ‘common sense’ and ‘wisdom’. A deep bond forms between the two women and one day Hassie unburdens her grief over the loss of Robert but afterwards, she regrets opening up – as such closed, private people can do – and avoids Phyllis for a time. But later she remembers ‘Phyllis’s words to me in the garden: love is a flexible matter‘ and sees that she didn’t misjudge Robert’s love for her, ‘what I had misjudged was not his love but how far love is sovereign’. It struck me how we judge love by our own idea of it – what romantic, family, friendship love means – and can be hurt when those close to us express their love in a way that falls short of our ideal.

There is also Peter, the local vicar she befriends, who cannot get over the loss of his wife, Audrey, and agonises over his doubts of faith. And then there is Murat – the Albanian gardener.

As Hassie immerses herself in restoring the house’s huge and neglected garden, she gives work to Murat whom she suspects is an illegal immigrant and who she wants to help. Margot calls him ‘the terrorist’ but while in essence Margot’s comments are a joke meant to annoy her sister, his presence in the village brings up all kinds of racist tensions and prejudices. Shy at first and really knowing nothing about gardening, Murat is a willing pupil. As the garden slowly comes back to its former glory, Murat’s confidence grows and a kind of friendship forms between him and Hassie. ‘A kind of’ because he, like her, is closed about himself.

The present in the story is interspersed with flashbacks to Hassie’s affair with Robert, who she always knew was married but accepted at the beginning the ‘deal’. As she slowly recovers in the present, she is then suddenly thrown into despair by hearing Robert is no longer with his wife – but has made no attempt to contact her. This is not an unusual scenario, of course, but the emotional jolt eventually allows Hassie to move on.

Hassie becomes intrigued by notebooks she finds in the house, written by a previous owner; by the magical qualities and history of the garden and the myths imbedded in the surrounding area, through which she makes a deeper connection to the natural world. In these explorations she finds peace and eventually healing. Hassie and Margot gradually open up and slowly unpick the causes of their animosity to each other until at last they can form a bond unfettered from family history.

While the book is called The Gardener, is it isn’t really about Murat the actual gardener – although he is an important character – but the title is more a metaphor for the self and our psyche and how when life throws us into turmoil, like a wild garden love and tender care can restore it. And it is about the power of nature to restore us: ‘I got out and surveyed the landscape spread below. It doesn’t surprise me that revelations come to people standing on high ground … I felt my shoulders palpably relax and my spirits rise … I saw for a fleeting moment how small we mortals are … somehow, without our efforts of aid, matters may still turn out well.’

It was in the end an enjoyable, thought-provoking read with all those signature Vickers’ qualities of understanding self and relationships.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

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I like to browse the shelves and tables stacked with books in my local Waterstones. Like many people, I’ve taken to ordering more books online, occasionally for Kindle, though I don’t really like using it for a novel – I like the real thing: a proper book in my hands to hold as I curl up in a favourite ‘reading’ chair and disappear into a fictional world – but nothing beats a slow walk round a bookshop, picking up books that immediately attract one’s interest and taking a closer look. I invariably buy two books in Waterstones due to their ‘By One Get One Half Price’ offer on paperbacks and thus Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures came to be bought, along with another book, chosen partly from the blurb and because it was long-listed for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Small Pleasures is an exquisitely written portrait of 1950s Britain. The ‘small pleasures’ of the title refer to the protagonist’s ‘small’ life and her collection of ‘small pleasures’: ‘In Jean’s bedroom was a dressing-table drawer filled with things too precious ever to be used. Soaps, cosmetics, perfume. … ‘ There’s incredible poignancy in some of the descriptions of Jean’s life. She is nearing 40, a journalist on a local paper, the North Kent Echo. It sounds glamorous, but her life certainly isn’t. She lives with her mother, a needy, self-centred and difficult woman who rarely leaves the house. Jean’s life seems very grim indeed and devoid of hope of anything better. Her work mainly consists of writing typical women’s articles of the time – what to do with an excess of apples from the garden; how to ‘keep your fingers white and soft’. But then an extraordinary letter from a reader takes Jean along a surprising and life-changing journey.

An article in the paper about parthenogenesis – creatures that don’t need a male to reproduce – is followed by a letter from a woman, Gretchen, who claims a virgin birth. After an editorial discussion about whether they want to ‘encourage these cranks’, Jean is sent to interview Gretchen and find out more. She discovers that at the time Gretchen must have become pregnant with her 10-year-old daughter Margaret, she was hospitalised for a few months, bed-bound with rheumatoid arthritis. Unable to walk, surrounded by nursing nuns and other female patients, how was conception with a man possible?

A hospital takes on the challenge of investigating whether such a conception is possible and Jean takes Gretchen and Margaret along to undergo tests. Remarkably, for a time things look promising, as if a virgin birth might indeed have happened. Chambers manages to maintain a level of real possibility in the reader’s mind despite our natural inclination to declare it impossible. During her investigation into the story, Jean inevitably spends a lot of time with Gretchen and her family – the daughter and her husband Howard, who has always said he believes Gretchen’s story about Margaret’s birth. Jean gets drawn into the family’s life and finds a joy and pleasure in family pursuits that have been absent in her own life. She becomes fond of Margaret, her growing love for the child filling the gap of her own childlessness. For a long time she believes in Gretchen, always so kind and dependable. At first she can’t understand how the rather boring Howard attracted a beautiful younger woman like Gretchen, but as time goes by and she sees his qualities, she grows increasingly fond and then attracted to him. Guilty at first about her feelings, as she sees the cracks appear in Gretchen and Howard’s marriage, that all is not as it seems, she allows herself to grow closer to him and finds a love she never dreamed possible.

Meanwhile, she interviews girls – now women – who were at the hospital with Gretchen; a nurse who was there at the same time. More and more questions are thrown up as the story unravels and we find ourselves caught up in the mystery.

There are inevitable surprises and twists but I don’t want to give away too much, hoping you will read this instead. What we see is that sometimes the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, can be an awful thing and once seen cannot be unseen: ‘Having set out in the pursuit of truth, she had now learned something it would have been better not to know.’

I found this a compelling read and almost couldn’t put it down. There was the mystery of the virgin birth to be solved but mostly I became caught up in the brilliant evocation of 1950s life, particularly for an unmarried woman nearing her forties. The repressed emotions, the stifling limited life and opportunities, were so moving, especially Jean rewarding herself with life’s small pleasures: ‘the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week.’ It’s a kind of social history too with the descriptions of the hardships of ordinary domestic life at the time compared to now; the way marriage and unmarried women were viewed. I loved the book, though have to confess I found the ending just a little too contrived and thus a bit disappointing. But it would be interesting to know what others thought of it. Do let me know if you read the book in Comments below!

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

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I’ve been a great fan of Elizabeth Strout since reading Olive Kitteridge (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008). I also loved the follow-up, Olive, Again, and after reading My Name is Lucy Barton, saw the brilliant stage adaptation, starring Laura Linney, at the Bridge Theatre in London in 2018. Thus buying Strout’s latest book, Oh William!, provided a little literary excitement and I looked forward to reading it. It’s actually been sitting in a book pile for a while – the pile that builds when I’m too busy with my publishing work to read books I’ve bought. But I finally picked it up a couple of days ago and it provided all the delight I’d been hoping for and glorious weekend entertainment.

In Oh William! we meet Lucy Barton again, but years later. Lucy is now 63, a successful writer living in New York and recently widowed following the death of her second husband, David. She has, however, maintained a friendship with her first husband, William, father of her two daughters, Chrissy and Becka, and this friendship, this relationship, is at the heart of Oh William!; a portrait of how a long-term friendship grows and changes.

The storyline follows Lucy supporting William (71) through the break-up of his third marriage, the effects of some night terrors that plague him, and his investigation into his family history. His third wife Estelle gave him a gift of access to an ancestry website and through this he discovers he has a half-sister he knew nothing about. This discovery is not just part of his story and an insight into his relationship with his mother Catherine, it is also about Lucy’s relationship with her mother-in-law, and it is part of their daughters’ story too. Everything in life connects.

Strout’s style of writing is very conversational; it is as if she’s talking directly to us and she creates a great intimacy with the reader. There are even little digressions, in the way we all talk sometimes, which are so clever and give a sense that this is a real person telling a true story. But it is also a device for taking us deeply into Lucy’s world and head. Oh William! is not just about this latter-day friendship between the couple, but the stories of their lives from childhood and how their experiences brought them together in the first place. It is essentially a book about who and what makes us as people. 

We witness Lucy’s deprived childhood, a time of bleak poverty and not just lack of love from her parents, particularly her mother, but cruelty too. There is a moving poignancy in her memory of the support her teacher Mrs Nash gave her, encouraging her and then driving her to college when she leaves school, buying her clothes on the way – you can pay me back later, she says kindly – and Lucy arriving at college wanting everyone to think Mrs Nash is her mother; this is the kind of mother she longs for.

This explains why she is attracted to William, with whom she finds a sense of cosiness; he is the person she’s always felt safe with. But on their present journey of uncovering William’s past, Lucy starts to see their relationship in a different light. She also sees it from the perspective of having enjoyed a wonderful and deeply connected relationship with her second husband David. 

By the end of the book, everything has shifted a bit. Lucy sees William in a different light and she reflects on how we create myths about people and ourselves in response to our experiences and our needs. ‘Oh dear Everybody,’ she says, ‘we do not know anybody, not even ourselves! … Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do … We are all mysteries is what I mean.‘ 

This is a wonderful book, so thought-provoking and such a brilliant examination of life and how we live our lives. But it’s also an easy read in the sense that there’s a lightness to the writing that carries you through its depths and really, who can resist Lucy and Elizabeth Strout’s fantastic writing? 

April in Spain by John Banville

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I’ve just read another John Banville crime novel. It was this latest one that first interested me when I read a review and then I ended up also buying the preceding novel, Snow, to read first (click here for my review). I was also attracted by its setting in San Sebastian, Spain, a place I’ve visited and really like (see my food & travel blog: 48 Hours in San Sebastian). Who couldn’t be tempted to be transported to a bit of Spanish sun during these dull and grey winter days, albeit virtually.

April in Spain is another Detective Inspector Strafford novel set in the late 1950s, but in this one, Strafford takes a back seat and plays only a small part, and it is Dublin pathologist Quirke on whom the story centres. Quirke is on holiday in San Sebastian with his wife Evelyn, a psychiatrist. It is a second marriage for both and rather a strange match. Quirke, an alcoholic who has got his drinking almost under control, is often petulant and cantankerous and holds dark secrets about his orphanage childhood. He is not an immediately likeable character. Evelyn, is an Austrian who survived the Holocaust and refuses to talk, even to him, of her tragic past; she is not easy to like either. Their relationship has a combative edge, she the cool psychiatrist who always has to have the last word; he the bad-tempered and difficult man. Yet Banville creates a portrait of a loving and gentle relationship that makes sense of the marriage and forms an engaging thread to the novel.

Quirke is like a sulky child in his behaviour about being on holiday; he hates holidays. But then something very unexpected happens. When an accident (trying to shell oysters) takes him to the local A&E, he spies a woman doctor who seems familiar. She quickly disappears after seeing him and another doctor comes. It takes him a while to make the connection, but he feels certain this is the young woman, April, a friend of his daughter Phoebe, who supposedly died four years’ ago, murdered by her brother. When attempts to find out more about her prove impossible, he calls Phoebe who flies in from London to see if it really is her friend. But first she speaks to the police, and this sets in train a terrible and shocking set of consquences.

Strafford is sent with Phoebe – as a protector? To find out more? Meanwhile, we follow the story of Terry Trice, a hit man, who is also sent to Spain.

Behind April’s story lies a tale of incest, and political and moral corruption. These are themes that Banville likes to explore and which make his crime novels different – as well as his stylish and elegant writing. In Snow, it was the corruption and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church that came under his critical eye, this time it is the Irish state itself.

This is in no sense a genre ‘crime novel’. I’d describe it more as a novel in which there is a crime theme. While the ‘crime’ thread contains terrible stories of violence, abuse and corruption, it is not the kind of crime novel in which the reader can follow clues and hope to guess the murderer before the end. The ‘novel’ side, the part that is essentially Banville, contains wonderful insights into characters and their workings; a moving intimacy in the way the Quirkes’ marriage is drawn; and there are beautiful descriptions of its Spanish setting: ‘Darkness, when it fell, fell rapidly … they would stop and lean on the rail above the beach and gaze out over the bay, as black and shining as a vast bowl of oil and scattered with the reflections of lights from houses on the hill on the right, or from the little island of Santa Klara at the mouth of the  bay.’ Such descriptions took me right back to San Sebastian.

While there is something about Banville’s characters that I find slightly unreal and even at times clichéd, the book is so rich in its complexity, so beautifully written and engaging, that I found it – like Snow –  to be the kind of book you can hardly put down and want to keep on reading right to the end.

Still Life by Sarah Winman

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I saw this book reviewed on BBC2’s Between the Covers, a book programme hosted by Sara Cox in which each week four guests join her to discuss their favourite books of all time and new books recently published. Last week they discussed Sarah Winman’s Still Life and I was hooked enough by what they said to order a copy immediately.

The reviewers all loved the book but it wasn’t just this that attracted me, but the theme of art and its meaning in our life, and the setting – of most of the novel – in Florence, Italy. The story begins in war-torn Europe in 1944 when a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian, who has come to Italy to help save important artwork. Their meeting is brief but makes a huge impact on them both. This isn’t a story of romantic love between them but that visceral attraction we can feel towards another instantly; it’s about feeling a deep connection and seeing the world through the eyes of someone else and it changing us for ever. Evelyn is much older than Ulysses and gay; he is in love with the wife who will never return his love in the same way but their connection also runs deep enough for them to remain important people in each others’ lives, even once they’ve divorced.

I was pleased one of the TV reviewers said it took them a while to get into the book, for after the short beginning in 1944 Italy, the story moves to London’s East End where Ulysses has returned to take up his former life, and keep going his father’s business making beautiful globes. These aren’t the kind of cheap globes you buy kids to teach them geography, these are works of art, thus this is also another connection to Evelyn. Back home, wife Peg has had a baby – Alys – with an American soldier who seems to have deserted her – a theme of longing and the heartache of unrequited love that runs throughout the book. But Ulysses remains a friend, a rock, and another rock to them all is old Cress. Ulysses lives above Col’s pub; Col’s drinking and violence have caused his wife to leave and his instability rages throughout the story, but underneath his love for all those around him makes them continue to care about him.

This London period is when the characters are gathered – Ulysses, Peg, Alys, Col, Cress and piano Pete – and we witness the strong bond that ties them together. It was here that my interest waned a bit though before the big change: Ulysses inherits a large apartment in Florence. It has been left to him by Arturo, who in 1944 he rescued from a suicide attempt. Should he sell the apartment or go back to Florence? Uncertain at first, he then sets off with Cress in an old van, and with Alys. Peg finds motherhood too hard, cannot get over the pain of her daughter’s likeness to the missing father. Ulysses has become a father to Alys and so he takes her. They also take Claude, the parrot that lives in the pub and is constantly abused by Col but loved by all. Once in Florence, it soon becomes apparent they will stay, this will be their new home.

Florence brings new characters: Massimo the lawyer who handled Arturo’s will and is to become a close friend; Michele who runs the local restaurant. A whole cast of characters. Meanwhile, Evelyn is back lecturing in London but she hasn’t forgotten Ulysses. She comes to Florence a few times, the city she loves, and their paths almost cross but not quite. It will take many years before they are reunited. As Alys grows she shows huge talent as an artist, returns to London to art school, is touched by Evelyn’s lecturing, but the connection to Ulysses is not yet made …

There are a lot of coincidences, there is a lot of magic. In many ways the book is a fairy tale for the characters are larger than life and even the parrot talks – not just repeating words but words of wisdom; trees talk too. Ulysses’ inheritance is a kind of fairy tale; Cress has vivid visions of the future that result in him being able to place bets on, for example, Geoff Hurst getting a hat trick in the 1966 football World Cup, that make a huge amount of money but he’s also the source of spiritual wisdom and he tells them at one point that he was once a friar.

The years go by, loves are found and lost, friends are made. Florence has become Ulysses’ home and he opens a workshop to make globes again. It’s not until the great flood of 1966 that almost destroys Florence, that Ulysses and Evelyn are finally reunited: not as lovers but soul mates.

I ended up loving the book. Yes the characters are a little unreal; their experiences rely so often on convenient coincidence not to mention that magic I mentioned. But they are real to the reader in the sense that you come to really care about them. And the writing is beautiful with some glorious descriptions of Florence and life there. Winman adopts a conversational style that creates an intimacy with the reader and also a sense of wonder – just as every good fairy tale should do. It is a book about love of all kinds; of the deep bonds of friendship; the wonder of life and the unknown aspect of it. There is a spiritual, metaphysical dimension.

For me, it was also a delight to read a book set in Florence that centred around my favourite part of the city – Santo Spirito, in Oltrarno, the other side of the River Arno to the famous sites, a more bohemian area. I recognised the names of piazzas and roads and bridges, even the famous gelateria, Vivoli. Winman’s knowledge of food is superb and this also appealed. I could picture Piazza Santo Spirito so clearly, where my favourite restaurant, a simple Osteria, is the place I always want to head to first to eat (see my food & travel blog post: click here).

It was one of those books that will keep you up late at night and you are so sad when it ends, although memories of it stay with you.