Snow Country by Sebastian Faulks

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I loved Sebastian Faulks’ early works: The Girl at the Lion D’or (1989), Birdsong, (1993) Charlotte Gray (1998) and On Green Dolphin Street (2001). Birdsong is one of the few books I’ve reread and after reading this latest book from Faulks, Snow Country, I feel I should go back to Birdsong and reassess it in a 21st century, 30 years later light. Would I still rate is as one of my favourite books ever?

I’ve been less taken by Faulks’ later books; some have been okay and some I’ve given given up on (as a book editor who has to sometimes carry on reading books I don’t like, word by careful word, I don’t ever feel I have to struggle on with a book I’ve chosen and bought but am not enjoying). Despite the fading of my enthusiasm for Faulks, I still can’t resist a new book of his and carry the hope it may transport me once again to the delights and power of his early novels.

Snow Country takes us into familiar Faulks’ territory around the time of the First World War and moves towards the Second and is mainly set in Austria. It is the second in a proposed trilogy, the first being Human Traces, which was published in 2005 (so quite a long gap until the 2nd!). Faulks notes at the beginning though that the book stands on its own.

The book opens dramatically with a detailed description of a surgeon operating on a man in the war zone. When the operation is completed and the surgeon is sewing up the wound, a nurse asks, ‘Is he going to survive?’ ‘Of course he is. Poor soul,’ answers the surgeon. The wounded man is the protagonist of the book, Anton, and the surgeon’s answer, ‘Poor soul’, is less about physical scars that Anton will carry and more a signal of what lies at the heart of the book – the question of what makes a good life; a life worth living.

Faulks has always been good at examining the internal lives of his characters, which is a large part of his books’ appeal to me. It was interesting to note in the short biography at the beginning of Snow Country that Faulks was given an honorary doctorate by the Tavistock Clinic for his contribution to the understanding of psychiatry in 2007 and that he has spoken at psychiatry conferences in London and Venice. Psychiatry is not his background, he read English at Cambridge. However, his interest in psychiatry forms a base for this novel (and also its preceding Human Traces), as much of the story takes place in a sanatorium for the mentally ill, Schloss Seelick, and in Vienna at the time of Freud.

The young Anton rejects going into his family’s sausage business and instead he becomes a journalist, hoping this will enable him to travel the world. In Vienna he meets Delphine, a French pianist and slightly older than him. He falls madly in love, but then, finding himself working in Paris as war breaks out, when he eventually manages to return to Vienna, Delphine has disappeared without trace. He feels guilty he put work before her and didn’t return earlier. They are now enemies, of course, but he would have urged her to return to France. The guilt adds to his devastation at the loss of the love of his life. And it is a loss that he spends the whole book trying to reconcile and affects not just his view of love, but life itself, its meaning and purpose.

Lena is the sixth child of an alcoholic prostitute in a small Austrian town. Surprisingly, her mother decides to keep her rather than send her to an orphanage, as she did with her other children. Hungry for love, even the kind of love she might expect but doesn’t receive from her mother, Lena is determined to control her own life. She moves to Vienna where she meets the idealistic young lawyer, Rudolph, who takes her on as a kind of cause, wanting to help her. But the relationship is confusing, Lena thinks eventually he loves her but can’t say it, and thus she instigates sex one evening thinking this is what he wants. It goes horribly wrong and Rudolph recoils from the physical contact. Lena at first throws herself into drinking and prostitution but then leaves Vienna and goes to work in Schloss Seelick where she hopes to leave her past behind her.

Meanwhile, Anton is enjoying increasing success as a writer and is commissioned to visit Schloss Seelick to look at its methods and investigate an earlier scandal. Attracted by the quiet calm of Martha, who has taken over the running of the clinic from her father, and her modern methods of psychoanalysis, he decides to undergo ‘the talking cure’ himself, to try to at last process the lingering melancholy at losing Delphine and never finding out what happened to her.

There are a lot of long conversations about psychoanalysis, Freud, etc. I found it fascinating yet it is also quite heavy going. We are witnessing the lives of Anton, Lena, Rudolph and Martha and while they are all intertwined to some degree, the threads never really seem to come into a cohesive whole. In the background is the love story of Delphine, yet after so many years – twenty years later – is it still a love story or more an indication of Anton’s troubled mind? And Lena, who recognises Anton as a man who visited her for sex in Vienna and is terrified her secret will be revealed and she’ll be thrown out of Schloss Seelick, is her attraction to Anton love as she comes to believe or something else? And what of the confused Rudolph who comes to the Schloss too, in an official capacity as a lawyer but also seeking out Lena? And Martha, who hides surprising secrets of her own, and her views of modern psychiatry?

There’s quite a lot of confusion in the lives and relationships of the characters, yet that’s the very meat of psychoanalysis. We are asked to consider past lives and future lives; what being alive means; and in the end whether life itself is just a joke: ‘There was no love that lasted, no life afterwards …’

I was definitely hooked on this novel and read it almost straight through, yet it wasn’t a totally satisfactory read. It’s described by some critics as a love story, yet for me it’s not really that. Yes there is love and an examination of what love is, but there’s no burning love story; even the Delphine story is coloured by all that goes with it and it feels more like something Anton refuses to let go of rather than a true deep love. The book is also in part a war story, with the loss of loved ones and the nature of the politics at the time. But the love, the characters, the events, are all a bit disjointed; the final story of love doesn’t quite hold true. For me, the book is mostly about life itself, its purpose and meaning, and the nature of love. And, if it’s not a perfect book, it does throw up some interesting ideas to think over.

Requiem in La Rossa by Tom Benjamin

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I saw ads for this book a few times and in the end couldn’t resist buying it. I enjoy a good crime novel occasionally, but it was the setting in La Rossa – Bologna – that caught my attention. When I went to Bologna back in 2014, I fell in love with the city – not just for its famous food but its beauty and atmosphere. This book seemed a good way to revisit it, albeit it in a rather more grisly way than anything I encountered while actually there!

Requiem in La Rossa is Tom Benjamin’s third novel (the first two are now ordered!). Benjamin grew up in north London, worked first as a journalist and then became a spokesman for Scotland Yard before moving to Public Health where he led campaigns against alcoholic abuse and a drugs awareness programme. Thus he has all the right credentials for much at the heart of this novel. But equally crucially, he actually lives in Bologna and knows every alley, cafe and park and gives us a glorious immersive experience of this beautiful city.

Bologna’s university is the oldest in the world, founded in 1088. The novel explores Bologna’s cultural life, focusing on particularly the music and educational history with a wonderful splash of art, as English private detective, Daniel Leicester, describes the work of his artist girlfriend, Stella. There’s a great section where he explores the art installation Stella has set up in the university: ‘Stella had created paths between an Aladdin’s cave of junk in her first Room – piles of plates, boxes of cutlery … Across the walls, those old paintings she had discovered: tower blocks drove into orange skies … the very fabric of existence was about to shatter against the insistent strain of the future.’ Clearly, Benjamin would be the ideal person to have with you next time you find yourself puzzling over installations in an art gallery.

But of course this is essentially a crime novel and thus we must expect violence and intrigue – all the tension heightened by the backdrop of a sweltering hot Bologna in summer and a series of earthquakes that set the city shaking and rumbling, almost in response to the crimes stalking its most revered quarters. We encounter brutal murders, puzzling poisonings, jealousies and bribery. Even the life of our ‘hero’, Dan, is threatened and perhaps more alarmingly, that of his 15-year-old daughter Rose.

When a professor of music drops dead leaving an opera, after being apparently threatened by an old student, Guido Delfillo, now a drug addict, Daniel – part of a family firm of private eyes; his late wife’s family – is hired by rock star Vesuvio to clear the young man’s name. Delfillo, once an exceptionally talented young musician, was rejected by the university, despite his huge talent, which led to his downfall, and then by Vesuvio. Vesuvio now feels guilty and wants to help him. It looks as if the professor was poisoned but it seems impossible for Daniel to prove this as none of the usual poisons can be found during the post-mortem. Meanwhile, another student, who was around at the time of the death and seemed to be putting something in the professor’s drink – caught on cctv – is found hanged. Suicide or murder?

Daniel has also been hired to follow an adulterous wife – the kind of stuff we imagine private eyes spend most of their time doing – and while there seems no link at first to the professor’s death, one dramatically and violently appears.

The story is very complex, with lots of twists and turns that keep you constantly questioning and guessing. Daniel frequently finds himself at odds with the local police in his quest to get to the truth and at one point, even his father-in-law, also part of the business, questions whether he’s taking things too far. But we are also drawn deeply into Daniel’s personal story: his wife’s death, his 15-year-old daughter Rose, the doubts and insecurities about his new relationship with Stella. There are a host of great characters, all brilliantly drawn, making this a richly engaging read. And all the while, we are taken down roads you can look up on a map; highlights of Bologna that I’ve visited and you could too. And of course the food – this is Bologna after all: crescetine – fried dough folded like a pancake and containing a choice of savoury fillings and coffees like caffe lungo and caffe shakerato – espresso poured over ice to cool you in the hot weather.

The twists continue until the end and even when you think it’s almost over suddenly a shocking twist sends rumbles through the pages, much like the aftershocks of the earthquake hitting the city.

This is a beautifully written, intelligent crime novel, which is so much more than just a story of crime but offers us a host of characters we want to know more of and a setting that is irresistible.

If you want to read more about my time in Bologna, take a look at my Travel & Food blog – click here.

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?