20 Books of What on Earth Happened to Summer

Well it happened as we knew it would.  We worried and dreaded our way through Spring in a mute silence broken only by newly enfranchised birds and emergency sirens.   We looked forward to a potentially sickness free Summer, hoped for warmth and  a chance to escape from the same view of the same four walls.  

In June, the Greek Government asked citizens from the UK to kindly not visit this year which was apparently a signal for the Prime Minister’s father to leap onto a plane and go anyway,  while the rest of us dreamed of bougainvillea on sunny white walls, with accompanying lizards, and wept silently.

This summer became the time that taking a train required the same courage – and roughly the same amount of kit – as climbing Mt. Everest, neither activity being advisable or even possible.   Those who didn’t have to go to offices were grateful, while those who did worried.

Normal isn’t normal and nearly all escape routes are closed down by quarantine restrictions. July and August hurtled by with unprecedented temperatures (in the UK), forest fires, floods, hurricanes.   It seems like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are having a bit of a laugh.

And here we are September 1st.   

Mmm. Well on the book front I have made 16 out of 20 books of summer which given the rest of the above isn’t bad and five out of four books for Women in Translation month which has also ended. I can only manage six images as the new block editor makes me want to scream.

But now Summer is fleeing with its remaining unread titles and we are approaching the short and leaf strewn days of Autumn. A season of new books to read. Next up my review of Marilynne Robinson’s Jack the fourth book in her Iowan based series which began with Gilead and Lila about the Ames/Boughton families.

Enough with the Gloom Already – Two Delightful Books to Lift the Spirits

 I felt completely lost when I’d finished this book.  I wanted it to be twice, three times as long.    I wanted it to never end. I wanted to go and meet the real Edward and I particularly wanted to eat some of his delicious cooking. This is not fiction but the true story of (as described on the cover) an unexpected friendship.

What a character Edward is.   A nonagenarian who cooks like an angel – and such food, apple galettes, martinis (the real ones made with gin and served in a chilled glass ) apricot souffles, poached flounder.  

When the author first starts to visit Edward -a nonegenarian – she thinks she is doing a favour for his daughter who is a friend of hers. It is in fact her own life which will change.

Vincent’s story is a revelation. In an age of individualism and me-ism, there are still people choosing to live differently. Edward is one of them.

At the start of the book, he has just lost his wife Paula, aged 95. It is a remarkable thing to witness the strength of their love for each other, even though it is necessarily told at second hand.

In some ways Edward is part of another age, but he is the best part of another age,  the part that still has time for courtesy and consideration.    The part that believes our lives have meaning – not because of the position we hold in this or that corporation – but because of how we have regarded those we’ve befriended and those we have loved.

“The secret said Edward is to treat guests as family and family as guests. “

This book is a testament to a friendship that changed two lives and the world is a better place for it.

Dinner with Edward, Isabel Vincent. Pushkin Press. 2016

15/20 Books of Summer

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Had it not been for WIT month I wouldn’t have known that there was an English translation available of  Eiko Kadono’s book Kiki’s Delivery Service. For fans of Studio Ghibli or just for those who believe a big of magic helps the world go round, this delightful story about a young witch trying to make her way in the world is warm hearted reading for anyone dreading the onslaught of cold autumn winds and rain which if you live in the northern hemisphere you may currently be facing.

I haven’t reviewed any children’s literature before. This I must do more of.

Kiki is a witch and coming of age for a witch happens quite young.  Batmitzvah style, coming of age is 13 for Kiki.  But rather than just have a party, she is expected to leave home and make her own way in a strange town which she must find for herself, where her skills as a witch can do some good for the community.

Kiki’s broom is not strictly hers but her mother’s old one. She has a talking cat – as all good witches must – and together they fly off to find somewhere new, strange and challenging.

They land in a town called Koriko and scarcely has the broom touched down in this new and strange town by the sea than Kiki is asked to deliver a baby’s lost pacifier to an unpacified baby, which she does, and thus she achieves her first challenge and thus is born  Kiki’s Delivery Service.

This book, which inspired the great film maker Miyazaki, is illustrated in black and white by Joe Todd-Stanton. Kiki ‘s Delivery Service is a complete delight from beginning to end. 

Kiki’s Delivery Service. Eiko Kadano, (Penguin Random House 2020)

5/4 Women in Translation Month

16/20 Books of Summer

King Kong Theory – If Only it Was All Just History

If it had not been for Women in Translation month I might never have got to these books, so it’s been a valuable lesson for me. I’m still waiting for my copy of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Meanwhile, here are two more books from Indie presses: a translation from the French of Virginie Despentes’ book, King Kong Theory and a translation from the Spanish by Selva Almada’s The Wind that Lays Waste.

Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory. Fitzcarraldo Editions. Translated by Frank Wynne.

This book is a guided tour around the cultural realities which underlie society’s attitude to rape, prostitution, pornography and violence to women.  These are subjects on which Despentes is more than qualified to write, having worked as a prostitute, made porn films and been raped herself.  She is also a highly articulate writer whose book Vernon Subutex 1 was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018.

While men use the services of prostitutes with impunity, Despentes writes,  the girls who undertake the work are castigated and criminalised.  Even if they voluntary do this work for good money, the girls will still be subject a wall of do-goodery telling them to turn back while yet they may, to undertake something more valuable and worthwhile (like working in a supermarket for the minimum wage). 

Motherhood is still touted as ‘the quintessential female experience’.  Why?  This seems archaic if not ridiculous given climate change and global economic collapse.   You may not have a job, or a job that pays very well, even if you do have those things there is no guarantee that you will keep it – especially not if you are a woman with a child to care for – but hey have a baby! Preferably two or three.  Never mind that in 2020,  30% of all children in the UK are living below the poverty line.

“It’s not about pitting the miserable gains of women against the miserable gains of men. It’s about blowing the whole fucking thing sky high.”

Quite.  But what whole thing?  According to the author,  what women have internalised over the centuries is less about our own inferiority – although that is of course a given – but that our burgeoning independence is dangerous in and of itself.  Women are the threat.

Since we women managed to unshackle ourselves from the kitchen sink (although most of us haven’t, we just do everything) we are always off somewhere frightening men, making them behave in ways they never would have done if we had simply stepped out of the way a bit quicker, been less provocative, shut up a bit more, dressed more modestly, been prettier, uglier, more silent, fatter, thinner. 

Feminism takes many guises.  Some campaign for more girls of school age to take science and maths courses, some to close the gender pay gap, some like to analyse the glass ceiling.  But  the fact that girls are less like to join science courses, less likely to earn a decent wage or even the same as a man in the same job, less likely to break that glass ceiling,  are symptoms of a deeper malaise around attitudes to women that should have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but somehow haven’t. 

This book was originally published in 2006. The fight it seems goes on. Written in a ferocious style and with an abundance of sexual swear words, this is not a book for the squeamish.  It would be wonderful if we could read King Kong Theory as a history book and say, what a struggle that all was but it’s over now. 

Sadly it isn’t and we can’t.

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

Selva Almada, The Wind that Lays Waste. Translated by Chris Andrews, Charco Press.

Originally published in Spanish, the story concerns an itinerant preacher, Reverend Pearson and his daughter Leni as they travel to visit a friend of her father’s, Pastor Zack, in Northern Argentina. We learn that this is the only life Leni knows, travelling and staying in run down hotels ‘near the old bus terminal – overlooking the red light district’ with her evangelist father. The only memory she has of her mother is one of the mother being left on a road somewhere with a suitcase and the Reverend driving away with young Leni in the back watching.

“The boss comes and speaks to you with strong dependable words, making promises for the future. He speaks like a father. After hearing him you say to each other: How well he spoke; his words are simple and true; he speaks to us as if we were his children… But I say to you, beware of strong words, beautiful words…”

This extract is from one of Reverend Pearson’s sermons, ironically those who are persuaded by him might equally beware in his strong words… beautiful words.

Leni is now 16 years old. On this particular journey, their car breaks down and so begins a powerful story of belief, guilt, sacrifice and manipulation worthy of the best work of Carson McCullers and Alice Munro. You think you are reading a book in which nothing happens except a car breaks down on a boiling hot day, but then you realise the car’s engine is the the least of what needs fixing among the lives of the characters.

4 out of 4 WIT month

14/20 Books of Summer

Winter in Sokcho

The town was entombed in frost ….

Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

Winter in Sokcho is a debut and already prizewinning novel from Elisa Shua Dusapin with a strong sense of atmosphere and place.   At 154 pages it’s a quick to read and an engaging story set in the seaside resort of Sokcho on the border of South and North Korea.   

A young woman works in the reception of a sparsely attended guesthouse her mother sells fish in the market:

“My mother lived at the port, above the loading bays, in one of the apartments reserved for fishmongers. Noisy, Cheap. My childhood home.”

Despite her inauspicious surroundings the narrator likes where she lives. 

 

She has a boyfriend called Jun-oh who is off to Seoul to enroll on a modelling course (as in him becoming a model rather than making models out of clay). 

Theirs is a modern relationship:

“He stood up, checked himself out in the mirror , said he didn’t think they’d expect him to have surgery, but if they did, he was prepared to have his nose, chin and eyes done.  He turned to face me.  Clinics were offering deals, by the way, I should look into it, he’d bring me some brochures for facial surgery.”

The girl’s mother seems to want her to have facial surgery too.  If there is a quicker way than this to have an identity crisis I’m not sure what it is and the poor kid already has some kind of eating disorder.   Interestingly another young lady – one of the few guests staying at the drab guesthouse – has her face all bandaged up, presumably as a result of having accepted one of the deals offered by the clinic. 

Virginie Despentes says in her feminist text King Kong Theory (reviewed next):

“No society has ever demanded such complete submission to aesthetic diktats, so many modifications  that purport to feminise the body.” 

Whose ideals are we trying to live up to here? And why? This is one of the points that Dusapin makes but she does not push an agenda.  Things in Sokcho simply are what they are. Take it or leave it.  

A Frenchman – a comic book artist called Yan Kerrand – turns up at the guest house.  We are not sure whether he will take it or leave it.   He and the girl develop a semi- friendship and she accompanies him on a trip to the borderland between South and North. 

This is a Korea of plastic waste and urban sprawl alongside the fishmarkets. 

 

There is a lot of food, mostly fish, scowling, often unappetising sounding or even poisonous.  The Frenchman declines the food,  surviving off Dunkin’ Donuts during his stay.   She is keen for him to set a story locally perhaps secretly she wants to be in the story. 

I enjoyed this book, the way the landscape and Kerrand’s pen and ink drawings of it form a backdrop to the interior lives of the characters.  The way he struggles to form a character – a line drawing – and how it slips frustratingly away in the composition. 

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin.  Translated into English by Aneesa Abbas Higgins

Published by Daunt Books Originals 2020

2 out of 4 Women in Translation Month

12/20  Books of Summer

Question: does anyone else find the wordpress blocks editor slow, cumbersome, non-intuitive, inflexible, clunky and boring? Or maybe its just me.


Surviving Bad Books

I don’t often write negative reviews.  I try to avoid doing it .  But as a second generation holocaust survivor with a polish grandfather, the background against which this novel is written is something I know a bit about.  This is my history too. And whatever I was looking for in these pages, I didn’t find it.

Review :  Surviving the War by Adiva Geffen. Arrow Books.   Translated from Hebrew.

Set in the late 1930s and 40s against a backdrop of increasing pogroms, this story concerns the flight of a Jewish family from their village in the Lublin area of Poland, first to the ghetto of Ostrow Lubelski and then to the forest of Parczew to join the Jewish partisans fighting there.

According to the website of the US Holocaust Museum around 20,000 to 30,000 Jews fought in partisan groups based in the forests of Eastern Europe.  Few survived. Although in this story we see nothing true of their struggle – a missed opportunity in my view.

 

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It is one thing to research historical background accurately on the holocaust and quite another to write a convincing story of based on the suffering of those who lived and died in that time.   Perhaps because for most of us,  thankfully, such hardship is almost impossible to imagine.

So to the plot.  The chief character in Surviving is Shurka.  She grows up in a village not far from the Parczew forest against which – Peter style –  she is sternly warned about wolves.   Shurka is of course beautiful  and when she grows up she does what every well behaved and dutiful Jewish daughter does and marries handsome Avraham.  They have a chubby cheeked – equally dutiful daughter ‘little Irena –  who chases chickens round the yard of their perfect home in Glebokie while the grandparents beam with delight.   An excruciating scene takes half a page in which Shurka tries to tell her beloved Avraham that she’s expecting a baby but doesn’t like to use the word ‘pregnant’ so there is a lot of discussion about storks which he seems remarkably slow to catch on to.   Sentimental or what?

Surviving the War?  No.  What war? The war is off screen, manifesting only as sounds of gunshots heard  through a window, or rumours of shootings reported by a neighbour who heard about it from another neighbour and occasional shouts.  The characters have no interior lives of their own.

The omniscient narrator is constantly telling us what is going to happen and what the reader should think about it.  And in case we still don’t get it, there’s the exposition! Don’t even get me started.  Every piece of dialogue is there to inform the reader of things they can’t possibly be expected to glean for themselves or understand from a wider context.

Everytime a child is referred to they are ‘little’ as if the reader might suddenly imagine a newborn to be huge.  ‘Little Irena’ is followed by ‘Little Yitzhak’.     Various well meaning family members and neighbours warn the family that the war is coming closer and that ethnic cleansing of Jews has started and that the Germans are using Polish collaborators to identify the Jewish families.

The family is forced to flee – because they are Jews living in Poland and this is the 1930s and 1940s and anti-semitism in Poland is a grisly historical fact.  Eventually, more than half way through the book,  we get to the whole point of the story.  Polish collaboration.  Displacement.

The Orlitzky family goes to Ostrow Lubelski, the ghetto,  where they find an apartment.   Numerous new family members appear – many that the reader has not been introduced to including an (adult) younger sister of Shurka, called Devorah,  who is in love with somebody else we haven’t met.   Apparently Shurka has brothers too somewhere –   they are like film extras,  you never see their faces, not even while she is growing up. Although we do see the chickens.  And a doll called Alinka who gets referred so often it becomes irritating.   A crude effort to ramp up the pathos of a scene involving a child.   But to me the pathos of the plight of Polish Jews in history is a given.  It doesn’t need such artifice.

While the family is debating whether to move from the ghetto to the dreaded forest of Parczew, Shurka’s mother says:

“And what choice do we have?

To go like sheep to the slaughter?”

How could they know – the narrator asks/tells/instructs us –  that in no more than a month the whole ghetto would be cleared and the inmates taken to Sobibor.

Well they couldn’t.  That’s the point.  But at last we do have a point.

German Philosopher Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 – 4 December 1975)

asks in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem:

“How could the Jews through their own leaders co-operate in their own destruction?”… “Why did they go to their death like lambs to the slaughter?”

A question for which Arendt received little gratitude, but which nevertheless remains unanswered.

I downloaded Surviving the War onto my kindle.  The publisher does not state the name of the translator.  The ‘Acknowledgements’ page mentions one Arlyn Roffman and ‘Zoe’ but fails to mention whether either or both of them were responsible for translating the book into English.

Thank you to  Meytal at Biblibio for hosting the Women in Translation  project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenge, Challenge, Challenge! Women in Translation Month August 2020

It’s not over till the fat lady sings as Will Smith said in Independence Day.  But nine titles read and only four weeks left to complete my 20 books of Summer .  I have to be honest it looks like it might be 15 books of summer for the Rune.

What to do if you are already behind on your existing challenges, why take on another one of course.

During August in addition to my other challenges – both literary and non-literary –  I propose taking part in Women in Translation Month.  Thank you to

 Meytal at Biblibio for hosting this project which I found at Annabookbel

So far as well as  20 books of summer I have reading through the shortlist of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

How am I doing so far?   I have read the following since July 1:

The Tiger’s Wife, Tea Obreht 

1000 Ships Natalie Haynes

Ash before Oak, Jeremy Cooper

No Time to Spare:  Thinking about What Matters, Essays by Ursula Le Guin

Grove, by Esther Kinsky

The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson –  a reread. Not yet reviewed.

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I will be  adding the following 4 translated works :

King Kong Theory, Virginie Despentes (Fitzcarraldo Editions) Original Language French

Surviving the War, Adiva Geffen  (Penguin) original language Hebrew – I have purchased a kindle edition of this one.  I’m about half way throuth  …mmm..!

Surviving the War: based on an incredible true story of hope, love and resistance by [Adiva Geffen]

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadano – not Miyazaki’s film but a children’s book and a departure for me on this blog –  Original language Japanese. It’s not published until August 20.

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Winter in Sokcho Elisa Dusapin (Daunt Books) Original language French

 

How to Build a Life When No-one Has Left You the Manual

“Not only could you see into the Dutch house, you could see straight through it.  The house was shortened in the middle, and the deep foyer led directly into what we called the observatory, which had a wall of windows facing the backyard.  From the driveway you could let your eye go up the front steps, across the terrace, through the front doors, across the long marble floor of the foyer, through the observatory, and catch sight of the lilacs waving obliviously in the garden behind the house.”

In Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House this description of the house as see-through,  its  insubstiantiality,  is an interesting idea and I’m not sure if the metaphor is deliberate.     Do we lose our sense of self over a house?  If that is true the converse must also be true, that we can gain one.    We can love a house, or we can dislike it.  See it as status symbol, or be bored by it.  Be obsessed or haunted by it or completely indifferent.  We can also feel that the place where we live is so far removed from anything that we think of as being ‘us’ that it becomes impossible to live there.   But a house – whether glass or otherwise –  cannot be anything other than a reflection of those who live within its walls.   

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This book was longlisted for the 2020 prize for Women’s Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for fiction) but for some reason failed to make the shortlist.   The last time Patchett won was with Bel Canto in 2002.  There are  fine books on the shortlist, yet the omission of this one does seem to me extraordinary.

It is hard to pin down this jewel of a book into any category – it is a family drama among many family dramas.  It is  a Cinderella narrative without a Prince.   It is clever; the dialogue pitch perfect and it shines with humanity.

The narrator, Danny and his Sister Maeve start off the novel as children of a wealthy father living in an exceptional house – the house of the title.  But Danny and Maeve’s lives are about to be changed beyond recognition by the departure of their mother from the family home, and the arrival of a woman called Andrea.  So far so nothing much unusual in literary terms.  But it is not so much what happens in The Dutch House as the way that it happens.   We follow in real time the unfolding of Danny and Maeve’s ‘new normal’ and while their lives may not be pure joy, reading this book surely is.

The finest character is Danny’s sister, Maeve, a few years older than him it is she who takes on the task of rebuilding what has been broken, it is her portrait – painted when she was 10 years old – that hangs above the fireplace in the drawing room of The Dutch House,  and which graces the front cover of Bloomsbury’s paperback edition.  We could all do with a Maeve in our lives.

The FT reviewer called Ann Patchett  ‘a chronicler of the burdens of emotional inventory’. 

The emotional inventory in this book is huge, but what causes it?  The house?  The people who loved it excessively and the people who didn’t?  A past that can somehow never be caught up with?  A past than can never be reclaimed?    All those things. 

Mostly The Dutch House is a story about coping with abandonment and rejection.   While the house itself is a constant presence in the story, the book is less about the house and more about how to build a life when no-one has left you a manual.   

 

Don’t Look for Lemon Trees or Cafe Society in this Wintry Version of Italy

A Review of Grove, by Esther Kinsky.  Trans, Caroline Schmidt.  (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Nothing happens in this book – at least nothing that will not happen to every single one of us at some time in our lives.  Esther Kinsky’s writing underlines the temporary  and porous nature of the divide between those who have passed and those of us who, for the moment, remain.

Grove is about the search for consolation in bereavement by journeying both physically through landscape and re-visiting the landscape of memory.  The book is set in Italy – but this is not the Italy that many of us will know from 2 week vacations, with pasta and singing waiters,  nor is it necessarily a dark place.  Rather the language of the book makes it seem as though the landscape is waiting to emerge from some sort of limbo.

There are  gothic elements that surprise.  Do not look for lemon trees or olive groves.

Kinsky subverts our usual expections of Italian sunshine  in the cold and fog which predominate here.   There are wide terrains, often empty.    Commercial premises  are closed or abandoned.  Shops are shuttered.

Death is ever present whether in the stonework of the necropolis of Spina, the house by the cemetery, in visited mausolea,  or in the narrator’s own memories of bereavement – and all these things combine into a narrative of acute loss.   This is the language of psychogeography – where the external landscape reflects the narrator’s internal mindset.  The colours are all grey, white and blue, the colour of winter light.

‘This small plain in the winter light, too, was punctuated by tumuli.  The field of burial chambers … which the living prepared for the dead…’

 

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Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

A woman who is unnamed – rents a house in winter in a hillside village called Olevano, South East of Rome.   There is no dialogue, there are very few characters other than the narrator herself.  We do meet a few ethereal others, they blow across the pages like autumn leaves:   a woman passed in a visit to the local cemetery, a man selling citrus fruit from a cart,  a cheesemonger in a shop who keeps laminated photos of goats in a binder to prove to his customers that his cheese is local, a few sullen teenagers on mopeds in the square.   Then there are the cats.

“There were cat days and dog days in Olevano.  The windless waiting days were for the cats.  They crept around every corner… as if born of the same quarry stone most of the old houses were built from.”

 

 

In wandering and looking, recording and layering new impressions  over the old ones partly recalled, there is for the narrator a coming to terms, a movement towards the hope.  Threaded through it all are memories of a man who we simply know as ‘M’.

“I knew exactly how we would have walked between these graves together.  How we would have entered the chambers, the stony beds, how we would have looked at the things depicted with a near tender accuracy…”

The book is divided more or less into two halves.  In the first half are the journeys, the observations, the descriptions of the narrator’s trips around the area of Olevano and the rented house.

“The leaden heart grew entwined with all I had seen that took root in me.  With the sight of the olive groves in fog, the sheep on the hillside, the holm oak hill, the horses that from time to time grazed silently behind the cemetery, with the view past the plain and its small shimmering fields on cold mornings frosted bluish.”

Ruminations on long past family trips to the area dominate the second half of the book  – the father wanders off for hours leaving  child and mother alone  in a strange guest house where ‘every piece of furniture and every step creaked’.  It is interesting that a great deal of the second half of the book is given over to descriptions of the father, yet he  is not the one being mourned but  ‘M’.  We learn nothing about M except that his death has inspired this grief and this journey and that he took photographs:

 “… these sepulchre images were a plea not to be forgotten, an anxious call of the visible, which arose with the invention of photography and wanted to be more powerful than any name.”

This is not a book for those who want plot and action, but for those who admire the intense poetry and lyricism of description and who find comfort in this excellent evocation of a coming to terms with the past.

I will definitely be ordering more books of these  collectible books from this indie press although maybe I wouldn’t want a whole row of these dark blue spines on my shelves – please change up the covers guys –  but the paper used is of excellent and sturdy quality designed to last, as it will need to. Like poetry this book requires more than one reading.

Grove is the fourth of my 20 Books of Summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the lovely silence has gone: A Review of ‘Ash before Oak’ by Jeremy Cooper

Lockdown was a situation that could not continue nor should it.  It has caused far too much suffering.  But there were a couple of benefits – a slowing down and some peace – if not peace of mind then peace and quiet.   Birdsong too.  The birds are back fighting a losing battle with horrendous building works and the smell of traffic fumes on the air.

On another level, this happens internally.  Our brains start running horror movies in our heads.   In the vicissitues and general exhaustingness of life, we  lose our peace of mind, our lovely silence.

Increasingly and perhaps because of this I have been attracted to works on and about   the natural world.  This week I have read Ash before Oak by Jeremy Cooper published by indie press Fitzcarraldo Editions.  This is the second book I have purchased from them  the other being Grove by Esther Kinsky which I am also reading.  All Fitzcarraldo’s books are given a uniform dark blue cover.   I’m not a great fan of the look.    I can understand the commercial imperatives but maybe  give an artist or graphic designer some work folks as they have commercial imperatives too!

This book is way better than its  bland cover suggests, combining as it does two subjects very close to my heart – the natural world and mental health.    It’s hard to get much more topical than that at the moment.

Author Jeremy Cooper has an original author bio.  He has a track record of expertise on art postcards, having appeared in the first 24 episode sof the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.  He is also a novelist and writer of non-fiction works.

Ash before Oak is definitely not about postcards.   It is fiction written in the form of a series of journal entries which chart the narrator’s stay at a house Somerset where he is renting a house on an estate called Cothelstone.  Initially the book appears to be a record of a man’s attempts to tame this house, garden and its surrounding woodland,  as the narrator learns to tell sorrel from not-sorrel and to plant Field Scabious and Ox Eye daisy in his new wildflower meadow, much of which he does ably assisted by local carpenter Beth.

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“Three cats live here now, in the old part of the cottage… “

But slowly into the lovely descriptions of flora and fauna, the ‘still warm sun of a cloudless October morning’  it becomes clear that all is not well in this rural idyll.   This is a man who has lived in the city and had other lives and other careers.  For someone in that situation to move to the country and choose a different life is not at all unusual.  Yet there has to be a ‘why’.  Ever since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall there has had to be a why.  Why is he here? It is a question that the narrator asks himself too.

A story that begins as an endearing battle with a mouse that moves into the house and refuses to move out suddenly becomes worrying, as do the references amidst the descriptions to feelings of being trapped and anxious.   Trapped?  When surrounded by all this natural wonder?  Something can’t be right.  And surely enough, something isn’t.  The fragility of the narrator’s mental state becomes apparent.

And while connections between nature and recovery from mental illness are not earth shatteringly new, they do not need to be.  It is the writing which counts and Ash before Oak is beautifully written.   The advantage of the journalistic entry style of writing is the author can get carried away with memories of hearing Alfred Brendel play or an anecdote about the composer Messiaen playing the piano in a prisoner of war camp, it’s fine to pop it in.   There are many references to both art and music throughout the book and these build a picture of a former life lived in London,  but one that has been abandoned.

Not many books have felt to me to be relevant or indeed as easy to read during this time of the world’s desperate uncertainty and difficulty – at least that has been my personal experience.  But Ash Before Oak felt completely right.  It is a complex book cleverly written which reveals it’s secrets slowly, or perhaps some of them not at all.