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Screens Against the Sky by Elleke Boehmer (Novella a Day in May #5)

I bought Screens Against the Sky (1990) by Elleke Boehmer in 2008 – just weeks before I started my Masters, because Elleke was running the course and I thought it would be fun to read her book before I met her. And here we are, a short 14 years later, and I’ve finally read it! I haven’t seen Elleke for almost a decade, but it was fun to think of her as I read her debut novel.

I’m not sure how autobiographical Screens Against the Sky is, but it would certainly fit – like Boehmer, Annemarie is a teenager in 1970s South Africa. She lives with her mother, Sylvie, and towards the beginning of the novel they mourn the death of Sylvie’s husband, Annemarie’s father. And begin the next stage of their relationship – as the only two people in the household, in a mother/daughter relationship that sometimes seems unhealthily close, sometimes is threatened by Annemarie’s leaps towards independence, sometimes in the sanctuary they need in grief. The title is literally about some hail-screens that are attached to the windows, but is also about Sylvie’s wish to keep the scary, vast outside world out.

The long slope of the veld leading up towards the hills drew her [Sylvie’s] own eyes towards the sky and the bleak white sun. There was too much space about. She preferred not to see it. With the chicken wire netted across the windows, she could focus on something close at hand. The screens made a web to which her skittering eye might cling.

They are not quite the only people in the household, in fact. There is also Simon – the garden boy, not far off Annemarie’s age. He is Black, and he introduces Annemarie to a world she had known nothing about. Her father taught her only to read world news, not local – and so she was almost entirely ignorant about apartheid, and how things were beginning to change. The most significant moment is the murder of Steve Biko, a victim of police brutality. Shamefully, I didn’t know anything about this real event – if you’re the same as me, then I recommend reading the Wikipedia article. It is a discovery that changes Annemarie’s outlook, and one of many contemporary events that leads Simon to leaving their employment. I wouldn’t say that Screens Against the Sky is a novel about apartheid, but it is unavoidably the background against which the novel is set.

But front and centre is that tortured relationship of mother and daughter – with some ups and rather more downs. The novel alternates between third and first person, the latter being Annemarie remembering this period from an undefined future. As a teenager, she rigorously recorded journals – though she no longer has them, her recollections often involve the journaling, and an approximation of what she thought she’d written. The differing perspectives come together well, often changing in a few paragraphs. It works as a patchwork.

I was a bit worried when I started Screens Against the Sky that it would be very overwritten. The style of the first few pages is certainly leaning that way, with sentences like ‘On the bedside table, painted buff eggshell off-white, lies a New English Bible, abutting on a colonnade of pill phials.’ More of this does appear later, occasionally, but the style calms down for the most part. And quite a lot of it is told in spare, effective sentences – like this:

The Reverend Guthrie brought relief. Within an hour of his eventual coming, he and Mother retired to the seclusion of her bedroom to pray. I heard her voice rising, falling and rising. I heard them pray together, prayer after prayer. I feared they might at some stage call me in to join them, so I went walking. There was an errand I had to run for which I had not yet had the time. I walked to the edge of town, a place not far from the bus depot, the site of the municipal dumping grounds. It was a wide piece of land, covered with slowly smoking ash and hidden from the road by dense bramble bushes. It smelt distinctively of rust and pus. I did not spend very long. As soon as I arrived, I felt I had to hurry home. I was right in doing so. At the gate Mother was waiting: she wanted me to be with her during the Reverend’s closing prayer She said it would help her. I walked with her to the bedroom, she behind me. She asked where I’d been. I said to town and back – for air. That was, I think, the first lie I consciously told my mother.

Screens Against the Sky is a novel written in a place and a decade that I know little about in literature, and it was rewarding to spend time there. I’d certainly be intrigued to read more by Boehmer, and found the different elements of this book very rich – I think it would merit rereading, exploring all the depths.

Journey Through A Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff (Novella a Day in May #4)

Oops, I keep cheating on this novella challenge – though today’s cheating was accidental, since I was about 30 pages into Journey Through A Small Planet (1972) by Emanuel Litvinoff when I realised it was an autobiography. Simply from seeing it on the shelf, I had assumed it was a sci-fi novella – though that in itself would have been a surprise, being worlds away from The Lost Europeans, my (brilliant) previous experience with this writer.

Instead, we are taken to the East End of London in the years after the First World War. Emanuel is the son of working-class Jewish immigrants from Russia, living in a community that shares his poverty and his ethnicity. I won’t say faith, because Emanuel determines relatively early in childhood that he doesn’t want to follow the Jewish religion, though of course he remains Jewish. And in the eyes of many people at his school and, later, his first places of employment, he is still Russian. Even though he has never been there. Sadly, recent political decisions in this country show that British-born children of immigrants don’t today have much more certainty that their nationality will be respected…

I found the writing in The Lost Europeans captivatingly beautiful. In Journey Through A Small Planet, the prose is much more understated – Litvinoff is more interested in translating the perceptions of his childhood than in framing it elegantly. We see how he is bullied and ostracised at school, both by pupils and teachers – on the first day, his form teacher makes much of his ‘foreign’ surname, and sets the trend for the way Emanuel will be treated by everyone who encounters him. Despite there being a significant Jewish population in his area of London, none of his contemporaries at school seem to be Jewish – and Emanuel feels all the more alienated because he doesn’t see himself in his community either. Judaism pales in comparison to Communism in his mind. He is captivated by faintly understood tenets, and Litvinoff takes us inside the passion and in-fighting of those on the left of the spectrum in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Of course, Emanuel is also occupied with less abstract issues. There is hunger, there is lust, there is envy – all the human emotions, conveyed with all the sense of newness that everyone feels in experiencing them for the first time. Eventually he disappears from home in a way that seems very far-fetched, but presumably happens. And the autobiography – or perhaps memoir – ends almost in the middle of a scene.

Along the way, the infant Emanuel and the adult Litvinoff coalesce. The emotions are the child’s, but he blends it well with the observational power of the reflecting adult. It combines to give the memoir an authenticity that is amplified by perceptiveness. Here’s a rather lovely bit I noted about a child (otherwise a background character in the book) whose father returns from long exile:

Acquiring a father unexpectedly like that could be either horrible or marvellous for a boy. In Mendel’s case it was marvellous. You’d see the two of them walking hand in hand through the raucous streets, talking to one another as if no one else in the world existed. They went to museums, parks, art galleries, visited the Tower, climbed the Monument, inspected the Palace Guard, all things that Mr Shaffer must have dreamed of doing with his son during those long years of waste and deprivation in Russia. If the boy was happy, the man was ecstatic. I saw him one Sunday standing in the marketplace utterly dazed by the mounds of ripe fruit, barrels of shmlaz herring and pungent strings of sausages, gazing at these and the stalls flowing with coloured silks and heaped with new-smelling leather, as if the wonder of the world was spread before his feasting eyes. And the way Mendel smiled up at the tall man you’d think he was the father, not the child.

If Journey Through A Small Planet didn’t bowl me over quite as much as Litvinoff’s fiction, it impressed me in a different way. Definitely recommended – and now I’ll re-shelve it in the correct section of my library.

My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof by Penelope Mortimer (Novella a Day in May #3)

I’m playing cold-or-Covid roulette at the moment – it would be unlucky to get Covid again so soon, but you never know – and Penelope Mortimer accompanied me while I wasn’t working or napping today. My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof is the curious title of this 1967 novel(la), somewhere in the middle of her writing career. A few of her books have come back into print through various houses, but I am still surprised that she has not survived as unstoppably as other contemporaries. Her style is assured, odd, and captivating.

My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof is about Muriel Rowbridge – the only women in a group of journalists who have been flown to Canada. They aren’t there for a particular event so much as to soak in the culture of the area, and report back on it in their various ways. Muriel’s writerly output is a column in a woman’s magazine (though they avoid the term). She has some aspirations of writing novels, though lies about this, and doesn’t seem particularly fulfilled by her job. Though nor is she ashamed of it as some people expect her to be.

Muriel is in something of a turbulent period of her life. Only a few months before the novel starts, she has had a mastectomy. She has a brassiere with a fake breast, and is far from getting used to the change in her body, and in the way she believes that people see her. After the mastectomy, she ended her relationship – a long-term affair with a married man called Ramsey.

Then they told her she was not going to die and her concern changed to a sense of outrage; she became convinced that no one could ever feel anything for her, sexually, but pity and disgust. She sent Ramsey away, his mirror after him. They said she would get over this too, and suggested therapy. But she did not want to get over it, the cheat she was perpetrating on the world by pretending to be a normal woman gave her a kind of terrible liveliness; without that liveliness, that feeling of perpetual shock, she believed that she would drift into an apathy which would be worse than death. she went back to work in new clothes, everything hidden. They called her brave behind her back, but treated her, according to the General’s directions, with affectionate indifference. Very few people telephoned her at home, or asked her out, in case she should feel pitied or find it difficult to refuse. The men who had previously patted or stroked her. out of friendliness, avoided her; the women, in her presence, avoided the men, obscurely ashamed of themselves.

Mortimer writes about this experience with a sort of brutal sensitivity, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Muriel’s feelings are not given anywhere to hide, but there is somehow a kindness in the unflinching way her new life is examined.

She certainly needn’t have worried about men finding her attractive, though. While there is a complexity to each of them, the crux of the novel is Muriel forming a relationship with every man on the trip. More than one are sexual. Some are based on shared disappointment, some on a meeting of minds and questions, and some simply on unstoppable interest in one another. I’ll be honest, I did struggle to separate the men – they did have distinctive traits, but I couldn’t remember which traits went together, or with which name. She shuttles between them all, one by one and back again, often in the form of sparse back-and-forth conversations. There is definitely something Spark-like in the way Mortimer presents conversations – a sort of emotional openness that never quite answers the questions the reader is probably asking.

I thought My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof was very good, and the writing is exactly the sort of curious, spare prose I love from this period. Mortimer is expert at conveying the damage that Muriel feels. I think the only thing that stopped me really loving this book is that I was a bit too confused by it. But maybe that was part of the point.

William – an Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (Novella a Day in May #2)

William – an Englishman (1919) by Cicely Hamilton isn’t really a novella, coming in at 226 pages, but I needed to reread it for Tea or Books? so I thought a Bank Holiday Monday was a great opportunity to read something a bit longer. Never too early to break the rules!

I can’t remember when I originally read this book, but not that much of it had stayed in my mind – except some searing scenes. And this is a decidedly searing book. It was the first novel published by Persephone Books, and it certainly dispels from the off the idea that they only publish cosy books. It’s hard to imagine anything less cosy – William – an Englishman is almost a work of horror at times.

It is titled after William but it is also about his wife, with the rather absurd name Griselda. As the novel opens, they have not met – but both have been swept up in the contemporary tide of socialism and suffragism. It is 1913 at this point, I think, and both movements are in full sway. William and Griselda are not paddling in the shallow waters of these movements either. They have dedicated their whole lives, their whole beings, to the cause.

From that day forwards he devoted himself to what he termed public life – a ferment of protestation and grievance; sometimes genuine, sometimes manufactured or, at least, artificially heightened. He was an extremist, passionately well-intentioned and with all the extremist’s contempt for those who balance, see difficulties and strive to give the other side its due.

Hamilton writes quite satirically about them. She doesn’t doubt their convictions, nor does she particularly undermine the causes for which they fight – she just portrays their extremism in the light of an authorial voice for whom calmness is the hallmark of good sense. The reader feels safe. There is a definite safety in seeing such passion from a distance, where we can turn it around in our mind, chuckling at its excesses.

But Hamilton has lured us into a false sense of security. The novel is about to become much less safe.

William and Griselda get married and set off to spend their honeymoon in Belgium, at the holiday home of a friend. They are three weeks into their time there, away from newspapers and letters and any contact with the outside world, when they spot some soldiers on the horizon. With their pacifist stances, they just mock the men out ‘playing at murder’. They do not realise that, since they last heard the news, a war has been declared – and Belgium has been invaded by German soldiers.

From here, William – an Englishman becomes much darker – even brutal. It is fast-paced, as the couple find themselves caught up with swift intensity in a situation they couldn’t have imagined. Hamilton switches tone expertly, and we can no longer smile at the naivety of this young pair. None of it feels melodramatic or gratuitous, simply because the horrors they are suddenly exposed to are horrors that genuinely happened to enormous numbers of people.

Later in the novel, I found the intensity flagged a little, and Hamilton loses a bit of her subtlety for a period – but the ending recaptures the pathos of the early novel. It’s extraordinary that this novel is more than a century old – it still feels fresh and vital, and one can’t help thinking about other invasions and violence happening in the world today.

Rachel and I will soon be recording an episode of Tea or Books? comparing this with a novel about a couple at the beginning of World War Two – Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune. Look out for that!

Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper (Novella a Day in May #1)

I’ve done a few book-a-day projects – for 25 days, for Novella – but they’re all inspired by Novella A Day In May, which Madame Bibi Lophile has done for a few years. And since May was rolling around, I checked to see if she was planning on doing it again in 2022 – she is, and so we are doing the project together! Always fun to do these things in tandem. (I should add, for my own project, that they might not all be novellas – some will be a bit longer, some might be non-fiction or short stories.)

74 in. Atlas Turnout Sheet 600 Denier

I started off with one of my Project 24 books – Murder on the Second Floor by Frank Vosper. When I wrote about choosing it, I included a largeish section from the beginning of the novel, which really sold it to me:

Meet Sylvia Armitage. She is the heroine of this story. Sylvia is not reclining gracefully in a hammock, attired in a simple gown of flowered muslin, beneath a cherry-laden tree in a quaint, old-world garden. Neither is she sitting on a table, swinging her long, slim, graceful legs, with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in a long holder in the other, saying shocking things about biological urges to a horrified aunt. She is not even in a notorious night-club in New York, standing on a table, attired in less than half a bathing-dress, with a gentleman’s silk hat at a rakish angle on her wicked little head, drinking her own health – in such liberal potations as must seriously impair it – surrounded by fifty intoxicated lovers in paper hats, carrying a dozen balloons apiece. No; at the risk of opening our story in a drab and disappointing manner, the truth must be told. Sylvia Armitage is washing-up. Yes, washing-up, in the scullery in the basement of a most ordinary boarding-house in a most ordinary street in Bloomsbury.

There are splashes of this same wit throughout, though there is also plenty of melodrama and it’s hard to know which is intended to be taken more seriously. I suppose both are ingredients of Golden Age murder mysteries, for that is what Murder on the Second Floor is – the action takes place in a boarding house (hurrah for boarding house novels!) run by Sylvia’s parents. There is a maid who is fairly useless, residents ranging from a timid old lady to a florid travelling salesman to a playwright with whom Sylvia is evidently in love, and a handful of others. One of them will, of course, end up dead – though it doesn’t happen for much of the book.

The whole thing rattles along enjoyably, and at rather a dizzying speed so that Vosper could probably have written a book twice the length without any detriment to the pacing. It’s always relatively obvious who did the murder, at least to anybody who has read any other detective novels – though there is a neat twist towards the end that you’ll either enjoy or resent.

What lifts Murder on the Second Floor above the pacey nonsense (that it undoubtedly is) is Vosper’s style. He is funny, observant, and manages to make the charming characters charming. He’s a bit less successful with the characters we’re meant to dislike, who are drawn rather cartoonishly, and there are racist and classist elements to the novel which aren’t surprising but are off-putting. If you can swallow this, it’s an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

And a couple of hours entertainment were what plenty of people had from this in the period – since Vosper also wrote a play of the same name. The playwright in the book is writing a play called Murder on the Second Floor, so it all ties together nicely. What I haven’t been able to ascertain is whether the play or the novel came first, and how closely the plots align. Perhaps I should try to track down one of the two films that were made of it… I haven’t even been able to establish the date, since there is no copyright page and library holdings seem to just be the acting edition of the play.  Perhaps the most sophisticated mystery is the book itself?

Stuck in a Book’s Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend – and, if you’re in the UK, happy long, bank holiday weekend. Hope you have a lovely one. I’ll be going to a bookshop on Saturday, so Project 24 might bulk out a bit. Watch this space. Here’s your usual round up – and keep an eye out tomorrow for a new reading project I’ll be doing with another blogger throughout May.

1.) The link – is about running an independent bookshop – I’d also love to read this article about being a celebrity book stylist, but I don’t have a New York Times subscription. Have it, if you do!

2.) The book – I still haven’t read the Nancy Spain reprint I bought a while ago, but that doesn’t stop me being pleased that there’s another – R in the Month – on the horizon.

3.) The podcasts – cheating this time, and including podcasts instead of blog posts. Because I’ve appeared as a guest on two brilliant podcasts recently! I was so delighted to be asked to speak about my beloved O, The Brave Music by Dorothy Evelyn Smith with Amy and Kim on the Lost Ladies of Lit podcast. And then I got to chat with Trevor and Paul on the Mookse and the Gripes podcast, talking about novels about books. What could be more up all of our streets? Check them out via those links, or wherever you listen to podcasts. (And, if you don’t know those podcasts already, subscribe to both pronto.)

Project 24: Book 6

Having rationed my book buying severely in the early days of the year, I have tumbled through my first six books quite quickly – even more quickly than posts appear, because I bought this one more than a week ago but waited until the 1954 Club finished before sharing.

(For those not in the know – I’m only buying 24 books this year. Click the Project24 tag to see what else I’ve bought.)

I was in London to see a play, so obviously I went to Charing Cross Road. Firstly, I found that Henry Porde books has moved and got rid of most of its stock? But Any Amount of Books is still there, and I made for the basement. Weirdly, I felt oddly confident that I’d find a Margery Sharp and it would be one I didn’t own. Which is precisely what happened!

I hadn’t heard of In Pious Memory before Ali wrote her review of it last year – and you can see me in the comments saying how keen I was to get hold of it. So I am delighted that I now have! It does look like I was very lucky to get hold of a cheap copy, since there aren’t many secondhand copies online.

Sharp makes up a third of the books I’ve bought so far for Project 24 – and, while I doubt that rate will keep up, I am pleased to be using my meagre allowance on an author I love and admire so much. Now I just have to read some of the Project 24 books…

Announcing the next club…

What fun the 1954 Club has been! At the time of writing, we are very close to 100 reviews (see them on this round-up post) – and more still to come as Sunday finishes across the world. I’m always blown away by the number of people who contribute, and the range of books that are included.

It’s always interesting to see what major themes come out. Yes, we had books from our usual suspects of Georgette Heyer, Georges Simenon, and Agatha Christie – stalwart and prolific authors that appear in almost every single club year, and it’s always wonderful to see them. Besides them, it seems also to have been a heyday of children’s literature. And detective fiction, of course, though fading away from the peak of the Golden Age into slightly darker territory.

My favourite cultural moment was reading the comments about whether or not there were fridges in 1954 England (conclusion: not very many) – I love that this sort of thing comes up. And, of course, some of the club readers can just about remember 1954 and add in their memories.

I suspect nobody will remember our next year – because, in October, we are going to travel to 1929! Here is your six month’s warning to get hold of 1929 books. I can’t wait to see what you all read. And thanks again to Karen for her wonderful co-hosting – and, again, to everyone who wrote and read the reviews.

Four more #1954Club books I read

Let’s rattle through some other books I read for the 1954 Club which possibly don’t warrant full reviews… they range from ok to bad, so come on a journey with me.

Doctor’s Children by Josephine Elder

Let’s start with the good-in-parts. This novel was reprinted by Greyladies, who bring back forgotten women writers in very limited print runs, so they sadly become forgotten again almost instantly. It’s both by and about a female doctor – not a new concept in the 1950s, but still not a commonplace, and Barbara (the heroine) faces quite a lot of disparagement and underestimation.

At the outset of the novel, Barbara’s artist husband has deserted her and their four children (aged between 19 and five). She needs income, she needs occupation, and she is trying not to think too much about her disastrous marriage. She manages to get a job as a GP in a job interview that is probably shamefully accurate about recruitment in the 1950s – i.e. she mentions that her uncle is renowned doctor Alderman Fisher, and that is all the panel need to hear to give her a job.

It is very interesting to see life as female doctor at the dawn of the NHS, and the subplot about her husband painting a picture that starts London gossiping is quite fun. Some of Elder’s observations on being a working single mother, and learning to deal with her children growing up and opposing her worldview, are engaging and show how little may have changed in 70 years.

The downsides… it is quite often an unsubtle polemic about aspects of the NHS, particularly about private GP practices being nationalised. A lot of the talk, inexpertly put into dialogue between various figures who exist only to discuss the topic, is focused on what this will be like for the doctors. There isn’t much about the patients’ point of view, or the inhumanity of refusing healthcare to those who can’t pay.

And – well, sadly Elder isn’t a very good writer. It’s not appalling, but it’s quite clunky and unconvincing at times. I never felt like I was reading the words of a gifted novelist, or even an averagely talented one – more that I was reading a doctor playing at being a writer.

 

Dishonoured Bones by John Trench

1954 is an interesting year for Golden Age crime, because the era was on its wane. Three decades had passed since the peak of detective fiction, and yet authors like John Trench seem to have stayed firmly in the mould that had been around for a long time.

This is the middle of three novels featuring archaeologist Martin Cotterill, though I’m not sure I’d have known he was the lead if it weren’t for that. When an old man is found dead at an excavation site, he is quickly identified as Lord Garnish – who, of course, is widely disliked. Murder victims in the early pages of these novels always are.

It’s not long before there’s another victim, and there are all manner of entanglements between local families that give us clues and red herrings along the way. I’ve said that this is in the mould of Golden Age crime, but in truth it oscillates between that and an adventure novel. There is an improbable scene of falling from a cliff and almost drowning, some rather silly chasing around subterranean darkness, and that sort of thing.

The eventual solution is ok, and could equally well have been almost anything else. Trench is good at drawing the more ridiculous characters, and there is one gossipy and flamboyant side character that I enjoyed and who got most of the best lines – but ultimately it was all rather flimsy. But good fun, as long as you know what you’re going in for.

 

The Cretan Counterfeit by Katharine Farrer

Somehow another one about archaeology! And, like Dishonoured Bones, it’s apparently the middle of three novels featuring the same detective – actually a legitimate policeman – Richard Ringwood, whose wife Claire pops up a bit and presumably plays a bigger role in other Farrer novels? Anyway, one morning they are reading the paper and see a very snarky obituary about an archaeologist, Alban Worrall, who has died. It is anonymous, but seems to be from a disgruntled colleague. The next day, a defence is written in the letter column by Janet, an unmarried woman who clearly admired him unrequitedly. And then she is attacked with a knife and left for dead.

There are some things to enjoy in this novel. The writing is fair, and I enjoyed the dynamic of Richard and Claire (albeit briefly). But overall it was difficult to care what happened, not to mention heavy doses of racism, antisemitism, and sexism. And Farrer either knows a lot about Cretan archaeological finds or went and did some research, and isn’t afraid to dump it on the page. I think any detective novel should rely on knowledge that any reader could be expected to have – it’s so much more irritating when all sorts of other knowledge is needed, or introduced in an expositionary way. There were a few Poirot-esque red herrings in the final gather-round-so-I-can-tell-you-who-did-it, though the answer is pretty offensive. One to miss. But not as bad as the last of these four…

 

Beside the Pearly Water by Stella Gibbons

We all know that, at her best, Stella Gibbons is wonderful. There’s a reason that nobody has reprinted Beside the Pearly Water, which is Gibbons at her absolute worst. It’s actually only the first 83 pages of this book, the rest filled with short stories of varying merit.

Throughout her writing, Gibbons is brilliant at oddballs and unlikely housing situations. She is very bad at romances, and also indefatigable at including them. In Beside the Pearly Water, the famous and beautiful Julia Lanier pays a visit to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands. She went there many years earlier, and there is a young woman (a girl, on Julia’s previous visit) who has held a grudge ever since. She devises a romance between Julia and a local man with a secret…

Somehow the two fall in love instantly, and we are meant to believe that they plan to spend the rest of their lives together on the basis of a half hour conversation. The final denouement is absurd and bad – and though tied to a 1950s concern, that I won’t spoil, is so histrionic that it a schoolgirl would be embarrassed to plot it. Gibbons really dropped the ball on this one.

The stories are a mixture of strong and weak. I think the best was ‘Listen to the magnolias’, about a nervous older lady waiting the arrival of various American soldiers who are being stationed in her house. (I am a bit confused if the fact they all turn out to be African-American is meant to be a twist or not… hopefully this story isn’t racist.) It’s thoughtfully and movingly described, and I felt like I was in her house as she waited.

The oddest opening to a story is ‘Madonna of the Crossings’, with “In the early summer of that year, the figures for road accidents soared, as usual, and as usual very many of those hurt or killed were young children.” There’s an attempt at a story in historical dialect that I skipped. And others are fine… but the aftertaste of Beside the Pearly Water lingered.

 

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(Sh 50) 4d Slate South Australia REPRINT Hinged

My friend Barbara bought me a whole pile of Furrowed Middlebrow books a while ago, and one of them was The Native Heath by Elizabeth Fair – my third novel by Fair, and one with the most beautiful cover. I am assuming it is from the original edition, because otherwise it is unbelievably apt for one of the opening scenes: two busybody ladies in the village of Goatstock are peering through the railings at a house that has just been inherited by Julia. One of them gets caught in the railings, presumably moments after this illustration.

Julia Dunstan is a widow in middle age, or a little later, who is relatively merry and pretty well off. She reminded me a bit of Julia in Margery Sharp’s The Nutmeg Tree, though several notches less exuberant. She has the same witty outlook on life, unbowed by the various difficulties she has faced. As the novel opens – before the railings incident – she is talking with her old nanny about some childhood memory of the house she has inherited.

But this explanation conflicted with Nanny’s memories, which were sometimes tactlessly different from Julia’s. She laid the stocking down and gave her employer what she called ‘a straight look’. This preliminary, and the little grunt that accompanied it, warned Julia that they were about to begin an argument; and although she did not doubt that she would triumph (Nanny was so old and her memory was not what it had been) she did not wish to be in the middle of an argument when Dora arrived. Arguments took time, and also a lot of tact and sympathy and loving remarks so that she and Nanny should finish up good friends. It wasn’t – it simply could not be – the right moment for starting one.

You get the measure of Julia! Dora is her cousin, less merry, who moves in as her companion. They were both nieces of the man who left the house to Julia, and there is no obvious reason why she has been left as the sole beneficiary. It is partly guilt, partly kindness and, one assumes, partly curiosity that leads Julia to invite Dora into her new adventure in Goatstock.

I would happily have read a whole novel about the dynamics between Julia and Dora. But that isn’t really what The Native Heath is – Elizabeth Fair likes giving a wide cast of villagers, and she doesn’t stint here. I got a bit confused between a few of the older ladies, but there is also some young people and some in between. A down-on-her-luck Lady with an interest in organic food. A love triangle of sorts, including a young woman engaged to a missionary in a far-flung country. A vicar and his sister, who fears that he will marry and she will have to leave their home. A village produce and flower show. Etc. etc. Over it all hangs the threat – very 1950s – that the village will become a New Town, absorbed into a mass building project.

Because there is so much going on, each element taking centre stage for a period, your enjoyment of any particular section of the novel will depend on how invested you are in that story or person. The structure ended up feeling quite episodic. I really enjoyed an unsuccessful picnic, which was where Fair went to town with humour and character assassination. There were other sections that I found less interesting, and I think The Native Heath would have benefited from a ruthless cutting down to a smaller group of people and storylines.

I still really enjoyed spending my time there, but I think there was an even better, more incisive and interesting novel hidden within the crowds of people and plots. Still, for something perhaps more Miss Read than Margery Sharp, this is a delightful 1954 book to spend some relaxing time with.