Six Degrees of Separation: From Stasiland to The Lady of the Ravens

It’s the first Saturday of the month which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month, the book we are starting with is Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder. I haven’t read it, but here is the blurb:

“In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell; shortly afterwards the two Germanies reunited, and East Germany ceased to exist. In a country where the headquarters of the secret police can become a museum literally overnight, and one in 50 East Germans were informing on their countrymen and women, there are a thousand stories just waiting to get out. Anna Funder tells extraordinary tales from the underbelly of the former East Germany – she meets Miriam, who as a 16-year-old might have started World War III, visits the man who painted the line which became the Berlin Wall and gets drunk with the legendary ‘Mik Jegger’ of the East, once declared by the authorities to his face to ‘no longer to exist’. Written with wit and literary flair, Stasiland provides a riveting insight into life behind the wall.”

My first link is a very obvious one: I have chosen a book set in Berlin. Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye (1) is a murder mystery published in 1955 and set in the aftermath of World War II, when Berlin is largely a city in ruins. Although this is not one of my favourite novels by Kaye, I did find it fascinating because of the setting.

The main character in Death in Berlin is a young woman called Miranda. Miranda is also the name of the protagonist of Anya Seton’s gothic novel, Dragonwyck (2). Despite the title, there are no dragons in the book. However, my next link leads us to a story which does feature dragons…

Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb (3) is the first of the Rain Wild Chronicles in which a group of young dragon keepers escort a herd of dragons up the Rain Wild River to the mythical city of Kelsingra. This wasn’t my usual sort of read, but I decided to read it as I’d loved Robin Hobb’s previous books so much and have now read the second book in the series too.

Another novel which deals with a journey upriver is To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey (4). Set in 19th century Alaska, the book tells the story, through journal entries and letters, of Colonel Allen Forrester who is commissioned to lead an expedition to navigate the Wolverine River and chart previously unmapped territory.

I’ve read a lot of books written in the form of journals and diaries; one of the most recent was Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (5), an atmospheric novel set in an isolated manor house in the Suffolk Fens in the early years of the 20th century.

Coincidentally, books 4 and 5 in my chain both have birds on the cover, so for my final link I have chosen a book which I have just finished reading and which has birds both on the cover and in the title: The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson (6), the story of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York. The ravens who live at the Tower of London have an important part to play in the novel.

Well, that’s my chain for this month! The links included Berlin, the name Miranda, dragons, river journeys, diaries and pictures of birds. All of the books in my chain are by female authors this month too, although that wasn’t deliberate!

In May we’ll be starting with The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey

With a creepy country house setting and hints of ghosts, madness and family secrets, The Animals at Lockwood Manor has the sort of plot I would associate more with the Victorian period – and there are certainly some allusions to books like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White here – but the story is actually set during World War II, which makes an interesting change.

Our narrator, thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright, works as a curator at a natural history museum in London. With the outbreak of war, a decision is made to remove the museum’s exhibits from the city and transport them to the safety of the countryside. Hetty is given the task of evacuating a collection of stuffed mammals to Lockwood Manor and staying there to take care of them for the duration of the war. As a single woman with no close family or friends, Hetty has devoted her life to her work and is looking forward to being director of her own little museum at Lockwood Manor – it’s a chance to prove herself in a male-dominated field and show that she is the equal of any man.

Once she arrives at the Manor and gets the animals arranged in the rooms, however, she begins to worry that she has taken on more than she can handle. Although Lord Lockwood has agreed to house the collection under his roof, he makes it clear that he is not happy with Hetty’s presence and believes women should be seen and not heard. As if his bullying isn’t enough, Hetty is disconcerted to find that some of the animals seem to be moving from room to room during the night, while others disappear entirely. Afraid and alone, Hetty turns to the only person in the household who offers any friendship and support: Lucy, Lord Lockwood’s daughter. But Lucy, who is haunted by strange dreams and tales of a ghostly woman dressed in white, has enough problems of her own!

This is Jane Healey’s first novel (she is not to be confused with the American author of the same name) and I found a lot to enjoy. First, there’s the atmosphere; the story is set almost entirely within the confines of Lockwood Manor, with a growing sense of mystery and tension as Hetty tells herself that there must be a logical explanation for what is happening to the animals but can’t quite shake off the feeling that they are somehow moving around by themselves. Then there are the social history aspects of the story, particularly the insights into how the role of women changed during the war; for example, we are told that Hetty would never have been promoted to keeper of the mammal collection if so many of the male museum workers hadn’t enlisted with the army, which is why she is so determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given.

But I had one or two problems with the book too. I thought the pace felt uneven; very slow at the beginning and for much of the first half, with most of the action packed into the last few chapters. And if you took away the animals and found a different reason for Hetty’s arrival at Lockwood Manor, the story would be very similar to any number of other recent historical novels inspired by those same Victorian novels I mentioned in my opening paragraph above. Even the romance which develops in the middle of the novel was predictable. I suppose it was too much to be hoped for that Hetty could have been single just because she wanted to be single!

Overall, though, there was more to like than to dislike and I would be happy to read more books by Jane Healey in the future.

Thanks to Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

My Commonplace Book: March 2020

A selection of words and pictures to represent March’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (2019)

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‘Sounds like a witch to me,’ Richard said bitterly. ‘How else would she know those things?’

‘She is a midwife, like her mother before her. Are you like the king now, thinking all wise women and poor women and midwives are carrying out the Devil’s work? Why, he must be the largest employer in Lancashire.”

The Familiars by Stacey Halls (2019)

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Highwaywoman Katherine Ferrers, known as ‘The Wicked Lady’

Except for me, not one of the women had spoken; all had let their menfolk talk for them. So much for Winstanley’s ideas of women being equal to men. I wondered though if it was the fact of my class that made me confident to speak. Had I been a serving woman by birth, would I have been so outspoken? Clearly this idea of living in community was harder than I had imagined.

Lady of the Highway by Deborah Swift (2016)

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It had proved impossible to civilise us, the documents said. It made me cry to read such things. There was nothing more civilised than my mother’s breast, and myself nestled there.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry (2020)

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‘It’s good that the museum has someone as single-minded as you to guard over it, Miss Cartwright. Frankly, it’s admirable how dedicated you are to your animals, although one might caution against becoming obsessive, at the cost of other, more important, things in life. A husband, perhaps, children, that kind of thing,’ he said pleasantly, blowing a stream of smoke towards me as I smiled thinly and left, shutting the door behind me.

The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey (2020)

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‘The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife’ by Daniel Maclise, 1854.

She studied the creamy vellum pages with their red capitals. ‘Does the Earl read often?’

‘Indeed, he does,’ Hervey replied. ‘He says it is through the stories that we come to recognise and know ourselves.’

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick (2019)

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Poirot nodded. “Yes, I saw what happened – but the eyes, Inspector Grange, are very unreliable witnesses.”

“What do you mean, M. Poirot?”

“The eyes see, sometimes, what they are meant to see.”

The Hollow by Agatha Christie (1946)

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Favourite book read in March:

The Irish Princess

New authors read in March:

Jane Healey

Countries visited in my March reading:

England, USA, Wales, Ireland, Canada

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy reading in March?

The Walter Scott Prize 2020 Shortlist

Following the announcement of the 2020 longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction earlier this month, the shortlist has been revealed today. As you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the shortlisted titles for this prize since it began in 2010 (you can see my progress here), so I will be trying to read all of the books below eventually. There are six books on this year’s list and here they are:

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Picture provided by the Walter Scott Prize

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The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey

“1950: late summer season on Cape Cod. Michael, a ten-year-old boy, is spending the summer with Richie and his glamorous but troubled mother. Left to their own devices, the boys meet a couple living nearby – the artists Jo and Edward Hopper – and an unlikely friendship is forged.

She, volatile, passionate and often irrational, suffers bouts of obsessive sexual jealousy. He, withdrawn and unwell, depressed by his inability to work, becomes besotted by Richie’s frail and beautiful Aunt Katherine who has not long to live – an infatuation he shares with young Michael.

A novel of loneliness and regret, the legacy of World War II and the ever-changing concept of the American Dream.”

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The Parisian by Isabella Hammad

“As the First World War shatters families, destroys friendships and kills lovers, a young Palestinian dreamer sets out to find himself.

Midhat Kamal picks his way across a fractured world, from the shifting politics of the Middle East to the dinner tables of Montpellier and a newly tumultuous Paris. He discovers that everything is fragile: love turns to loss, friends become enemies and everyone is looking for a place to belong.

Isabella Hammad delicately unpicks the tangled politics and personal tragedies of a turbulent era – the Palestinian struggle for independence from the British Mandate, the strife of the early twentieth century and the looming shadow of the Second World War. An intensely human story amidst a global conflict, The Parisian is historical fiction with a remarkable contemporary voice.”

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To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

“England, 1348. A gentlewoman is fleeing an odious arranged marriage, a Scottish proctor is returning home to Avignon and a handsome young ploughman in search of adventure is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.

Coming in their direction from across the Channel is the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe. As the journey unfolds, overshadowed by the archers’ past misdeeds and clerical warnings of the imminent end of the world, the wayfarers must confront the nature of their loves and desires.

A tremendous feat of language and empathy, it summons a medieval world that is at once uncannily plausible, utterly alien and eerily reflective of our own. James Meek’s extraordinary To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a novel about love, class, faith, loss, gender and desire—set against one of the biggest cataclysms of human history.”

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Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

“1878: The Lyceum Theatre, London. Three extraordinary people begin their life together, a life that will be full of drama, transformation, passionate and painful devotion to art and to one another. Henry Irving, the Chief, is the volcanic leading man and impresario; Ellen Terry is the most lauded and desired actress of her generation, outspoken and generous of heart; and ever following along behind them in the shadows is the unremarkable theatre manager, Bram Stoker.

Fresh from life in Dublin as a clerk, Bram may seem the least colourful of the trio but he is wrestling with dark demons in a new city, in a new marriage, and with his own literary aspirations. As he walks the London streets at night, streets haunted by the Ripper and the gossip which swirls around his friend Oscar Wilde, he finds new inspiration. But the Chief is determined that nothing will get in the way of his manager’s devotion to the Lyceum and to himself. And both men are enchanted by the beauty and boldness of the elusive Ellen.

This exceptional novel explores the complexities of love that stands dangerously outside social convention, the restlessness of creativity, and the experiences that led to Dracula, the most iconic supernatural tale of all time.”

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The Redeemed by Tim Pears

“It is 1916. The world has gone to war, and young Leo Sercombe, hauling coal aboard the HMS Queen Mary, is a long way from home. The wild, unchanging West Country roads of his boyhood seem very far away from life aboard a battlecruiser, a universe of well-oiled steel, of smoke and spray and sweat, where death seems never more than a heartbeat away.

Skimming through those West Country roads on her motorcycle, Lottie Prideaux defies the expectations of her class and sex as she covertly studies to be a vet. But the steady rhythms of Lottie’s practice, her comings and goings between her neighbours and their animals, will be blown apart by a violent act of betrayal, and a devastating loss.

In a world torn asunder by war, everything dances in flux: how can the old ways life survive, and how can the future be imagined, in the face of such unimaginable change? How can Leo, lost and wandering in the strange and brave new world, ever hope to find his way home?

The final instalment in Tim Pears’s exquisite West Country Trilogy, The Redeemed is a timeless, stirring and exquisitely wrought story of love, loss and destiny fulfilled, and a bittersweet elegy to a lost world.”

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A Sin of Omission by Marguerite Poland

“In the Eastern Cape, Stephen (Malusi) Mzamane, a young Anglican priest, must journey to his mother’s rural home to inform her of his elder brother’s death.

First educated at the Native College in Grahamstown, Stephen was sent to England in 1869 for training at the Missionary College in Canterbury. But on his return to South Africa, relegated to a dilapidated mission near Fort Beaufort, he had to confront not only the prejudices of a colonial society but the discrimination within the Church itself.

Conflicted between his loyalties to the amaNgqika people, for whom his brother fought, and the colonial cause he as Reverend Mzamane is expected to uphold, Stephen’s journey to his mother’s home proves decisive in resolving the contradictions that tear at his heart.”

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* All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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What do you think? Have you read any of these? I have read one of them – To Calais, in Ordinary Time – and although it wasn’t really for me, I am not at all surprised to see it on the shortlist and won’t be surprised if it goes on to win the overall prize. I’m pleased to see Shadowplay and The Narrow Land on there too, as they are probably the books that appealed to me most from the longlist.

The winner is usually announced at the Borders Book Festival in June but with the current situation this year’s festival has been postponed, so we will have to wait and see how and when the 2020 announcement takes place!

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

I read The Testaments at the beginning of March, when life still felt relatively normal, and I’m glad I did because now that I feel as though I’m living inside the pages of a dystopian novel I’m not sure I would have been in the mood for reading one! I hope everyone is staying safe and coping with this strange and unfamiliar world we’ve found ourselves in. It’s been another stressful week for me – on Monday I started working from home and was just settling into a new routine when I was informed yesterday that I was being placed on furlough, so now I won’t be able to work at all until further notice and will only receive 80% of my salary during that time. Not great, but I’m hoping this at least means the company will be able to stay afloat and I will still have a job to go back to once all of this is over. On the plus side, I’m going to have plenty of time for reading and blogging now – if I could only get out of the slump I’ve been in for the last few weeks!

Anyway, back to The Testaments. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from 1985, but for some reason I didn’t feel any immediate compulsion to read the sequel when it was published last year, not even after it was named joint winner of the Booker Prize. I knew I would get around to reading it eventually, though, and as I’ve mentioned, I finally picked it up earlier this month.

The first thing I will say is that I do think you should read The Handmaid’s Tale before starting The Testaments as otherwise you will be making it difficult for yourself to fully understand what is happening. Even leaving a gap of several years, as I did, made it difficult to get straight back into the story – I should really have found time for a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale first.

Both books are set in the fictional state of Gilead (formerly the USA), where a patriarchal regime has risen to power and restricted women to a small number of clearly defined roles: Wives – women from higher ranking families who are married off to men known as ‘Commanders’; Handmaids – fertile women tasked with bearing children for Commanders whose Wives are unable to conceive; Marthas – domestic servants; and Aunts – women who have sacrificed the chance of marriage and childbirth and devoted themselves to the running of Gilead. In The Handmaid’s Tale, we saw Gilead through the eyes of Offred, a Handmaid, but The Testaments gives us a different perspective…three different perspectives, in fact.

The first narrator is Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, who has helped to create the rules women must follow in this grim, oppressive society. Lydia’s story unfolds in the form of a secret manuscript describing her work as an Aunt and offering insights into the inner workings of Gilead and the corruption at its heart. The other two testaments are told in the voices of two young women who have led very different lives. One, Agnes, is the adopted child of a Gilead family and has been raised to become the Wife of a Commander. The other, Daisy, has grown up across the border in Canada with all the freedoms and opportunities that have been denied to Agnes.

These three testaments, taken as a whole, give us a much wider view of Gilead than we received from Offred’s rather limited perspective in The Handmaid’s Tale. I found Lydia’s the most interesting, as she has the best understanding of how things work in Gilead, but Agnes’ first-hand account of what it is like to grow up there is valuable too, as is Daisy’s account of how Gilead is viewed by the outside world. What struck me about the latter two narratives is that some (though not all) of the things Daisy sees as wrong and terrible about Gilead are things that Agnes considers right and reasonable. It made me wonder what sort of things any of us could come to accept as normal after years of being conditioned to think a certain way.

I didn’t find this book quite as powerful as The Handmaid’s Tale – and there were some plot developments towards the end that I found a little bit unconvincing. Like its predecessor, though, this is the sort of book that leaves you with a lot to think about.

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

I usually love Sebastian Barry’s books, but his last one – Days Without End – was the first one I’ve read that I haven’t particularly enjoyed. Ironically, it also seems to be one of his most popular and successful books! When I saw that he had written a sequel, I wasn’t sure whether to read it, but as it promised to tell the story of Winona, the one character from Days Without End who did interest me, I thought I would try it – and I’m pleased to say that I was able to connect with this book in a way that I didn’t with the previous one.

Those of you who have read Days Without End will probably remember that Winona was the Lakota orphan rescued by Thomas McNulty and John Cole. In A Thousand Moons, set in the 1870s, we discover that Winona, now a young woman, is still living with Thomas and John on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm in Tennessee. Despite the love and support she receives from the men who have adopted her and the opportunities she has been given – including a job in a lawyer’s office – Winona is aware that she has still not been fully accepted by the wider community and that most people see her as ‘nothing but an Injun’ whose life is worth less than that of a white person.

Near the beginning of the novel we learn that Winona has been raped and the blame has fallen on Jas Jonski, a young Polish immigrant who swears he loves Winona and wants to marry her. Winona herself has no memory of the incident, something which distresses her as she has no idea whether Jonski is being wrongly accused or not. At around the same time, Tennyson Bouguereau, a former slave living on the farm, is also attacked and violently beaten – and again, it is not clear who the culprits are. The rest of the book, narrated by Winona herself, describes how she slowly uncovers the truth of her own assault and Tennyson’s.

I’m not sure why I liked this book so much more than Days Without End. Both books are beautifully written, as I have come to expect from Sebastian Barry, and obviously they feature some of the same characters and have a similar setting. I think the difference is that the first book, which was narrated by Thomas McNulty, was more of a ‘western’ with a focus on things like life in the army, shooting buffalo and fighting the Sioux. This book, in contrast, is more domestic, concerned with how the characters are getting on with their daily lives in the aftermath of the recent Civil War and how they are coping with the racial tensions left unresolved within their society. That, and the fact that I felt a stronger emotional connection with Winona than I did with Thomas, are the only reasons I can think of for my very different reactions to the two novels.

I also loved all the little insights Winona gives us into her early childhood with the Lakota tribe and what she remembers of their culture, traditions and stories, including her mother’s belief that ‘If you walked far enough, you could find the people still living who had lived in the long ago. A thousand moons all at once.’

Although, unlike many of Sebastian Barry’s books, this one is not set in Ireland, he is an Irish author and I am counting A Thousand Moons towards Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland Month. I still have three of Barry’s earlier novels to read: A Long Long Way, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne. If you’ve read any of them, which one do you think I should read next?

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.