Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

Having enjoyed two of Carol Birch’s earlier novels – Orphans of the Carnival and the Booker Prize nominated Jamrach’s Menagerie – I decided to try her new book, Shadow Girls. I enjoyed this one too, but it’s a very strange novel and not quite what I’d expected!

From the blurb, I had thought this was going to be a ghost story, but for the first half of the book at least, it’s much more of a ‘school story’. Our narrator, Sally, is a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in 1960s Manchester and the time and place are vividly evoked with references to the music, films, fashion and culture of the decade woven into the narrative. Like most girls her age, then and now, Sally’s life revolves around schoolwork and spending time with her friends and her boyfriend, and this is the focus of the first section of the book. Through Sally’s eyes we get to know her best friend, Pamela, a rebellious troublemaker nobody else likes, and their ‘enemy’ Sylvia Rose, a girl from a posh background who is a talented classical singer. She also describes her feelings for Rob, her first serious boyfriend, whom she is starting to have doubts about.

The supernatural element of the story isn’t introduced until surprisingly late in the novel, when Sally has a mysterious encounter with Sylvia that will haunt her for the rest of her life. The pace picks up from this point and it does become the ghost story I had expected – in fact, it’s quite a creepy one, particularly as, like many good ghost stories, it’s never completely clear which of Sally’s experiences are real and which are in her mind.

Despite not much happening for half of the book, I found it all very absorbing and was pulled into Sally’s world from the first page. I’m not sure whether so much build up was really necessary, but I enjoyed it anyway and found the book so difficult to put down that I ended up reading most of it in one day. Now I’m interested in reading Carol Birch’s previous ghost story, Cold Boy’s Wood. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

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

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

I started reading this for Brona’s Rumer Godden Reading Week, but didn’t manage to finish it until the week was over. Still, I’m grateful to Brona for motivating me to pick up my first Rumer Godden novel, even if I’m late with this review!

Black Narcissus, published in 1939, is one of Godden’s best known books, made into a successful Powell and Pressburger film in 1947 and adapted again for television by the BBC in 2020. It tells the story of a group of Anglican nuns who set out to establish a new convent in an abandoned palace in Mopu, high in the Himalayas. Once known as ‘the House of Women’, the palace had been home to the General’s harem; now the General’s son has donated it to the nuns for them to use as a hospital and school for the local community. A group of missionary brothers had already tried to do the same, but left after just a few months, giving us an early indication of the difficulties and challenges the nuns will face.

Leading the mission is Sister Clodagh, the newly appointed Sister Superior, and she is accompanied by four other sisters, each with a different role to play in the new convent. As the Sisters try to adapt to their new way of life, Mopu gradually casts its spell upon them and each finds herself being affected in a way she had never expected. Sister Philippa, responsible for the convent gardens, worries that she is becoming ‘too fond of the place’; Sister Honey grows too attached to the children who come to the school and to the hospital; Sister Ruth becomes obsessed with the General’s charismatic agent, Mr Dean; and Sister Clodagh receives constant painful reminders of her past in Ireland and the man she once thought she would marry.

There are other characters – the General’s heir, Dilip Rai, a handsome young man who comes to the convent in search of an education; Kanchi, a beautiful girl from the village whose uncle wants her to spend some time with the Sisters because she is ‘behaving so badly that no one wants her’; and Ayah, the elderly housekeeper at the palace – but the focus of the novel is on the nuns and how they try to adjust to the unfamiliar world in which they find themselves. The culture of Mopu is very different from anything they have previously experienced and despite advice given to them by Mr Dean, the nuns struggle to understand the local traditions and superstitions. As the story progresses it seems that they will never understand and that they are doomed to fail in their mission as others have failed before them.

This is a dark and atmospheric novel, but in a quiet and restrained way. There are some moments of drama but this is a story driven by the characters and their inner thoughts and desires as their repressed feelings rise to the surface and tensions grow, particularly between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth. I’m not sure whether it’s a book I would read again, but I’m very pleased to have read it once and will definitely be reading more by Rumer Godden.

This is book 26/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon

Since enjoying my first Georges Simenon book, The Man from London, last year, I’ve been looking forward to reading more. I had intended to try one of his Maigret books next, but the opportunity to read this one came up first; it’s a new Penguin Classics edition of a novel originally published in 1940, The Strangers in the House, and is translated by Howard Curtis. Unfortunately, at 224 pages in the paperback version, it’s just slightly too long to count towards Novellas in November!

The Strangers in the House is one of the many standalone novels written by Simenon that are described as romans dur, or ‘hard novels’. I’m not entirely sure what that term means, but as far as I can tell, it refers to the dark, noirish atmosphere, and the hard, bleak lives that the characters are leading. And the life of our protagonist, Hector Loursat, is certainly bleak! Once a successful lawyer, he fell into a depression when his wife left him eighteen years earlier and turned to alcohol for comfort. Since then, he has spent his time sitting alone with his books and a constant supply of red wine, living in the same house as his daughter Nicole, but barely aware of her presence.

Loursat’s miserable, solitary existence continues until, one night, he hears a gun being fired inside the house and discovers a dead body in one of the bedrooms. When Nicole and her friends become implicated in the murder investigation, Loursat is forced to acknowledge that his daughter is now a stranger to him…or is it in fact Loursat himself who is the stranger in the house?

There’s a detective fiction element to this novel, as Loursat sets out to uncover the truth behind the murder. When suspicion falls on Nicole’s lover, he agrees to defend the young man in court and finds that getting involved in the legal profession again gives him some purpose in life. However, although we see Loursat speaking to the suspects, getting to know Nicole’s circle of friends and learning all he can about the victim, this is not a conventional mystery novel and not one that the reader has much chance of being able to solve. If you’re expecting a story with clever twists and surprises you’ll be disappointed; even the court scenes which take up about half of the book lack suspense.

The book is much more successful as a psychological study of a lonely, reclusive man who is forced to confront his own behaviour and gradually engage with the people and things he has neglected for years. Watching Loursat’s reawakening as he becomes aware of the things that have been going on in his own house without his knowledge is fascinating. Whether or not he finds redemption and whether it’s too late to repair the damage to his relationship with Nicole I will leave you to discover for yourself, if you read the book. All I will say is that Simenon’s storytelling is realistic, unsentimental and ‘hard’.

Have you read this or any of Georges Simenon’s other books? Which can you recommend?

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

An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov – Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

When An Evening with Claire was originally published in 1930, Russian author Gaito Gazdanov was living in Paris and hadn’t seen his home country for nearly a decade. This, his first novel, was a success for Gazdanov, bringing him to the attention of other émigré writers, and now that I’ve read it I can understand why. It’s not my usual sort of book but I was drawn to it because I’ve enjoyed other books which have been reissued by Pushkin Press recently and because, apart from Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak, I can’t think of any other 20th century Russian authors that I’ve read. This new edition has an introduction by Bryan Karetnyk, who is also responsible for the excellent English translation, which I found very readable.

The novel opens with our narrator, Kolya, in Paris spending an evening with Claire while her husband is away from home. Although we know very little about Kolya’s relationship with Claire at this stage, we do learn that he first met her ten years ago and has been in love with her ever since. However, they have spent most of that time apart and have only now been reunited. Later that evening, while Claire is asleep, Kolya remembers their first meeting, along with many of the other significant moments in his past. As he continues to remember and reminisce, the story of his life begins to take shape: his childhood, his schooldays, his relationships with family members and his experiences during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

We actually see very little of Claire herself and I never really felt that I knew her or understood the sort of person she was, but that didn’t matter too much because the main part of the novel concentrates on Kolya’s own history as it unfolds through a chain of memories. His love for the absent Claire is always there and can be seen as a symbol of hope as he dreams of meeting her again one day. I enjoyed the first half of the novel, which includes anecdotes from Kolya’s childhood and his education at a strict military school and gymnasium, but the second half is more interesting as he begins to remember his time serving with the White Army in the Russian Civil War. It all feels very autobiographical and although I don’t know much about Gaito Gazdanov, I’m sure he must have been drawing on some of his own personal experiences and feelings in the writing of this novel.

At just over 200 pages in this edition, An Evening with Claire is a very short novel, but I thought it was the right length for the story being told. In general, I prefer books with more plot and this one has very little, but while this might have been a problem for me in a longer novel, there was just enough here to interest me and hold my attention throughout those 200 pages. This may sound like a strange comparison, but I was reminded of one of my other recent reads, Goodbye Mr Chips, another short book published in the same decade in which a man is looking back on episodes from earlier in his life. They share a focus on the power of memory, recollections of better days and regret for a disappearing world – which are also the reasons why I think An Evening with Claire would have resonated so much with other Russian émigrés of the 1930s. I would be happy to read more by Gazdanov and I see there are four of his other books available in English from the same publisher.

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

Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton

Since reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which I loved, I have wanted to try more of his work – and although it’s taken me a few years, I’ve finally read another of his books! If I’d known how short Goodbye, Mr Chips was I would have tried to read it before now; there are only about 120 pages in my edition, so it’s a very quick read.

Before starting the book, I thought I already knew the story because I’ve seen two of the adaptations – the 1939 one and the 1969 musical version (both of which I enjoyed). The earlier film is much more faithful to the book, but neither follow the original story exactly and there are incidents in both that don’t appear in Hilton’s text. The novella tells the story of Mr Chipping, a quiet, unassuming teacher, and follows his career at the fictional Brookfield School over a period of many decades. Chipping – or Mr Chips as the boys call him – teaches Greek and Latin and, as the years go by and the world begins to change around him, he gains a reputation for being old-fashioned and traditional, reluctant to embrace new teaching methods and belonging to an earlier time. We first meet him as an old man – the sort of old man people struggle to imagine ever being young:

…white-haired and only a little bald, still fairly active for his years, drinking tea, receiving callers, busying himself with corrections for the next edition of the Brookfeldian Directory, writing his occasional letters in thin, spidery, but very legible script. He had new masters to tea, as well as new boys. There were two of them that autumn term, and as they were leaving after their visit one of them commented: “Quite a character, the old boy, isn’t he? All that fuss about mixing the tea — a typical bachelor, if ever there was one.”

Of course, Mr Chips was young once and the boys would have been surprised to learn that he wasn’t always a bachelor. Back in 1896, at the age of forty-eight he had married Katherine Bridges – and although their time together was tragically short, Katherine’s kind heart and sense of humour had a profound effect on Chips, leaving him a better person and changing his outlook on life.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with the elderly Mr Chips looking back on his life and career, remembering not only the happy days of his marriage to Katherine, but also the more difficult times he has lived through, such as the First World War. It’s a nostalgic and sentimental book, but quite a sad and poignant one too. I found it too short to be completely satisfying and I think this is one of the few occasions where I would say I preferred the film – either of them – to the book, but I did still enjoy it and am looking forward to reading Random Harvest, the other James Hilton novel I have on my TBR.

This is book 23/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Green Gauntlet by RF Delderfield

I loved the first two books in RF Delderfield’s A Horseman Riding By trilogy and am sorry it has taken me three years to get around to reading the third book, The Green Gauntlet. It was lovely to be back in the Shallowford Valley and become reacquainted with Paul and Claire Craddock and their family, friends and neighbours.

If you’re new to this trilogy, I would strongly recommend beginning with the first novel, Long Summer Day, which is set in the Edwardian period and tells the story of how the young Paul Craddock buys an estate in the Devon countryside and becomes Squire of Shallowford, gaining the trust and respect of the other valley families along the way. The second book, Post of Honour, continues the story through World War I and finally, in The Green Gauntlet, we follow some of the same characters throughout World War II and its aftermath. By the time you reach this third and final novel there are a huge number of characters and storylines to keep track of, which makes it difficult to give a summary of the plot, so instead I will just pick out a few things that I particularly enjoyed.

First of all, there’s the conflict between the old ways of life and the new as change comes to the valley in the form of new technology, improvements to transport networks and differences in generational attitudes. Paul is disappointed to find that many of the younger people, including several of his own children, don’t share his love for their little corner of England and are only interested in the money they can make out of it. Although the book was published in 1968, some of the issues it covers, such as the over-development of land and destruction of the environment are still very relevant. There’s a sense that Paul himself belongs to a world that is rapidly disappearing and that the valley he remembers now exists only in his mind:

His patriotism, as she saw it, was at once more localised and more broadly based, drawing its strength from the books he read and the thoughts he thought. It had to do with Valley crafts and Valley loyalties, with the food they grew and the dialects they used. It reached back into the history of history books that, for most people, herself included, had no more reality than the stories of the Old Testament but for him had a message that had regulated the whole of his life since she had known him. If it brought him comfort now who was she to question it?

Another of the novel’s themes is the war, of course, and Delderfield occasionally takes us into the heart of the fighting where several of our characters – including Paul and Claire’s twin sons, Andy and Stevie, and their son-in-law Rumble Patrick are serving in various branches of the armed forces. The valley itself doesn’t remain unscathed either, with bombs falling, sea mines being washed ashore and a German pilot descending in the woods. Although there’s plenty of action and always something happening in the Valley, the story moves along at a leisurely pace and the focus is on the daily lives of the characters and the relationships between them. I was particularly gripped by the story of Andy’s wife Margaret, who finds herself married to one twin while in love with the other and with no guarantee that either of them would come home alive.

I do think this book could have been made a lot shorter without losing any of the plot and the last few chapters seemed to go on forever as every loose end was tied up. Despite this, I was still sorry to reach the final page and to have to leave the Valley and its people behind. Luckily, RF Delderfield wrote plenty of other novels which I can look forward to reading and I already have one of them, Farewell, the Tranquil Mind, waiting on my shelf.

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021. Obviously I’ve failed to complete my list this year, but I’ve almost finished two more books that I won’t have time to review by the deadline, so I’m not too unhappy with my result!