The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder (tr. James Anderson) – #NordicFINDS23

What is this great fairytale we live in and which each of us is only permitted to experience for such a short time? Maybe the space telescope will help us to understand more of the nature of this fairytale one day. Perhaps out there, behind the galaxies, lies the answer to what a human being is.

It’s been years since I last read anything by Jostein Gaarder! I loved Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, which I read around the time they were published in English in the mid-1990s, but although I read a few more of his books after that I found them disappointing in comparison and didn’t explore any of his later work. This month, Annabel is hosting her second Nordic FINDS event, celebrating literature from Finland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try one of the Gaarder novels I never got round to reading.

First published in Norwegian in 2003 and translated into English by James Anderson the following year, The Orange Girl is narrated by Georg Røed, a fifteen-year-old boy whose father, Jan Olav, died eleven years earlier. Georg’s mother has married again and had another child and Georg gets on well enough with both, but he has never stopped wondering about the father he can barely remember. One day, Georg’s grandmother finds a letter written by Jan Olav before his death and addressed to Georg, intended for his son to read when he was old enough to understand it. The Orange Girl includes Jan Olav’s letter in full, interspersed with Georg’s reaction to it and the lessons he learns from it.

In the letter, Jan Olav tells the story of a young woman he meets in Oslo in the 1970s. He comes to think of her as ‘the Orange Girl’ because when he sees her for the first time on a tram, she is wearing an orange dress and carrying a large bag of oranges. When the tram stops, she disappears, leaving Jan Olav desperate to find her again. As the weeks and months go by, he becomes obsessed with tracking down the mysterious Orange Girl and discovering her true identity. Who is she? Why did she need so many oranges? And why is it important for Georg to hear her story so many years later?

On the surface, The Orange Girl is a quick, easy read. Being narrated by a teenage boy, it’s written in simple language (Georg actually feels more like a ten or eleven-year-old than a fifteen-year-old), and like many of Gaarder’s novels, it would be perfect for younger readers. The story of the Orange Girl is entertaining and amusing – particularly when Jan Olav creates a series of imaginary scenarios to explain the huge bag of oranges! I would have liked to have been given a stronger sense of place as Jan Olav follows the girl from Oslo to Seville and back again, but it wasn’t that sort of book; it’s concerned mainly with plot and ideas rather than setting.

However, anyone who has read any of Gaarder’s other books will know that they always contain a philosophical element, and this one is no different. Georg and his father share an interest in the Hubble Space Telescope, which leads to a lot of discussion of the expanding universe and the place of human beings within it. The book also raises the question of whether, if you knew before you were born that you would die early and have all your happiness taken away, would you still choose to be born at all? These are clearly the things Gaarder really wanted to write about here, and the Orange Girl story is just a way of illustrating these philosophical points.

I haven’t been left wanting to immediately search out the rest of Gaarder’s novels, but I did find this one quite enjoyable and am glad I picked it up for Nordic FINDS.

Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries is the second book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I had mixed feelings about the first book, High Rising, which I read nearly two years ago, but still wanted to try this one as I knew it was about a different set of characters and I thought I might get on better with it.

Published in 1934, this book introduces us to the Leslie family who live at Rushwater, their estate in West Barsetshire. The family consists of Henry Leslie and his absentminded wife, Lady Emily, their two sons John and David, and their daughter Agnes, who is married to Robert Graham and has three young children. There was also another son, the eldest, who died in the Great War, and his sixteen-year-old son Martin is now the heir to Rushwater and lives with his grandparents. As the novel opens, Robert Graham has gone to South America on business so Agnes and the children are spending the summer with the Leslies and so is a niece of Robert’s, Mary Preston.

This probably all sounds straightforward enough to you, but for some reason it took me ages to remember who was who and I wished I had drawn a family tree at the beginning! Anyway, once I started to settle into the story and get to know the characters, I found it quite enjoyable. The plot mainly revolves around Mary Preston and the question of which of the Leslie men she’ll marry – David or John. David, the younger brother, is charming but selfish and thoughtless (he promises to bring Mary the ‘wild strawberries’ of the title, then forgets them), while John is quiet, kind and considerate. I knew which of them I wanted her to choose but Thirkell keeps us in suspense until the end of the book!

There’s also a subplot involving a French family, the Boulles, who move into the vicarage for the summer. Keen for Martin to improve his French, the Leslies arrange for him to study with the Boulles’ children, but instead he becomes involved in a plot to restore the French monarchy. Meanwhile, the lovely but irritating Agnes spends the entire book fussing over her children, and Mr Holt, an acquaintance of Lady Emily’s who talks about nothing but gardens and his titled friends, keeps imposing himself on the family, oblivious to the fact that nobody wants him there.

I enjoyed this book once I got into it; although it doesn’t have much more substance than High Rising, I found it funnier and can see now why people praise Thirkell for her humour and wit. There are also touches of poignancy when the Leslies remember their lost son, killed in the war, and when John, who is a widower, grieves for Gay, his late wife. Some of the characters, such as Mr Holt and the Boulles, are clearly there for comedy purposes, but the family themselves, annoying as some of them were, felt realistic to me. I liked John and Martin, while I found Mary’s infatuation with David, who treats her carelessly, frustrating but all too believable. I should mention, though, that there are a few instances of racism, mainly in the first half of the book, that even though I’m used to it in books of this era, I found more jarring than I normally would.

I still haven’t been completely won over by Angela Thirkell but I liked this better than the first book and will probably continue with the series at some point. However, the third book is about Tony, the teenage boy from High Rising whom I found almost unbearable, so I don’t know what I’ll think of that one!

This is book 35/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp – #DeanStreetDecember

This month, Liz of Adventures in Reading, Running and Working from Home is hosting Dean Street Press December. Margery Sharp’s first novel, Rhododendron Pie, had been out of print for years and was notoriously difficult to find before being reprinted by Dean Street Press in 2021. As I’ve previously enjoyed some of her other books I decided to read it for this month’s event.

First published in 1930, Rhododendron Pie is the story of Ann Laventie, who grows up in the Sussex countryside with her parents and two older siblings. The Laventies are a wealthy and accomplished family who consider themselves intellectual, artistic and refined; their neighbours, however, see them as cold and snobbish. Ann herself doesn’t fit in with the rest of the family – unlike her brother Dick, a sculptor, and sister Elizabeth, a writer, she hasn’t yet discovered where her own talents lie and doesn’t believe herself to be special or superior in any way. The more time she spends with the Gayfords, the large, cheerful, down-to-earth family who live nearby, the more she becomes aware of how different her own home life is.

The title of the book refers to the tradition in the Laventie household of presenting the children with birthday pies filled not with fruit but with inedible flowers. Aesthetically beautifully and appreciated by the rest of the family, but not by Ann:

“Every year she has hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place. Flowers are beautiful in gardens…and in houses, of course…but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice…and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.”

Although Ann loves her family and admires their intellectual brilliance, it’s her secret longing for the ordinary, conventional things in life that drives the story forward. When Dick and Elizabeth move to London and Ann goes to visit them there, her knowledge and experience of the world widens and she becomes more aware of what she really wants and what will make her happy.

It took me a while to get into this book, but once I did it was very enjoyable. I loved Ann and found it interesting to watch the internal conflict play out between her true nature and the values and prejudices that have been instilled into her as a result of her upbringing. Although there’s some romance in the book – Ann has two very different love interests and it’s quite easy to predict which one she’ll choose! – it never really becomes the main focus and is just one aspect of the story, along with the exploration of intellectual snobbery, the class system and the difficulties of finding your place in the world.

As I’d hoped, this was a good choice for Dean Street December and I’ll see if I have time for another book before the end of the month.

The Winter is Past by Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild is an author I loved as a child but I’ve never tried any of her adult books until now. There are plenty to choose from but I decided on her 1940 novel The Winter is Past (although here in the UK, winter is currently very much with us – we’ve had snow, ice and freezing temperatures all week, where I am!). It occurred to me after I started reading that I should probably have saved this book for next year’s 1940 Club – it’s worth keeping this one in mind if you’re wondering what to read for that event.

Anyway, The Winter is Past begins by introducing us to the Laurence family, who have lived at Levet, a beautiful English country house, since the 18th century. The current head of the family, Bill Laurence, has brought his new wife, Sara, home to Levet for the first time, but it immediately becomes clear that she’s not going to fit in. Nannie, who nursed several generations of Laurence children and is still an important part of the household, disapproves of Sara’s background as an actress – and when Bill’s upper-class mother Lydia comes to stay, Sara feels even more out of place. After suffering a miscarriage, she decides that her marriage is not working and that she needs to get away for a while, but with the outbreak of World War II she is forced to stay at Levet and make the best of things.

Another family whose lives have been thrown into turmoil by the war are the Vidlers. While Mr Vidler stays at home in London, his wife and their three young children – Rosie, Tommy and baby Herbert – are evacuated and taken in by the Laurences. Life at Levet comes as a culture shock for the working-class Vidlers, but they do their best to adapt, with varying success! When the cold weather arrives and the house is cut off from the village by snow, this disparate group of people will have to work together to get through the winter.

I loved this book; it’s very character-driven but with just enough plot to keep the story moving forward. I always find it fascinating to read books set during the war that were actually written before the war was over – it puts a very different perspective on things, when neither the characters nor the author have any idea how long it will last or how bad things are going to get. What little plot there is deals with the events of the winter of 1939-40 and although the book ends with another five years of war still to come, there’s already a sense that the lives of the characters have changed irrevocably and the way of life each of them has always known is disappearing forever.

My favourite characters were Mr and Mrs Vidler who, despite not leading a privileged life like the Laurences, possess things that money can’t buy – love, happiness and contentment – and rather than feeling inferior to Sara, Lydia and the others, look on them with sympathy and pity. The children, in the countryside for the first time, have more mixed emotions; they aren’t too pleased about the regular baths and formal mealtimes, but Tommy is captivated by the thought of making things grow in the garden and Rosie is amazed to discover that real ducks don’t wear sailor suits like Donald! It’s not surprising that Streatfeild writes about children so convincingly, considering she’s better known as a children’s author, but her adult characters are well developed too, even if some of them are difficult to like. She does come close to stereotyping with the maid Irene who has what we would probably call learning difficulties today, but that’s my only criticism and she does make up for it by giving Irene a heart of gold.

This was the perfect book to read in December, with snow on the ground outside, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Streatfeild’s adult novels next year. If you’ve read any of them let me know which ones you would recommend!

Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan – #NovNov22

I hadn’t really considered reading this book until my post on the HWA Crown Awards for Historical Fiction, when several of you commented that you had read and loved it. Around the same time, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and again I saw a lot of praise for it, so when I saw how short it was (128 pages in the edition pictured here) I thought I would give it a try for this year’s Novellas in November.

Small Things Like These is set in a small town in Ireland during the winter of 1985. The weather has turned cold and frosty and Bill Furlong, coal and timber merchant, finds his deliveries very much in demand, with customers desperate to heat their homes. Seeing how his friends and neighbours are struggling, Bill knows how lucky he is to have his own business and to be happily married with five lovely children.

Just before Christmas, Bill delivers coal to the local convent and discovers a girl locked in the coal shed, worrying about her hungry baby. Bill is left greatly disturbed by this encounter, particularly as he himself was the child of a single mother and if it hadn’t been for the kindness of his mother’s employer who helped to care for them both, they might also have been sent to a convent. His wife, Eileen, advises him not to get involved, but Bill continues to feel uneasy about the girls working in the convent laundry and the way the nuns are treating them. He knows he will eventually have to make a decision – but what will it be?

This is a quiet but powerful story, with the details of daily life in a small Irish community beautifully described. It didn’t feel like the 1980s to me, though – if I hadn’t known I would have thought it was set at least a few decades earlier. Maybe that was intentional, as some stories really are timeless. Considering how short the book is, Bill’s character is fully developed and his emotional dilemma is portrayed in depth.

Before reading this book, I had never read anything about the Magdalene Laundries, which were run by convents and were really homes for unmarried mothers and ‘fallen women’. There were allegations of women being beaten, punished and treated as slaves and although the last of these laundries closed in 1996, the Irish government didn’t issue an apology until 2013. Through Bill Furlong’s story Keegan explores the question of complicity and whether by staying silent when we know something is wrong we can be held partly responsible. This aspect of the book reminds me of A History of Loneliness by John Boyne, which looks at another scandal within the Catholic Church.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve come to the end of a hugely popular book feeling that although I liked it and found a lot to admire, I didn’t manage to love it the way everyone else did. In this case I think I just wanted a little bit more. It ended quite abruptly just as I was getting really interested in it and I would have liked to have known what happened to the characters next. I’m sure other readers will have thought it was the perfect length and ended in exactly the right place! Still, I’m looking forward to reading more by Claire Keegan and will think about reading Foster for next year’s Novellas in November.

Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North by Rachel Joyce – #NovNov22

Almost ten years ago I read Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a man sets out to walk almost the entire length of England, from his home in Devon to a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, to visit an old friend who has been diagnosed with cancer. A second book followed – The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, written from the friend’s perspective – but I didn’t read that one. Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North is the final part of the trilogy and I wondered whether I would struggle with it because of not having read the middle book first, but luckily that wasn’t the case.

At only 133 pages, Maureen Fry is a short, quick read but contains an entire journey, both physical and psychological. This time, though, it’s not Harold who is making the journey, but his wife, Maureen. It’s been several years since Queenie Hennessy’s death but the garden she created in Embleton on the Northumberland coast has become a tourist attraction. Hearing that the garden contains a memorial to her own son, David, who committed suicide, Maureen decides to go and see it for herself. It’s something she wants to do alone so, leaving Harold behind, she prepares to head north – not on foot like her husband, but by car.

I found the title of the book intriguing because the obvious reference is to the Angel of the North, Antony Gormley’s sculpture of the same name that stands on a hill overlooking the A1 in Gateshead, just south of Newcastle upon Tyne. I was at Newcastle College on the day it was erected in 1998 and remember watching from the tenth-floor window! Maureen Fry does see the Angel as she drives past, but it’s only mentioned briefly and there are several other possible meanings of the title (although I won’t tell you who or what the other Angels of the North could be). The US version doesn’t refer to angels in the title at all and is simply Maureen, just in case anyone thinks they are two different books!

Maureen’s journey is very different from Harold’s, not just because she chooses to drive instead of walk but also because she has a very different personality. While her husband was easy to like, she is not. She’s rude, unpleasant and unlike Harold, who made new friends during his pilgrimage, Maureen seems to make only enemies. It took me a long time to warm to her at all, but eventually I began to understand the reasons for her behaviour. For such a short book, there’s a lot of emotion within its pages as Maureen begins to face up to the grief she’s been trying to suppress for so many years.

If you’re new to this trilogy, I would definitely recommend reading Harold’s story before Maureen’s. I didn’t feel that I’d missed anything essential by not having read Queenie’s, but I would like to go back and read it now anyway – as well as all the other Rachel Joyce books I still haven’t read!

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

I’m counting this book towards Novellas in November hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck.

Best of Friends by Kamila Shamsie

It’s been seven years since I read Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone and although I did find it interesting and always intended to try more of her work, until I picked up Best of Friends earlier this month it had remained the only one of her books I’d read. I knew almost as soon as I started to read Best of Friends that it was going to be my favourite of the two novels as I felt an immediate connection with the characters that I didn’t in the other book.

Best of Friends is the story of a female friendship and how it endures, changes and evolves over a period of forty years. We first meet Zahra Ali and Maryam Khan as teenage girls in Karachi, Pakistan in 1988. The two come from very different backgrounds – Maryam has had a sheltered and privileged childhood and as her grandfather’s favourite, she expects to one day inherit the family business, Khan Leather. Zahra, on the other hand, is the daughter of a television cricket commentator who has found himself under suspicion for refusing to support General Zia’s military dictatorship. As a result, Zahra works hard at school and tries to stay out of trouble. Despite their different family lives and priorities, the two girls have become very close friends.

I loved the first half of the book; I’ve read very little about Pakistan during that period and I enjoyed getting to know the two girls and watching them go about their daily lives. The fourteen-year-old Maryam and Zahra have the same hopes, dreams, concerns and problems that many young women will be able to relate to, whenever and wherever they grew up – the changes in their bodies with the onset of puberty, their first relationships with boys, worries over homework and exams, and finding small ways to rebel against their parents. The political situation in Pakistan is also explored, culminating in the 1988 election victory of Benazir Bhutto. It is during a party celebrating this democratic triumph that Zahra and Maryam experience a terrifying incident that changes the course of their lives.

The novel then jumps forward by three decades to 2019 and we discover that Zahra and Maryam are both now living in London where they have each become hugely successful in their chosen careers. They are still best friends but have found themselves at opposite ends of the UK political spectrum with opposing views on topics like immigration, technology and government surveillance. These tensions increase when a figure from their past comes back into their lives and we begin to wonder whether their friendship can survive.

The second half of the book didn’t interest me as much as the first. The 1980s Pakistan setting felt much more vivid and real to me than the modern day London one did and I found both characters more likeable as teenagers than they were as the adults they became. It also seemed to me that some of the situations Shamsie put them in were deliberately contrived in order to create conflict between them, rather than things that would have arisen naturally. Still, I liked the ending, which I found both ambiguous and believable, and I was intrigued by the central idea that perhaps when we’ve known someone all our lives we still see them as the person they used to be instead of the person they are now.

Have you read anything by Kamila Shamsie? Which of her books should I read next?