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!

The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

This is not my usual sort of read at all, but because I’ve enjoyed so many of John Boyne’s other books (my favourites are A History of Loneliness and This House is Haunted), I’m happy to read anything he writes.

The Echo Chamber is the story of the Cleverleys, an obnoxious and unpleasant celebrity family trying to fit into a world ruled by social media, where more and more of our lives are played out online rather than in ‘real life’. George Cleverley is a famous BBC television presenter who thinks of himself as a national treasure; when he gets himself into trouble for unintentionally misgendering someone, things go from bad to worse as he tries to make amends and ends up offending everyone else along the way. His wife Beverley (yes, Beverley Cleverley) is a bestselling romance novelist whose books are actually the work of ghostwriters. Beverley has been having an affair with a much younger man, her dance partner on Strictly Come Dancing, who has gone home to Ukraine leaving her in charge of his beloved pet tortoise.

The Cleverleys have three children: Nelson (the only one of the family I felt any sympathy for), a teacher who is being bullied at work and has a collection of uniforms he wears to give himself confidence; Elizabeth, a Twitter-addicted ‘influencer’, obsessed with getting likes and increasing her followers; and the youngest, seventeen-year-old Achilles, who has come up with a scheme for blackmailing older men and cheating them out of their money.

This book is hilarious. I don’t always find books funny that are supposed to be, but this one made me laugh. It satirises everything and everyone: the press, the conflict between ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’, prejudice and intolerance in all of their forms, supporters and opponents of cancel culture, those who like to document every single moment of their lives on Instagram, the hypocrisy of people who hide behind fake names to post hurtful tweets while using the hashtag #BeKind. All of these things are explored through the lives of the Cleverleys who, for various reasons, get themselves into all sorts of ridiculous and farcical situations. I did sometimes wonder whether John Boyne was writing from personal experience and it does seem that it was written as a response to abuse he received himself on Twitter following the publication of one of his previous books – something I wasn’t aware of, probably because I don’t spend enough time on Twitter!

Beneath the humour, there are some important messages here and this book can be seen as a warning against society’s current obsessions with technology, social media and our online presence. Would we all be happier if we cancelled our accounts, switched off our computers and put away our phones? That’s not likely to happen, but it’s something to think about.

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

This is book 7/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is an author I’ve never read but have been meaning to try for a long time, so when I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer I decided to include High Rising. Originally published in 1933, this is the first of her Barsetshire novels, a series of twenty-nine books set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire which was created by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century. I loved Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, so I hoped for a similar experience with Thirkell’s.

The book begins with novelist Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, collecting her youngest, Tony, from school and bringing him home to the village of High Rising for Christmas. High Rising, together with nearby Low Rising, is the sort of small 1930s middle-class community in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the arrival of a newcomer causes a great deal of gossip and excitement. The newcomer in this case is Miss Una Grey, who has come to work as a secretary for Laura’s friend and fellow author George Knox. It seems that Miss Grey – or the Incubus as Laura calls her – has set her sights on marrying George and will do whatever it takes to get her wish. As well as trying to save George from the clutches of the Incubus, Laura spots the seeds of a romance between her publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter Sibyl, and decides to do what she can to push them together.

There’s not really much more to the plot than that, but what makes this book worth reading is not the plot but the characters and the interactions between them. Although some of the characters, such as Adrian and Sibyl, seemed to lack depth, others interested me much more – for example, Anne Todd, Laura’s secretary, who is trying to make a living through typing manuscripts while caring for her invalid mother. It took me a while to warm to Laura herself, but eventually I became quite fond of her; I can’t say the same for Tony, whom I found unbearably irritating with his incessant talk about his toy trains, which carriages and engines he should buy next and the model railway he wants to build in the garden. To be fair, though, I think there are a lot of children like Tony and he was probably the most convincing character in the book!

I couldn’t quite manage to love this book, but I enjoyed it overall. It does have some of the problems common to novels of this period, such as attitudes to race and class, and I also felt that it didn’t have a lot of substance, but otherwise it was a quick, light, entertaining read at a time when that was just what I needed. I don’t think I want to start the next book, Wild Strawberries, immediately, but I’m sure I will read it at some point.

Book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

This is also book 20/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Missing Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Missing Sister is the seventh book in the Seven Sisters series inspired by the mythology surrounding the star cluster known as the Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Looking at other reviews of this book, it seems that a lot of people were expecting this to be the final book in the series and were disappointed to find that it’s not; it didn’t bother me as I’d seen Lucinda Riley’s announcement on Twitter regarding an eighth book, but if you weren’t already aware, it’s probably best to know before you start that you will need to wait another year for all of the series’ mysteries to finally be resolved.

The first six Seven Sisters novels each tell the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious billionaire known as Pa Salt who dies at the beginning of the series, leaving the sisters some clues to help them trace their biological parents. The girls all grew up together at Atlantis, Pa Salt’s estate by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but they were born in different countries and come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but only six girls were actually brought home to Atlantis by Pa Salt.

In this seventh volume, the D’Aplièse sisters have decided to find Merope and invite her to join them to mark the anniversary of Pa Salt’s death. However, the only clue they have to her identity is a picture of a star-shaped emerald ring. Their search will lead them first to a vineyard in New Zealand and then right across the world to a farmhouse in West Cork, Ireland, but I can’t really say too much about who and what they discover, as to do so would risk spoiling the story and I would prefer to allow other readers to enjoy the hunt for the missing sister without knowing too much in advance.

Although I think the previous six books could probably be read in any order, I would recommend saving this one until you’ve read the others and are already familiar with the D’Aplièse sisters and their stories. All six of them have important parts to play in this book and while some of the methods they use in trying to track down Merope are a bit far-fetched and not always very kind, it was nice to see all of the sisters getting involved (with some help from other characters from earlier in the series – I particularly enjoyed meeting Star’s eccentric friend Orlando again).

The search for Merope is set in the modern day, but as some possible clues to her identity and background emerge, we also spend some time in the past, particularly in Ireland in 1920 where we follow the story of Nuala Murphy, a young woman who has joined her country’s struggle for independence. I found the historical sections of the book fascinating and completely gripping, as well as educational. For example, I knew nothing about the work of Cumann na mBan, the Irish republican women’s association who played a part in the rebellion and the subsequent civil war of 1922. It isn’t clear at first how Nuala’s story will be connected to Merope’s, but things do start to come together later in the book.

As for the overall story arc of the seven sisters, this book has left me with more questions than I started with! I’ve been forming a few theories of my own, but will have to wait for the publication of Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt for everything to be revealed.

Thanks to Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review

Book 26/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Edited 11th June 2021: I was so sorry to hear the sad news today that Lucinda Riley has died after a four-year battle with cancer. Maybe we will never get to know Pa Salt’s secrets now, but Lucinda has left a wonderful legacy of work behind for her fans to treasure and new readers to discover.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

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