Les Pantoufles by Luc-Michel Fouassier:”Je préférais ne pas” – a fable on nonconformity

We can probably all relate to the predicament of the narrator, who in an absent-minded moment as he leaves home for a work meeting finds himself locked out, wearing a suit with a pair of tartan slippers. Very quickly, he notices how passers by react to him differently, with surprise, concern and often derision.

The “charentaises”, as these particular soft, felt-soled slippers are called in France, also alter his own behaviour, making him feel more at ease, able to slip past the office receptionists unnoticed, since his feet make no sound. His slippers often work to his advantage – in a game of tennis, the opponent who normally beats him hollow is so distracted that he loses and departs, a bad loser, “un petit côté Agassi-agaçant”. When a group of artists at a party want him to explain his wearing of slippers, he is able to play the game, likening his presentation of the slipper as an artistic object to Duchamp’s famous exhibition of a lavatory bowl.

By this point, the reader’s patience may have worn thin, for by this time he would surely have found a locksmith, rather than book into a hotel and subject himself to a succession of farcical situations. Perhaps he has been traumatised by the fact his wife has recently left him, but that plot line is not developed. So the novel’s appeal rests increasingly on the fact it is very short, and presumably provides a light, quirky couple of hours of escapism for a French reader. For others, it is quite informative, with a brief history of the charentaise slipper, some useful vocabulary for French footwear – I learned that “les santiags” are cowboy boots, and every conceivable pun and idiom to do with feet- “faire des pieds et des mains” translating as “to move heaven and earth” to achieve an objective.

It is possible to read this at a deeper level: not only as a reminder to avoid judging others too quickly by their appearance, but also as a fable on the merits of non-conformity. Here, the author may become a little pretentious in having a hotel receptionist who resembles Buster Keaton read “Bartleby”, which I cannot be the only reader not to know without looking it up, was a novel by the American Hermann Melville. Trainee lawyer Bartleby causes consternation by refusing one of his boss’s instructions, on the grounds, “I prefer not to”.

This is the kind of novel which may improve on a second reading, but I remained a little disappointed by the rather hurried and trite ending.

“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis – Not to be envied!

Reading “Lucky Jim” as a teenager in the 1960s, I laughed out loud over the incident where Jim tries to conceal the holes he has accidentally burned in the sheets and rug of his fearsome hostess, wife of the hen-pecked caricature of an absent-minded professor, his Head of Department, Welch.

Returning to it for a book group more than fifty years later, the novel which was published in 1954, seems quite dated, yet perhaps interesting as a “period piece”. Many readers will be perplexed by telephone operators intervening in three minute trunk calls, and descriptions of university life almost unrecognisable today.

Apart from the fact that he is a northerner teaching at a provincial university in the south of England shortly after the Second World War, we are told little about what has shaped Jim Dixon’s frankly rather odd and unappealing character. So one cannot understand why his chosen subject is Medieval History when he finds it so boring, nor why he is so anxious to avoid having his contract terminated at the end of the year, since he seems to despise the university and many of his colleagues. Having made a huge effort to ingratiate himself with Welch, why does he indulge in a series of mean pranks which can easily be traced back to him, and why can he never resist the temptation to provoke those in a position to do him down? He often seems quite adolescent, wishing to strangle or stab everyone who irritates him, doing an ape imitation in private, or contorting his face into a series of expressions to reflect his mood: his Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, and so on.

He occasionally shows a flash of decency, socialising with the needy academic Margaret, about whom he feels a certain guilt, although he probably keeps going out with her through a kind of inertia. Also, he refrains from telling the one tale which would deprive Welch’s obnoxious son Bernard of Christine, the girlfriend whom Dixon begins to fancy.

The first of many novels, which won Amis a prize and was soon made into a popular film, this has what now seems a very straightforward plot, plodding in minute to the point of tedious detail through the events of a few days. The convoluted sentences peppered with oddly used words often reminded me of a precocious schoolboy experimenting with terms recently culled from the dictionary. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny in the portrayal of Margaret, manipulative and conveniently unattractive. It has been said that Jim was modelled on the author’s friend, the poet Philip Larkin, but Amis appears to have put a good deal of himself into his creation – the “Angry Young Man”, his keen observation of the world fuelled by alcohol into bitter parody.

I may have found less real humour than expected second time round, but there are a few places where brilliant writing combines with comedy, as in the passage at the end when Jim, desperate to reach a railway station in time, finds himself on a country bus held up for every conceivable reason – the kind of situation we have all experienced.

Free – Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi

Lea Ypi’s early life was spent in the last years of a Communist Albanian regime  even more ideologically  extreme than the USSR. Her charismatic teacher Nora indoctrinated her to revere Stalin as a source of inspiration for people round the world, a kindly man who loved children. Following the death of “Uncle Enver”, the anti-revisionist dictator who dominated Albania for forty years, Lea pestered her parents  to show due respect by displaying a large photograph of him. Perhaps this was to compensate for her awareness of never being able to “fit in”, because her parents were what Nora dismissively called “intellectuals”, with the wrong “Biography”.

Her father called himself Zafo, to avoid the need to apologise for having the same name as “Xhaferr”, the Axis-supporting “quisling” politician during WW2, while her maternal grandmother had lived abroad in luxury in her youth, and aroused suspicion by speaking French. It was a bizarre society in which people knew each other’s business, helped each other out with loans, but were not above informing on neighbours as reactionaries who failed to do their stint of street cleaning on Sundays or made jokes about the Party. Life revolved around queues for scarce goods, with the ritual of honouring a can or stone left to mark one’s place in the line.

If  anecdotes of daily life, details of family history and explanation of the political background all seem disjointed and at times unclear, this serves to convey Lea’s sense of confusion, which was compounded when the Communist system broke down and many who had been ardent supporters of the old regime suddenly discarded their principles, and denied they had ever believed in the Party line  Even Lia’s parents were found to have been concealing their past – Xhaferr really had been a relative –  leaving Lea  to wonder whom to believe or trust.

“Communism, the society we aspired to create, where class conflict would disappear and the free abilities of each would be fully developed was gone too. It was gone not only as an ideal, not only as a system of rule, but as a category of thought.  Only one word was left: freedom”.

The freedom to travel abroad on borrowed money revealed that life in the West was not superior in every way – Lea discovered that teenagers in Athens could not identify Ulysses, but knew all about some cartoon mouse called Mickey of which she was unaware!

Lea’s family were clearly not typical in that her father eventually obtained a senior post which brought him into contact with the Prime Minister, while her mother made political speeches campaigning successfully for her husband, whom she had decided had a better chance of being elected as an MP. They appear oddly unworldly at times, hiding their money in an old coat rather than using a bank, although this proved a better option than the loss of their savings in an unwise investment.   

However, the new democracy turning out to be possibly even more corrupt and inefficient than its predecessor, the country lapsed into civil war, which Lea covers with scrappy extracts from her  teenage diary – perhaps because she was running out of time after the weeks spent writing her memoir in a Berlin cupboard during the pandemic, when she should have been home-schooling her children.

Although uneven in quality, this is a fascinating insight into a country now very topical with the focus on thousands of Albanian men, economic migrants paying smugglers to cross illegally to the UK. Ironically, Lea’s disenchantment with “freedom” may have led to her breaking a promise to her father when having insisted on studying philosophy abroad, she ended up as an academic teaching and researching Marxism – for which she makes a somewhat woolly case in the final rushed pages. One clear explanation stands out: “My family equated socialism with denial: the denial of who they wanted to be, of the right to make mistakes and learn from the, to explore the world on one’s own terms. I equated liberalism with broken promises, the destruction of solidarity, the right to inherit privilege, turning a blind eye to injustice”.

Les Possibles by Virginie Grimaldi: French hen lit

When a carelessly discarded cigarette end sets fire to his home, Jean takes it for granted that his daughter Juliane will take him in indefinitely. Her stolid husband Gaëtan tolerates the situation, five-year-old Charlie is delighted by his grandfather’s childlike antics, but Juliane is exasperated by the often implausibly eccentric and inconsiderate behaviour which in the past drove her mother to divorce Jean.

It is only when he begins to show signs of dementia, likely to advance rapidly, that Juliane begins to appreciate Jean’s zest for life, and freedom from the constraints of caring what other people think. With her own lack of self esteem, she could benefit by learning from this. So she can laugh nostalgically with her sister of the time when, to slay a child’s nightmares, he vanquished an imaginary dragon in the downstairs loo with the aid of the garden hose.

Largely “rave reviews” from readers extol this novel’s humour and “feel good” factor, while the darker aspects are airbrushed. So the last chapter (in the original French), «Stairway to Heaven» – Led Zeppelin, is a clear reference to the inevitable outcome, but Jean’s last days are completely glossed over. This milking of a potentially moving situation, with its focus on sentimentality and denial of painful reality seems superficial, even dishonest.

Published in 2015, French author Virginie Grimaldi’s first novel was an instant bestseller and by 2022 she had produced eight more, heading up the list of “the most read” novelists in France. Reading “Les Possibles” for a French book group, I gained some useful vocabulary, but the novel seems quite formulaic: eighty-two short chapters, often barely three pages in length; a string of incidents padded out with “tick box” modern issues to which readers can relate – narrator’s eating disorder, dysphasic son (who displays little evidence of this) lesbian sister and so on. The final chapters which focus on a US road trip along Route 66 are each titled with the gimmick of the name of a pop song in English, linked to the story line, such as «Little Girl Blue» – Janis Joplin, a cue for the sisters’ shared recollections of Jean from their childhood.

The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne: “La Bess” – “No evil” in the land of the outraged jinns

Drunk and bickering with his wife Jo,  English doctor David Henniger drives too fast on an unfamiliar road through the Moroccan desert, already late for an obscenely extravagant weekend house party thrown by a gay couple, Richard and Dally,  who have created an exotic paradise in an isolated oasis. This tense, engrossing tale reveals the aftermath of the fatal accident for which David appears to be responsible.  It  grips us with the remarkably vivid and original descriptions of  the landscape and “sense of place”, since the novelist is also  a  nomadic travel writer, which may account for the  acute, dispassionate observer’s eye which he casts on a group of generally quite unlikeable characters, although he tends to supply extenuating circumstances or redeeming features for the most flawed.

He also portrays the cultural gap between the local people and the wealthy,  hedonistic expats and visitors from Europe and the States. The former scrape a harsh living, extracting fossils from the rich supplies for which the country is famous. They  still use child labour, since, suspended on ropes, only small bodies can squeeze into the small caves in the cliffs where some of the best fossils can be found for sale at exorbitant prices. The native Moroccans are appalled by the infidels’  godless ways,  their drinking, “distasteful sexual habits” and “profligate” expenditure, but admire their wealth and rely on them to provide employment and purchase their trilobites at inflated prices.

In turn, the Westerners may admire the beauty of the young servant boys, but generally  ignore the Moroccans, despising their  apparent ignorance and  abject poverty. They are more interested in the country as a place to indulge in hedonistic pleasure, free from censure and  constraint: to become stoned on kif every night, while served “stemmed glasses with a pricked peach in each one submerged in champagne”. If their excessive consumption becomes repetitive to the point of tedium, that would appear to be the author’s intention.

Almost everyone, either side of the cultural divide, is distanced from the reader by a marked lack of natural, spontaneous emotion.  This may be explained by past misfortune or disappointment, harsh treatment,  or  the insulating effect of  an inflated sense of entitlement.

An intriguing character is Hamid, the indispensable factotum who has “insinuated” himself into the lives of the gay couple “with a subtle intuition of the ways of rich foreigners…an awareness of how to deal with men who have known little hardship”. He rises to the occasion in a major crisis, giving practical help  (“It is the police. I will put away the drinks”), but enjoying their helplessness and evident fear of Moroccans, despite not fully realising “how little liked they were by the indigènes”.  Filled with “disengaged fatalism” Hamid draws on his vast store of quirky native proverbs: “Piece by piece the camel enters the couscous”.

Minor characters often prove more insightful than the Hennigers who seem passive victims of circumstance. Take the American guest Day:  the glamorous young giraffe-like girls from his own country “made him remember that he was almost old, in that phase of pre-oldness that was curiously more alive than the preceding stages, but alive because it was ending”.

Lawrence Osborne has been called “A Modern Graham Greene”, compared to Paul Bowles of “The Sheltering Sky” fame, as well as  Raymond Chandler and Patricia Highsmith  since he does not flinch from menace and defeat, although they are leavened by wry humour and irony. The ambition and complexity of this novel makes it more than a psychological thriller. The author is deeply concerned with issues of morality: guilt, acceptance of responsibility, retribution, making amends,  and forgiveness.  As he enters into the minds of a  wide range of characters, it is sometimes hard to know whether he is imagining their reactions, or expressing his own opinions on the state of the world.

The novel sometimes seems overlong, while the occasional  lapses in the quality of the style, a few typos and continuity errors ( the ice found at the bottom of a glass which had contained a drink served without it)  suggest a lack of editing. Too little effort was made to give an important plot development plausibility,  while  the ending left me dissatisfied, yet feeling it could not have concluded any other way. Yet over all, this is the work of a talented writer: many of the descriptions and observations repay reading more than once, and the story lingers in the mind, giving pause for reflection. I shall certainly read more of Lawrence Osborne’s work.

Red Shelley by Paul Foot: radical before his time

Performance poet Benjamin Zephaniah tells the anecdote of how, as a punishment at school, he was given Shelley’s famous poem, “The Mask of Anarchy”, to analyse. When he informed the teacher of his inability to understand it, she cruelly branded him “stupid”. This should have put him Shelley for life, except that years later he came across a copy of Paul Foot’s biography “Red Shelley”, which made him a great admirer of the poet overnight.

This book makes it clear that the poem was inspired by the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 in which hundreds were injured, a few even killed, as sabre-wielding mounted soldiers tried to break up a crowd of many thousands demonstrating to demand parliamentary reform, which did not commence until twenty years after Shelley’s death. As the member of a wealthy and privileged family, who had developed a keen sense of the injustice of inequality and the need to redistribute wealth from the “idle rich” to those who actually work to produce goods, Paul Foot probably felt an affinity with Shelley.

With no particular love for C19 Romantic poetry, I had failed to appreciate the serious ideas behind it in Shelley’s case, although I have to admit that his rational arguments impress me most in his written prose. Expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet on atheism, he wrote, “Supposing twelve men were to make an affidavit…. that they had seen in Africa a vast snake three miles long… that…eat nothing but Elephants, & that you knew from all the laws of nature, that enough Elephants cd. not exist to sustain the snake – wd. you believe them?”

Growing up against the background of the French Revolution, and coming from a wealthy Whig, anti-Tory, anti-government family probably exposed him to liberal ideas from an early age. His support for “the unfriended poor”, was based on his observation of the suffering caused by the enclosure of farmland and the squalid working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. His ideas went beyond a verbal attack on the arbitrary power of kings, and the cynical use of the Established Church as a tool of social control. He saw before many others that giving people the vote would not in itself solve the injustice of major inequality. This required “the levelling of inordinate wealth, and an agrarian distribution of the rich, uncultivated districts of the country”. Many of his ideas still seem surprisingly, and depressingly, relevant (and unachieved) today.

Shelley’s advocacy of free love also heaped opprobrium on his head. Paul Foot possibly lets him off too lightly, in underestimating the extent to which this argument was used by men as an excuse for “free sex” and treat women badly or disregard the pain that it can cause. Although Shelley genuinely seems to have supported “feminist” views, to believe in equality for women and to respect their intellects, as in the case of his second wife Mary Shelley, his abandonment of his first wife Harriet, who ultimately took her own life, is troubling.

Paul Foot admits to a certain inconsistency in Shelley. For all this radical poetry, “Let the axe/Strike at the root, the poison-tree will fall”, he was terrified by the physical violence of an angry mob. His attempts at being a political agitator in Ireland, or an agent raising money for the Tremadoc dam projects, which he imagined leading to a “perfect, idealistic society” for the workers, came to nothing. Since the latter provoked an unsuccessful assassination attempt on him (only his dressing gown was shot through with bullet holes), Shelley’s fear seems justified. At least Shelley’s “bitter satires” were read most widely amongst working class readers.

He ended up in Italy, furious over the 1819 ban on his political writing, although at least he escaped imprisonment for it, unlike some of those prepared to print his work. Isolated and often depressed, spending more time with Byron who had no interest in interfering with property and rank, than with any oppressed Italians, Shelley continued to write, producing his most famous “Ode to the West Wind” shortly before his accidental drowning.

There may be some small excuses for my previous neglect of Shelley. The late C19 saw what Paul Foot calls “an orgy of cultured Shelley-worship”, which stressed his “belief in freedom” and “lyric” poetry, censoring out all the controversial atheism, feminism and extreme views. In the 1930s, Shelley was savaged by the influential critic F.R. Leavis, for his “sloppy metaphors”, for plagiarising Shakespeare, and for his inability “to grasp something real” resulting in poetry which had “little to do with thinking”. But from what I have just seen of Shelley’s poetry, it is full of ideas and beliefs which make it worth reading, even if the language used tends to be excessive or lacking in discipline by some critical standards.

L’Enfant de Noé (Noah’s Child) par Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: The Art of Survival

Six-year-old Joseph’s carefree life in Brussels is shattered when his mother hears rumours of an imminent Nazi round-up of Jewish families in the neigbourhood. A means of escape comes in the form of the wily, eccentric Catholic priest, Father Pons who procures false papers to enable Joseph to be concealed in an orphanage, the Villa Jaune.

This short novel is part of a series, “The Cycle of the Invisible”, which explore religious themes from a child’s viewpoint, in this case the links between Christianity and Judaism in a situation where followers of the former are perpetrating the terrible crimes of the Shoah, or genocide, against the latter.
What could prove unbearably grim is leavened by the author’s fertile imagination and dry wit, as when Father Pons muses whether it would have been better for him to be Jewish, causing Joseph to insist, “Stay Christian, you don’t realise how lucky you are!” The priest explains that the Jewish insistence on respect is more practical than the Christian emphasis on love, demanding, “Would you turn the other cheek to Hitler?”

Despite the widepread popularity of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novels and short stories, I find myself in ageement with a reviewer who suggests that the author has augmented his sales by producing short novels of less than a hundred pages, with tear-jerking themes, leaving the reader crushed beneath an “avalanche” of worthy sentiments, with a vague sense of guilt over expressing any criticism on this score.
Perhaps because I read this in a French edition designed for students, with “tricky” words defined, comprehension questions and background analysis, this seems like a book written for adolescents, to raise their awareness of the Holocaust, and grasp its impact on those who survived it. Particularly if viewed from an adult perspective, some scenes appear too far-fetched, such as the priest’s implausible scheme to hide the Jewish children when the Gestapo finally came to arrest them. Some descriptions seem too exaggerated as in the opening description of the parlous state of Joseph’s footwear.
Despite his understandable naivety, Joseph often seems too advanced for his age, as he plays the role of confidant to Father Pons, and mentor for the shamblng Rudy, ten years his senior in age. Joseph’s relationship with the priest sometimes seem too mawkishly sentimental.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the final part with its focus on the unexpected problems of dealing with the sudden freedom of liberation, and the problems of returning to a “normal” family life and switching back from an assumed Christian to a practising Jewish life. Unfortunately, the final section appears too rushed and underdeveloped, as if the author is anxious to move on to another project. The device of Joseph eventually following in Father Pons’ footsteps, marking the modern-day Israel-Palestinian conflict by collecting two items- a Jewish kippah and Arab scarf left behind after a fight – is a little corny, but makes for a neat ending.

I found the author’s tone in an interview which concluded my edition somewhat condescending and pretentious: “the novelist makes a contract with the reader, he tells him ‘I’m going to interest you, take you by the hand and lead you on a voyage that you will not make without me; you will come across new places, unfamiliar, which perhaps frighten you, but have confidence, I will not let go of your hand and perhaps you will thank me on arrival. Courageous, delicate and firm, such must be the grip of the storyteller.’ ”

French Braid by Anne Tyler: “This is a story that never ends, Yes, it goes on and on my friends…”

Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel, several books after her publicly stated intention to give up writing, is the saga of the Baltimore-based Garrett family, spanning four generations from 1959 to 2020 in the throes of the Covid pandemic.

With its focus on only eight specific situations or incidents over this period of time, this really seems more like a series of short stories, in which many significant events like a marriage or a death have to be inferred. The continual change in the point of view provides insights into how some characters perceive each other, but with many family members and friends being two-dimensional “extras”, so numerous that it is hard to keep up with them, I rarely felt emotionally engaged.

It is probably intentional that there are so many mundane details of ordinary daily life, from which Anne Tyler can conjure the farcical situations, by turns amusing or poignant, and the wry insights for which she has long been praised. US readers old enough to recognise and recall the cultural references from the 1950s may feel waves of nostalgia, although I had to look up Salk vaccine (developed in the US for polio) and just gloss over the Amercanisms. However, more so I think than with her earlier books, at times I found the banality and weight of descriptions, often expressed in a folksy style, unbearably tedious, and persevered to the end only to avoid missing some final “big reveal”, which would of course be very “untylerish”. In fact there are a couple of minor revelations at the end – to the characters concerned, if not to the reader.

The novel raises a few questions for discussion. After marrying too young, when Mercy Garrett’s children leave home, she feels free at last to pursue her desire to become an artist. Without formally separating from, or even divorcing her devoted husband Robin, she leaves him to go and live in a studio, but does so gradually, returning to cook the evening meal, or do the laundry, but never facing up to an open discussion about the situation. Accepting this as feasible, is this an act of courage or cowardice? Is it, as some readers believe, a belated assertion of feminist independence, or simply the act of a self-centred, calculating person?

Just as an undone French braid leaves “ripples” in the hair, “that’s how families work too,” as one character observes. “You think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever”. This is patently clear, but hardly an original thought. The way families may “hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions”, both “little kindnesses” and “little cruelties” is a more interesting issue.

“Pour le sourire de Lenny” by Dany Rousson: “When it’s all for the best……….”

Titi is a charming young man who has fallen on hard times after being rejected by his family for having fallen into bad company. When some drunken gang members turn on him, he is rescued by Savate, a surly character, quick to anger, who has been ruined and embittered by some past traumatic events, but does not like to see a lone man outnumbered and beaten to the ground.

When the two tramps wander into the picturesque old Provençal city of Aigues-Mortes in search of work, they meet with rejection, are reduced to begging, even their tent is destroyed. Against the odds, a few charitable inhabitants, who turn out to be acquainted in some of the books too frequent coincidences, are prepared to help and give them the benefit of the doubt.

A young skateboard fanatic called Lenny strikes a lost chord in Savate who teaches him acrobatic skills learned in some previous, repressed life. When tragedy strikes, is it chance or destiny? To what extent is Savate responsible, and how will matters turn out?

Judging by the cover of the edition I read, which made me think my French reading group must have chosen a children’s book, you may be reasonably confident of a happy ending, with loose ends tied in overstated knots. Despite themes of marital breakdown, suppressed ambitions, dead-end jobs, and some appalling misfortune, this is a “feel good” book in which unpleasant events are sanitized and deep emotions are airbrushed. Characters are stereotyped into two-dimensional “good” and “bad”. Even the descriptions of the Camargue horses, the bullfights and the historic landmarks of Aigues-Mortes seem like a plug for the tourist trade.

The “do as you would be done by” dedication says it all. “To all the Savates and Titis, to the invisible people whom we could all become, you and me, if fate decided to play a dirty trick on us. To those who stretch out their hands to them and open their hearts. To hope, to life”.

If only it were so simple! It’s escapism for adults, perhaps justifiable in grim times.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams: “Understanding why some words are more important than others!”

Motherless Esme spends a good deal of time at her father’s workplace – the Scriptorium, a somewhat misleadingly named shed in the garden of Dr. Murray, who in 1884 embarked on the mammoth project of creating the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with the aim of filling the gaps in Samuel Johnson’s famous work.

An inquisitive child, Esme collects the postcard-sized slips of paper which fall into her hiding place beneath a work table. Each slip contains a word submitted for consideration with a definition or quotation containing it. She forms the habit of keeping for herself words which she has been told will not appear in the dictionary, since there is no written record of them to provide the necessary “evidence”.

As an adult, Esme chooses not to become actively involved in the “votes for women” campaign, and she seems to accept fairly meekly the fact that, simply through being female, she is unable to gain qualifications and advance as a lexicographer or editor, despite her obvious knowledge and capability. Yet her unusual childhood makes her unconventional in surprising ways, so that, to keep a measure of personal freedom, she makes a radical and painful decision of the kind she may regret for the rest of her life.

Increasingly aware that the OED reflects and is limited by the vocabulary of educated men brought up in the Victorian era, Esme finds an outlet for her suppressed frustration and her curiosity through acts of quiet defiance: collecting and creating a written record of the words which ordinary, often illiterate people use in daily conversation, unlikely to be heard by lexicographers in the strongly class-divided society of the time. She realises that words used by and about women in particular are missing from the OED, including those considered obscene, but in common use. So “knackered” is noted as an overworked servant’s graphic description of feeling exhausted. “Dollymop” is a pejorative term for a prostitute, or an actress who is presumed to be one.

One might criticise the author for applying “modern” attitudes to the situation in the early C20, yet through Esme she is making a thought-provoking point.

Not until reading the Author’s Note at the end did I appreciate the extent of her impressively detailed research. Imaginary characters like Esme, and the loyal servant and friend Lizzie who does her best to be a mother to her, are interwoven quite skilfully with the real Doctor Murray and his family, together with Esme’s godmother Ditte and her novelist sister Beth, both volunteers who contributed words to the cause.

One of the most interesting aspects is the continual definition of words. I’ve learned that “cushy” comes from the Hindu word “khush” for pleasure, while “bumf” was apparently used in the First World War for scraps of paper needed for the trench latrines.

As an Australian writer, Pip Williams manages to weave in that the descendants of the Karuna people did not lose their natives language as a result of colonisation, because German missionaries made the effort to consult with the Aboriginal men, and write it down for the record.

Although I was drawn by the originality of the theme, the narrative frequently drags under the weight of repetition and detailed banal descriptions. It could be argued that this conveys the nature of Esme’s life in what is on one level a deeply realised fictional autobiography. There is excessive sentimentality for my taste, and some unconvincing plot developments with too many coincidences, or a tendency to “come to nothing”, except to pad out a book which often seems overlong.

It is worth making the effort to finish this novel, which should provoke a lively, wide-ranging discussion, making it a good choice for a book group.