“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet: Winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2020 by [Maggie O'Farrell]

This is an original and inventive take on Shakespeare’s relations with his family, whom history has it lived in Stratford while he was for the most part working in London. The playwright is described as the father of Hamnet, the husband of Agnes (better known to us as Anne), the son of John: in never naming him as Shakespeare, Maggie O’Farrell creates the freedom to take all the dramatic licence she chooses to interpret his life.

The chapter alternates between two different periods of time. Firstly, we meet Hamnet, bright eleven-year-old with a tendency to daydream, in search of an adult to look after his frail twin sister Judith who has been taken ill suddenly. Then we are switched fifteen years or so back in time to his father, an unfulfilled youth, bullied by his father, a Stratford glove-maker who has lost his good reputation through shady deals. Forced to work as a Latin tutor to help pay his father’s debts, he becomes infatuated with Agnes, an intriguing older woman who flies a kestrel hawk and is skilled in the use of herbs to cure ailments. She in turn sees something remarkable in him, the dilemma being that he can only realise his talent as a playwright in London, a place where she cannot live, ostensibly because the plague-ridden capital is too risky for Judith’s fragile health, but in reality because Agnes is only at ease in a natural world of trees, wildlife and herbs.

This is essentially an exploration of the nature of grief and how people are affected by it, with Agnes the central character. Hamnet’s role is to be the source of that grief. The back cover blurb in the paperback edition reveals the boy’s fate, perhaps on the assumption that it is common knowledge that Shakespeare’s only son died, raising the tantalising question of whether, and if so how, this tragic fact led to the production of a play called Hamlet only a few years afterwards.

Some may find the slow pace and minute detail tedious at times – as in the description of the layout of John’s house in the opening chapter, but this serves to give strong visual images of a vividly imagined Elizabethan world, as lived by ordinary people, which must have involved a good deal of research. Similarly, the focus on Agnes’s psychic powers – her ability to divine so much about a person simply by pressing the muscle between thumb and forefinger – may not appeal. Ironically, when it comes to foreseeing the future for her twins, these powers let her down. Yet, combined with a style which is often reminiscent of a folktale, the supernatural element recreates a sense of the superstition which dominated people’s lives in Tudor times, in the absence of a scientific way of explaining their situation. The presence of ghosts is easier to imagine when death is so common, and all this chimes with the magical themes running through Shakespeare’s plays including of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

The style is often expressive and poetic, as in the case of Anne’s hawk as first seen by “Shakespeare”: “Its stance is hunched, shrugged as if assailed by rain”. Descriptions are complemented with sharp dialogues and thoughts which reveal rounded personalities: Agnes’s surprisingly supportive brother Bartholomew, her stroppy teenage daughter Susanna, her mother-in-law Mary with whom a mutual understanding grows despite their different natures – and moments of insight and humour in all the sadness.

My main reservation is that moving passages too often seem overwritten, although I feel guilty in saying this, after reading of the acute sickness and brushes with death which the author herself and her own children have suffered. I also found the contrast somewhat jarring between her “literary” passages and those with a child’s story book repetition and turn of phrase: “Three heavy knocks to the door…..boom, boom, boom”. Admittedly, when Anne’s husband returns home unexpectedly after a long absence, and “booms in his biggest, loudest voice” this reflects his other extrovert life on the stage of the London Globe.

Overall, it is an absorbing, thought-provoking read, with even the foreknowledge of the intolerable loss of an appealing child one wants to see survive made bearable in time by the reminder or realisation that inevitable sorrow and joy are inextricably linked in life, in which all things pass.

Along with “The Plague” by Camus, this is a timely book to read during or in the aftermath of a pandemic. Perhaps recent experiences make us more attuned to the feelings of past generations who had to live with a vulnerability to disease and untimely death which we thought we had overcome.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” by Thomas Hardy: tuning his merry note

Under The Greenwood Tree by [Thomas Hardy]

On a cold and starry Christmas Eve in 1850s Wessex, or a thinly disguised rural Dorset, the Mellstock Church “Quire” of fiddlers and singers keep up the time-honoured tradition of carolling their way round the scattered hamlets of the parish, to a mixed reception. Farmer Shiner bawls at them to shut up, which only incites them to play even louder, the young vicar murmurs his thanks without getting out of bed, and pretty new schoolmistress Fancy Day poses in her window with a candle, captivating the tranter’s (carrier’s) son Dick Dewey. The course of their love affair forms the main theme, but the secondary one of the vicar’s desire to replace the quire with a modern cabinet organ to be played by none other than Fancy Day, is no less important since it reflects the changes in society which are gathering pace as old habits wither away, and strong communities are ruptured as people begin to drift to the towns for work.

There is in fact relatively little about this trend in the novel, despite Hardy’s interest in social and political matters. Having had his first novel rejected as likely to alienate readers with its radical ideas, Hardy played safe with “Under the Greenwood Tree”, intended as a “study of rural life”, the motley local characters, with their pithy, quirky observations in the local dialect, forming a humorous background to the romance. So, it forms a sharp contrast to Hardy’s subsequent gripping but progressively more bleakly tragic novels:“The Mayor of Casterbridge”; “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure.”

Years later, Hardy seemed to regret having written “so lightly, so farcically and flippantly at times” rather than develop a deeper study of the group of musicians, who are portrayed as somewhat two-dimensional comical characters, as indicated by the description of their silhouettes against the sky as they gather to sing at Christmas Eve. The novel is strongest in its vivid description of rural life: the closeknit community with the tranter throwing his cottage open for an uproarious Christmas party with dancing; the tolerant inclusion of the “simple-minded” Thomas Leaf, although he serves a useful purpose in being the only one able to sing a “top G”, the smoking out of the bees to gather their honey, at which Head Keeper’s daughter Fanny is still adept despite having been educated “to be a lady”. With echoes of Hardy’s poems, there are many striking images of the countryside such as the distinctive sounds made by different trees in the opening paragraph: the fir trees rock, the holly whistles and the “ash hisses amid its quiverings”.

The possibility of tragedy in the book’s climax and the final sentence with its twist of ambiguity give hints of Hardy’s darker later masterpieces.

“La Tresse ” or “The Braid” by Laetitia Colombiani: “saved by a hair’s breadth”

Like the three stands of a plait (ou tresse) the chapters focus in turn on three women who seem at first to have little in common apart from their sheer determination. A villager in Uttar Pradesh (India), Smita is a Dalit, member of the “Untouchable” cast which means that, like her mother before her, she must empty the toilets of higher caste neighbours, using the same wicker basket impregnated with the curse of its pungent odour. All that keeps her going is the dream of her small daughter Lalita breaking the vicious circle and escaping her fate by getting an education. The Brahmin teacher accepts the expected bribe to take her on, only to humiliate the little girl on the very first day. Incensed and defiant, disappointed by her husband’s refusal to leave his rut of rat-catching in the village, Smita chooses the dangerous course of travelling with Lalita to a relative in a distant city where the pair can start a new life.

The daughter of a Sicilian wig-maker in Palermo, Guilia is the only one of three sisters to take an active interest and work in the family business which she seems destined to take over in due course. Her carefree life is shattered when her robust, seemingly indestructible father is badly injured in a road accident which leaves him in a coma. Obliged to sort out some paperwork, she makes a shocking discovery. At the same time, perhaps susceptible in her grief, she embarks on an unlikely love affair.

Meanwhile in Canada, high-flying lawyer Sarah, twice married with three children largely absent from the scene because they are cared for by male nanny and factotum “Magic Ron”, takes pride in her success and is utterly confident in her sense of being in control. When confronted by a threat to her career which perhaps she should have foreseen, which cannot be managed and contained through sheer willpower, how will she cope?
This is easy to read and plot-driven, but the continual switching between apparently unconnected storylines is somewhat jarring, at the same time serving to increase suspense over how, if at all, they will converge at the end and masking a thinness in Guilia’s and Sarah’s tales. I would have found it a more satisfying read if presented as three separate short novellas, although I accept this would have weakened the “Eureka” moment of realising what links the three women. Smita’s tale seems to me the most fully developed and engaging, perhaps because there is a stronger sense of place and portrayal of a (to me) unfamiliar, distinctive culture as she travels towards her goal.

Since the author is a scriptwriter and film-maker, I assumed this novel was written from the outset with adaption to the screen in mind*. At a recent interview, the author was adamant this was not the case. This was partly because she wanted the freedom of not needing to think about the cost of, for instance, choosing specific widely distant locations. She acknowledged that her books are regarded as cinematographic, which she explained as meaning based on situations one can visualise, like Smita and her daughter travelling on an overcrowded train for the first time, rather than relying heavily on description of people or dialogues. On the other hand, perhaps because of the author’s scriptwriting background, the style is for me the weakest factor – by turns heavy on exposition, or unduly sentimental in tone. The strength of the stories lies in the dramatic incidents and changing emotions of the characters.

*At the time of writing this, both of her first two novels have been or are in the process of being filmed.

“Ru” by Kim Thuy: hypnotic memories in a waking dream

Born to a wealthy family during the 1968 Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese communists launched their surprise attacks on the South during the Lunar New Year festivities, mingling machine gun fire with firecrackers, Kim Thuy has drawn on her own experiences to produce this fictionalised memoir. Half the family is home partitioned off with a brick wall to be taken over by communist soldiers who spy on them continuously. Their wealth in the form of diamonds inserted in the pink plastic of dental prosthetics, the narrator’s family joins the flood of boat people, passing via a muddy Malaysian camp to Canada which has extended a generous welcome to many Vietnamese refugees. Years later, as a naturalised Canadian, she is able to revisit her country of origin to reevaluate it from a westernised perspective.

At first, certain aspects of the evidently original and distinctive style irritated me. I felt somewhat cheated by the mainly one page chapters, often more than fifty per cent white space. The way they flitted back and forth in time made it hard to keep characters in mind and grasp the order of events. It is difficult to refer back to points quickly unless one is using a Kindle! I found it easier to read once I had accepted the novel as a series of anecdotes, often poetic, with a rhythmic, hypnotic quality, the white space encouraging a pause for reflection, the underlying aim being to mirror how memory works in fragmented, jumbled recollections.

“Ru”, a French word which can mean “Flow”, seems a more apt title than “Ru” in the sense of “Lullaby”, many memories being quite brutal or harrowing, mixed with beauty, humour or banality. This may render them all the more shocking, in seeming unreal while manifestly true. For instance, Mr. An, met in Canada, is still traumatised by the Russian roulette played by the Communist soldiers, causing him to observe for the first time the varied shades of blue in the sky he thought he was seeing for the last time. The narrator’s objectivity in describing such things is a way of coping with suffering and loss. Yet is it also at the price of making the reader feel too disengaged as well?

Despite their brevity, the paragraphs need to be read slowly, with concentration, because they are so full of images which evoke yet further ones. Each reader will draw something different from the myriad of impressions. Perhaps because they give insights into a different culture, I found the passages on Vietnam the most striking and moving – the nostalgic image of a past tradition, in which old ladies in a boat on a small lake place tea leaves in lotus flowers for them to absorb their scent during the night.

Then there is Aunt Five (the Vietnamese name their family members by number), a spinster who has dedicated her life to her parents. Rewarded after their death by being driven out of the house, she takes refuge in a hut near a Buddhist temple, virtually her sole possession being the four bowls in which she gave her old father his daily rice. These blue and white bowls with silver rims, partly translucent when held up to the sunlight, are a symbol of a lost way of life.

There is subtlety in the anecdote of the refugee boys machining clothes in a Quebec garage after school to earn some pocket money, who recall the dark period in Vietnam when they were abused by men in for the price of a bowl of soup. Yet their ability to maintain a kind of innocence, divorced from the sordid deeds of adults, and become balanced young men, Canadian engineers, is an affirmation of human resilience.

Kim Thuy evokes our empathy with the refugees, and a sense of how having been uprooted from one culture, they inevitably retain a nostalgia for certain aspects of it, some fated to occupy a kind of limbo, unable to shed a sense of disconnection from the host country, no matter how well they appear to have integrated into it: “one horizon always conceals another…… one advances through life in the footsteps of those who have gone before, in a kind of waking dream”.

“Slow horses” by Mick Herron: “practise to deceive”

“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow
Swarm over, Death!”

This well-known attack on Slough by John Betjeman is the source of the name Slough House, in turn easily corrupted into “Slow horses”, the derogatory nickname of disgraced MI5 intelligence officers sent to work there on pointless tasks, until they are driven to leave the service at no further cost to the organisation. The particular failure of their slovenly, foul-mouthed boss Jackson Lamb has not been disclosed, but for his hapless underlings it ranges from leaving a highly confidential computer disc on the Tube, handed in at the BBC, to making a careless error when tailing a suicide bomber at Kings Cross, resulting in massive and costly damage. This was bad enough for River Cartwright to be sacked, but for the string-pulling of his grandfather, retired spook the “OB” which turns out to mean the “Old Boy”.

The narrative starts slowly, setting the scene and filling in the backgrounds of the main characters, but it is always vital to pay close attention, particularly in view of the author’s penchant for making an incident clear only after the event. Matters hot up when a young man is kidnapped by extremists who threaten on camera to behead him but nothing is as it first seems in this increasingly tangled plot. Mick Herron does not baulk at killing characters off, both good and bad, which serves to raise the suspense. As the slow horses get embroiled in some unintended consequences and real action, will then end up as scapegoats or heroes?

With shades of John le Carré and Raymond Chandler, I found this book a page turner by reason of the plot twists, wry humour and cynical comments on our society. Some readers may disagree if they are put off by a tendency to repetition, long-windedness, implausible moments and points which remain frustratingly unclear (perhaps a few loose ends are to be picked up in a sequel). The ambitious politician Peter Judd is an obvious parody of Boris Johnson, but is it wise to bring in current named celebrities whose names may not mean much in a few years? For instance, Jackson Lamb is described as “Timothy Spall gone to seed (which left open the question of what Timothy Spall not gone to seed might look like)”.

I found some aspects of the final denouement confusing, too rushed and something of an anticlimax. Perhaps it is a pitfall for elaborate plotters to run out of steam for a mind-blowing revelation at the end.

“Slow Horses” is the first of seven full-length novels in a series as at 2021. I believe it is best to read these chronologically, not least in order to understand the allusions in the successive books. I may read one or two more in a while, but fear they might prove “too much of the same”.

Les Victorieuses by Laetitia Colombani: “Making a difference”

When a businessman on trial for fraud is found guilty, he hurls himself over the guardrail to his death six floors below on the marble floor of the foyer at the Paris Palais de Justice . This dramatic opening hook proves to be no more than the trigger for high-flying lawyer Solène’s mental breakdown. Having pursued a legal career at the cost of personal relationships, Solène is left apathetic and reliant on antidepressants. As a form of therapy, she agrees to spend every Thursday as a “scribe” for the women with a wide range of social problems, refugees and former rough sleepers living at the Salvation Army’s Paris hostel in the historical “Palais de la Femme”. Gradually, she builds a rapport with a variety of women, but her growing sense of “making a difference” proves fragile in the face of the inevitable setbacks in such a vulnerable group. Yet there is always humour and mutual support mixed with the pain and deprivation.

The storyline alternates with a fictionalised account of the real-life Blanche Peyron, wife of Commissioner Albin Peyron, who is presented as the driving force in acquiring the substantial building originally intended to house Parisian workers, constructed on the site of a former convent. The plight of a woman with a small baby, for whom Blanche could not find a suitable lodging in 1925 despite four decades of striving to eliminate the widespread problem of homelessness in the capital, was what motivated her to create the haven for women which exists to this day.

“Les Victorieuses” is very easy to read, contains flashes of insight, as in the description of how we find it hard to look homeless people in the eye as we pass them by, and raised my awareness of a piece of social history as regards the struggles of the Protestant Salvation Army to make headway in Catholic France. Sadly for my taste, the style is too coated with sentimentality– even a tweeness that seems incongruous. In this, it resembles the sugary sweets on which Solène gorges when she is feeling low.

Social problems and acts of violence tend to be glossed over or sanitised. Apart from Solène, whose personality is explored in some detail, although I am not sure she is intended to be as flawed as she actually appears, most of the other characters are somewhat two-dimensional, often stereotyped or romanticised. “Les Peyron” in particular seem too good to be true. There is a tendency to provide potted histories of past lives, rather than to undertake the harder task of revealing characters through their dialogues, behaviour and thoughts.

I read this in French, “good practice” for an English reader and likely to stimulate discussion in a book group.

Laetitia Colombani has won plaudits for “La Tresse” which some critics seem to regard as a superior novel.

“The Octopus Man” by Jasper Gibson: Being Mindful

The Octopus Man

Tom is given to talking out loud and offering a chair to Malamock the Octopus God, whose voice he continually hears, on whom he depends to guide him through life. Needless to say, the medical profession regards Malamock as a problem, a barrier to Tom’s well-being to be removed through medication. All previous approved drugs having failed, Tom is under pressure to take part in an experimental drugs trial. It is a controversial view, but Tom wishes to live free of drugs with their generally negative side effects, not least the rendering of his mind to a deadened and sluggish state. Tom simply wants the world to accept him as he is, with Malamock.

Once a high-achieving law student with a promising career ahead, together with a tendency to overconsume recreational drugs, Tom has been reduced to a life on benefits and medication, dogged by spells in mental hospitals and stoically supported by his hard-pressed sister, torn between him and her partner who represents the uncomprehending and intolerant “real world”. The viewpoints of these three, and the relationships between them are brilliantly captured in the final chapter.

It is a daring and original book, written from Tom’s viewpoint, with a tragi-comic blend of lunacy and lucidity, and Pinteresque exchanges between the sharp-witted if technically deluded patient and the too often rigid, imperceptive, or perhaps just overworked professionals who try to treat him. It may be too one-sided, but there are also some telling scenes to show how patients in mental institutions may be manipulated by unscrupulous staff, and how they may have negative effects on each other with their different types of condition.

The Octopus Man was apparently inspired by the death of one of the author’s close relatives, for no apparent reason other than that he had spent years on various types of medication for psychotic mental illness.

I do not know what those suffering from mental illness will make of this novel. Having experience myself of a close relative with longstanding mental illness involving psychosis, I found this novel, which is actually quite funny at times, too distressing and near the bone for me to be able to read it from cover to cover as I normally would. This is a compliment to the author’s skill. It is well worth reading for someone with little or no familiarity with the issues involved – a relatively painless way of gaining understanding.

Rose by Tatiana de Rosnay: Warped Vision

Rose (French Edition) by [Tatiana de Rosnay, Raymond Clarinard]

It is well-known how the ambitious “beaver” Baron Haussmann implemented Emperor Napoleon III’s vision of a modernised Paris. Elegant C19 classical boulevards replaced insanitary slums and overcrowded alleys dating from medieval times. On reflection, the wide new avenues must also have required the demolition of sound buildings, some of historic interest, destroying close-knit, thriving communities in the process. Not all the 350,000 people displaced needed to be rehoused, or benefited from the upheaval.

Rose Bazelet, the heroine of this novel, is one such person. Living her entire life in central Paris, mostly in the family home of her husband in the Rue Childebert, of which photographs can still be found on the internet, she fondly imagines that her house will be protected by its proximity to the ancient Church of St Germain-des-Prés. It is a shock to the whole community when the letters arrive, bluntly announcing the planned demolition of their properties. All resign themselves to accepting the compensation offered to go and start a new life, as Rose’s own brother has already done in another district already razed for redevelopment. Unable to leave a house suffused with memories of her husband and son, Rose has other plans, so we find her hiding in the basement, reading treasured letters, revisiting her past life, and writing a few unexpected confessions to the husband to whom she still feels exceptionally close a decade after this premature death.

This novel is at its best in powerful descriptions of the vast building sites which resemble war zones, where all the old landmarks have be obliterated, leaving only gigantic holes bordered by unstable ruins with hanging strips of wallpaper, doors swinging on hinges and steps spiralling into a void – hallucinatory images. The author weaves the main points in Rose’s essentially narrow bourgeois life with actual historical events: the painful birth of the daughter Violette with whom she never manages to bond takes place against the backdrop of street riots, part of the July 1830 uprising to oust the Bourbon king Charles X. The bookseller who rents a premise on her ground floor introduces the widowed Rose to the best-selling book at first considered such an outrage to public morals and religions that its publication was blocked: Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, no less. The pervading sense of nostalgia, both for a lost community and way of life, mingled with longing for those one has loved, is very strong. We also see how Rose’s personality develops in later life, as her experiences make her both more open minded and self aware.

This may be too saccharine and mawkish at times for some tastes, although it could be argued that the tone is authentic for a C19 woman who has led an essentially sheltered, conventional, comfortable life with limited experience and education. However, a sudden switch to the shocking or macabre, perhaps when least expected, adds some depth and bite to the tale.

I was for the most past irritated by Rose’s inability to accept reality like everyone else, and move on. However, apart from the fact that the plot obviously depends on this, I have to admit that Tatiana de Rosnay succeeds in evoking empathy with Rose rather than simply regarding her as self-absorbed, even selfish. A final twist also adds to the aspects for discussion which make this a fruitful choice for a book group. I read it in French translated from English (the author is Anglo-French), which gave it a more authentic feel.

Golden Child by Claire Adams “Paying for Peter”

Growing up in Trinidad, from a poor family with a violent father, Clyde Deyalsingh learned at a young age not to rely on other people. In a community where corruption is rife, even the police take bribes, everyone knows where the drug lords live in their fortified compounds and too many men take refuge in rum, Clyde works hard, avoids trouble, and keeps rottweilers to guard against intruders. With twin sons to raise, and brothers-in-law in the habit of coming round for free meals at the weekend, despite being better off than he is, Clyde reluctantly accepts help, both cash and string-pulling to get him a better paid job, from his wife’s generous uncle Vishnu, a widely admired doctor. Caring little for material goods himself, Vishnu is keen to support those he thinks deserving, not only Clyde, but his unusually gifted son Peter, predicted to gain a place at Harvard. Vishnu casually ignores the resentment this arouses in Clyde’s brother-in-law Romesh, who has gained security by marrying into a well-off family.

Clyde is troubled by the disparity between his sons, physically alike but very different in personality and apparent ability. Unlike Peter, Paul has learning difficulties and behavioural problems believed to be due to oxygen deprivation at birth, and is accustomed to hearing himself called “retarded” and threatened with the dreaded “St. Ann’s” mental hospital. His mother Joy insists Paul must be treated as much like Peter as possible even to the point of a place being wangled for him at the prestigious secondary school to which Peter has won a place. But as they reach the age of thirteen, how long can this “equality” be maintained? When Paul disappears one day after school, Clyde is torn between irritation and disquiet.

This debut novel by an author who grew up in Trinidad has a strong sense of place, whether in downtown Port of Spain or the seashore lined with coconut palms, which feels authentic even for a reader like me who has never set foot there. In the bush, the flitting batty-mamzel dragonflies; “the dull thud of a falling mango” compared to the “sharp, knocking sound a coconut would make”; “the shushing of raindrops landing on the canopy above; just a little drizzle… spattering off at odd angles”. This is what Paul notices, revealing that he is a more complex, thoughtful individual than his father can imagine, probably suffering mainly from acute dyslexia, yet with a practical bent which as an adult might make him as successful as his brother, in his own way.

This is a well-observed psychological drama involving an Indo-Caribbean family, and the young Irish priest who tries to help Paul, enabling us to see how the main characters appear to each other, with the exception of Peter, the “golden child”, who reveals little of his personality apart from conformity and a patient acceptance of his twin.

Throughout the slow-burning tale, there are occasional incidents of sudden violence, so it should not come as a shock when, three-quarters of the way through, it shifts up into a tense thriller in which Clyde will clearly have to make a difficult decision.

I was left disappointed by the ending, not because I dislike it, but owing to the rushed, disjointed final scenes in which the characters became two-dimensional and underdeveloped with too many implausible incidents or unexplained reactions. Admittedly, this provides many talking points for a book group. It leaves the scope to fill in the gaps with one’s own interpretations. However, for me the conclusion was too abrupt, ducking the challenge of writing the hardest part of the novel.

“My Childhood” by Maxim Gorky: staying humane in a barbarous world

Gorky as a child with his father

When his young father dies of cholera, and his mother Varvara has a miscarriage, no doubt triggered by grief, five-year-old Alexei is taken back to her family home: “Angry people rushed about in all directions like passengers about to disembark from a ship, ragged children swarmed all over the place like thieving sparrows, and the whole house was filled with a strange pungent smell”. This is his introduction to the house-cum-dyeworks presided over by his grandfather, a self-made man who flogs him for minor acts of mischief, sometimes to the point of losing consciousness, through a mixture of sadism and the genuine twisted belief that it will “do him good”. Recognising his intelligence, Grandfather also teaches him to read, tells him stories, works with him companionably in the garden, yet ultimately casts him out to make his way in a harsh world when he is still a child.

By contrast, his peasant grandmother, despite showing great presence of mind in a crisis, for the most part escapes harsh reality through a mixture of snuff, vodka, veneration of bejewelled icons and folk tales which stimulate his vivid imagination, also showing him the affection he needs for emotional support.

This account of Gorky’s childhood is so bleak in some respects that I could usually only manage to read a chapter at a time. Yet I also found it compelling in his ability to capture how an observant, inquisitive child, with a rudimentary sense of justice presumably gained from his kindly father, continuously tries to make sense of the world. Often, we cannot quite grasp what is going on because he cannot do so. Only gradually does he piece together the grim backstory of the dysfunctional Kashirin family.

Yet in the midst of a childhood often made tedious and unhappy, either by poverty or the oppression of adults who have themselves been warped by hardship or a lack of love, Gorky manages to show us the moments of unexpected beauty in a grim existence: “watching the black crows circling and wheeling in the red evening sky round the golden cupolas of the Church…diving down to earth and draping the fading sky with a black net”. There is also “the new kind of life, entertaining beyond description” which comes alive in the kitchen when Grandfather has gone to the Sunday evening service: races on the table between cockroaches harnessed to paper runners, followed by the “uninhibited but strange gaiety” of the songs and dancing contrasting with guitar laments, all fuelled by vodka as the samovar “softly hummed.”

We see a future writer’s continual fascination in the variety of people he meets – the long-suffering workers who slave for Grandfather; the motley crew of lodgers in the “large, interesting house” over a tavern which the old man buys when he retires; when poverty strikes, the wily band of urchins whom Alexei eventually joins in stealing wood – “wasn’t considered a sin”, to help their families. Most of these characters are a complex mix of good and bad. The few who seem completely beyond the pale belong to his mother’s family the Kashirins, namely the two warring uncles, Mikhail and Yakov, each desperate to get one over the other in extracting enough money from Grandfather to set up an independent dyeworks, but too incompetent to succeed.

My Childhood (Illustrated) by [Maxim Gorky]

“When I try to recall those vile abominations of that barbarous life in Russia, at times I find myself asking the question: is it worth while recording them” He answers for himself in the affirmative. Firstly, it is necessary to understand and face up to the truth, in order to be able to erase it in the future. Secondly, he is confident that life will always surprise us by the creative human powers of goodness that are for ever forcing their way up through “the bestial refuse”, awakening our “indestructible faith” in a better and more humane future.

This may appear over-optimistic and undermined by the lack of corruption and democracy still all to evident in Russia as I write this. Ironically, having been proclaimed the father of Soviet Literature, Gorky died in 1936 from poisoning at the instigation of his political enemies, unlike the modern dissident Navalny who survived Novichok poisoning.