“La Révolte” or “The Revolt” by Clara Dupont-Monod: like father, like son or sons and mothers?

Prized for her beauty and prosperous lands, Eleanor of Aquitaine showed remarkable independence for the C12, divorcing the pious King Louis of France, to marry only a few weeks later the virile and dynamic Henry 11 of England, eleven years her junior. This relationship proved stormy: infuriated by Henry’s brutal tyranny over the nobles of Aquitaine and humiliated by his public affair with the much younger, “fair” Rosamond Clifford, Eleanor incited her three eldest sons to lead a revolt against their father. This was only the first in a series of tortuous struggles in this dysfunctional family, which we know are doomed to end badly since the youngest child is of course destined to become King John of Magna Carta fame.

The tale is mostly narrated by Eleanor’s favourite son, Richard the Lionheart. Clara Dupont-Monod’s poetic prose can be quite powerful, as in the description of the perilous crossing of the Channel to England which Henry insisted on making during a violent tempest, with a seven months’ pregnant Eleanor and her ailing infant son in the hold, pitched and tossed in a pool of seawater mixed with wine the broken barrels rolling around them. Another vivid description is Richard’s siege of the great fortress at Acre, where the catapults alternate a barrage of stones with the putrid carcasses of cattle and horses, which must land inside the walls in order to trigger an epidemic.

Yet I often felt unengaged in the narrative, largely because the focus on describing past events reduces the dramatic tension. It is so disjointed and sketchy in places that it seems essential to have some prior knowledge of the background history. Yet this creates the problem that Eleanor is not as one expects. Although clearly clever and highly educated for a woman, with her retinue of admiring troubadours, she is portrayed as cool and controlled, concerned about her children but showing them no affection (except grief for the first-born she lost), manipulating her sons to perform the acts she cannot, as a woman, carry out herself.

The Revolt by [Clara Dupont-Monod, Ruth Diver]

The lack of dialogue also distances the reader from the characters. Their rare speech tends to take the form of contrived monologues. When the new young French king Philippe offers Richard his support and soldiers to fight Henry, “Plantagenet”, yet again, it takes up more than two pages. Only near the end is there a touch of dramatic menace to imply Philippe’s dubious motives, “Look, here’s my falcon. His beak is red.”

In many ways this novel is more about Richard the Lionheart than his mother Eleanor. His acts of brutality in war, excessive even by the standards of the day; the violent rages to match those of his father; his complex relationship with his mother, in which even his wife clearly takes second place, all combine to form what could be an intriguing, if inevitably speculative psychological study, but in this, the book falls short.

I have at least been left with a strong interest in finding out more about the characters and events described, and the impressive crusader castles in the Middle East at least some of which hopefully still exist.

“Girl, Woman, Other” by Bernardine Evaristo: cracking eggs or making omelettes?

Girl, Woman, Other: WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019 by [Bernardine Evaristo]

The daughter of a political refugee from Ghana who “ended up working on the railways in London” where he met her “half-caste” mother, Amma is anticipating the opening at the National of her play “The Last Amazon of Dahomey”, unbelievable success after its years of rejection. She is a middle-aged, black, promiscuous lesbian, who has mellowed somewhat from her youthful habit of heckling shows that “offended her political sensibilities”.

This gives a flavour of the twelve characters born female, each given a section in turn to portray her or “their” inner thoughts and experiences. They are all black, or of mixed race to some degree, all have suffered as the children of immigrants or through some childhood trauma, yet managed eventually to achieve professionally, materially, or to find emotional fulfilment. So this proves an unexpectedly upbeat read, with a “feel-good” ending for most of them. They are all clearly linked in groups of three, more tenuously overall, as blood relatives, friends or acquaintances. One of the most interesting aspects is how they perceive each other. Any loose ends to explain the connections between them are brought together at the end in the device of “the after party” to celebrate Amma’s success, with an epilogue to accommodate the two who could not attend.

Frenetically packed with often quirky detail, the narrative is surprisingly easy to read, given the lack of standard punctuation, until one notes how it is artfully contrived in the use of whole phrases, commas, short paragraphs and lots of white space to carry the reader along. This gives a vigour and energy to the prose, at the cost of seeming at times too gimmicky and glib.

In the same way, sharp insights and moving moments crop up frequently, but embedded in references to a horde of characters, often stereotyped to the point of caricature and parody, so numerous that it may be hard to keep track of them, or to know whether this is necessary since they may never reappear.
An ambitious novel with a “marmite effect”, this is a book with no plot, more an accumulation of impressions to deepen an understand of the life of women of colour, or perhaps give them an inspiring book to which to relate. Is this a work of literature meriting its Booker Prize win? Is it more likely to appeal to younger women? What do male readers really think of it, since men tend to receive rather dismissive treatment? I cannot answer any of these questions.

I avoided reading this until it became my book group’s choice, since I rightly feared an excess of strident pontification. However, examples of this – as when Amma and her friend Dominique somehow manage to launch into feminist topics at the end of a long party night involving drugs and booze – are offset by wry humour, self-parody and some unexpectedly nuanced arguments. So when Dominique’s new love Nzinga recalls sobbing over the four hundred years of slavery which the white man has a lot to answer for, she refrains from replying “that the African man had also sold Africans into slavery so it was a lot more complex than that.”

It feels about a hundred pages too long, my interest flagging over the rather pedestrian final sections set in rural Northumberland decades ago, perhaps because (apologies if I am wrong) the author has no real familiarity or rapport with this setting, but needed to show how people from very different environments may be linked.

Although I found it slick creative writing rather than profound (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe comes to mind) this novel certainly has the power to provoke discussion.

“Les Choses Humaines” by Karine Tuil – What price justice?

Much of this novel resembles a soap opera, with a cast of somewhat stereotyped characters in a formulaic world of the Paris media. Jean Farel is a celebrity TV presenter, a charismatic Rottweiler of an interviewer who entertains the public with his fearless attacks on famous politicians, yet behind his façade lies a terror of ageing and enforced retirement. To preserve his image, the separation from his much-younger high-flying journalist wife Claire has been concealed. Her new love is a Jewish teacher who has been fired from his job at a strictly orthodox school because of this affair. Meanwhile, Jean and Claire have failed to take on board the degree to which their academically brilliant son Alexandre has been emotionally damaged by his upbringing.

The plot is punctuated with reference to real-life sexual scandals, beginning with the “hook” of the Monica Lewinsky affair while Claire was supposedly employed as an intern at the White House although this may mean little to readers too young to remember the Clinton presidency. Would-be French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s career-destroying encounter with a hotel maid, and the attacks on young women in Cologne, supposedly by young muslim men recently given sanctuary there under Merkel’s controversial acceptance of a million refugees, underpin the theme of how men tend to exploit and abuse women, at what cost, and how society should respond.

I never grasped the relevance of the short prologue which describes the process of preparing to shoot a gun, which seems to take too far the technique of trying to “hook” the reader from the outset. Beginning Chapter 1 with some rather overblown scene-setting descriptions delivered via indigestibly overlong sentences, the drama builds gradually with a string of cliffhangers, some strong dialogues, and moments of black farce. It culminates in a court case, sensationalised by the media, over what appears to be a serious sexual crime, in which the person in the dock turns out to be not the only one on trial. Right to the last page, it paints a somewhat bleak and cynical picture of western society – at least in middle-class Paris and New York.

At times, some quite profound reflections on, for instance, the definition of rape, the penalties which should be imposed for it, and changing attitudes, as with the impact of recent movements like #MeToo and #Balance ton porc, rise up through the plot twists of a steamy soap designed to entertain. The most powerful, even moving, chapters are those where the prosecuting and defence lawyers sum up their respective cases.

I suspect that this novel may fall between more than two stools by offending some feminists on one hand, those who find some details too sordid on another, and also disappointing readers who judge the disconnection between spiced-up satire and insightful analysis too great. Although this novel did not entirely work for me, apart from providing some useful practice in reading French, it did prompt me to reexamine my own gut feelings and prejudices.

“The Survivors” by Jane Harper: contriving to deceive

The Survivors: Small Town. Dark Secrets . . . by [Jane Harper]

When Kieran Elliot returns from Sydney with his partner Mia and infant daughter Audrey to his hometown, the small Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay, he has good reason to feel apprehensive. His father’s premature dementia has become so bad that his parents are moving house so that he can go into a care home, and Kieran expects to meet with some hostility, since local people have not forgotten the disaster for which he was responsible a decade earlier. The situation worsens when a murder victim is found on the shore near his parent’s home, and the local social network is filled with speculation and blame as the crime seems to have links with the earlier tragedy.

Having admired Jane Harper’s earlier books, “The Dry” and “The Lost Man” for their original plots, well-developed characters and striking sense of place, namely the Australian outback, I had high expectations for “The Survivors”. Despite the steady trickle of revelations that all may not be as it first seems, the succession of “red herrings”, and a sensitive portrayal of guilt, grief and blame, I was left somewhat disappointed. The characters tend to be two-dimensional: Kieran’s partner Mia is too good to be true, and the young male characters merge in one’s mind. The contrived plot proves rather thin, padded out with some dull, repetitive scenes which miss the opportunity to develop potentially interesting themes. The final denouement, which has to be explained by the “villain” is tortuously unsatisfactory.

I agree with reviewers who suspect the author may have been committed to a publisher’s deadline, so that more work on the construction and style, which would have made it a much better novel, was sacrificed.

“The Battle of the Villa Fiorita” by Rumer Godden – unintended consequences

Cocooned in a middle-class country house world of around 1960, conventional, dutiful and considered dull by her “friends”, Fanny’s life revolves round her three children or her garden when they are at boarding school, while her reliable if also somewhat dull husband Darrell is often working abroad. When, by chance, she catches the eye of a charismatic film director called Rob, she cannot resist the realisation of what a totally different life with him could be. Divorced by Darrell, who also gains custody of their children, Fanny is suppressing her guilt during her stay with Rob in an idyllic villa on the shores of Lake Garda, when her two younger offspring, eleven-year-old Caddie and Hugh, who is fourteen, show surprising initiative and guile in arriving unexpectedly to persuade her to return “home”. Delighted by the fact that they still “want” her, the upsurge in her maternal instincts inevitably creates tensions in her relations with the pragmatic and somewhat cynical Rob, who also turns out to have a daughter Pia who proves as opposed to his planned marriage as are the other children. Unintended consequences of their actions and the unpredictability of Lake Garda itself, build up to a dramatic climax. How can the children possibly succeed in splitting Fanny and Rob who clearly love each other. If they do, will they live to regret it?

What may sound “Mills-and-Boon”, and I would be interested to know if this novel appeals to male readers, is saved by the fact that the prolific author Rumer Godden was an expert storyteller, who mixes wry humour and poignancy, giving all her characters distinct personalities, and entering into the minds of the main ones, so that one understands their motivations, and feels some sympathy even when disliking them, or vice versa. She also creates a strong sense of place, in this case mostly of Lake Garda, which tallies with my memories of, say, the lakeside lemon groves at Limone, Malcesine with it steep streets and castle below the grassy slopes at Monte Baldo, the sudden dramatic storms which descend on the lake, plus it is interesting to read descriptions of an area before it was inundated with modern tourism.

This novel will probably seem dated, although it brought back a vivid memory of the late 1950s when my tight-lipped mother would not allow mention at the dinner table of the divorce of a school-friend’s parents. It seems that Rumer Godden’s own divorce of her first husband and realisation of the “turmoil” this created for her daughters was the genesis of this highly fictionalised account, also making the writing more authentic. On reflection, I was satisfied by the ending which leaves the future open and uncertain, as is the case in real life.

My only criticisms are over some aspects of the portrayal of Pia and Hugh, which it would be a spoiler to explain. Also, in the latter part of the novel, perhaps the author’s own conversion to the Catholic faith may have created a sense of guilt and retribution for sin which undermined her insights as a writer.

“Un monde à portée de main” or “Painting Time” by Maylis de Kerangal

An indulged only child, Paula Karst cannot settle to any course of study until she discovers “trompe l’œil”, the visual art used to trick the eye into perceiving a painting as a three-dimensional object. She is captivated by the hallway of the Institute where she is to study (based on a real college in Brussels): the marble pillars, wooden panels, a sparrow in the foliage of the tree outside the window – all turn out to be on flat, painted surfaces.

This is an unusual, ambitious and daring novel in that it has no plot, focusing instead on Paula’s development as an artist, the details of the materials and techniques she learns to use, her various commissions and the locations where she is employed. Commencing with painting neighbour’s nursery ceiling to resemble the sky, a project her worried parents may have negotiated for her, she progresses to working eventually on “Lascaux 4”, which has combined advanced technology and the skill of artists to produce the latest replica of the famous caves so damaged by the passage of tourists and exposure to the air that it has been necessary to close them to the public.

The written style is hard work with few paragraphs and sentences which may run over more than a page of stream of consciousness, leaping frenetically between loosely linked images, present and past, merging descriptions and internal thoughts with dialogue. This approach may be quite creative in its impressionistic effect, although I was struck afterwards that it is at odds with the discipline of learning how to copy precisely patterns and colours of particular types of marble or wood, which is what Paula’s first contracts tend to involve.

I was put off by the opening chapter which catapults us into Paula’s evening out with her two former college flatmates, Kate and Jonas. They all them self-absorbed, and immature, describing their work in technical terms before one has had a chance to “tune in” to the situation. Finding the frequent lists of materials used quite tedious , and references to unfamiliar subjects meaningless, all that prevented me from giving up was the fact I had purchased the book to discuss at a French book group. It would have been much easier to read in the English version “Painting Time”, but I suspect that would lose too much in translation.

Un monde à portée de main (French Edition) by [Maylis de Kerangal]

Eventually, I found that the key to appreciating this book is to look up the references. In the process, I learned a lot about different types of marble, and wood grains. I was also fascinated by Cinecittà, the Italian Hollywood of which I was shamefully unaware. One evening, Paula looks through a gap in the wall of a former set for “it could be any medieval north Italian town”, across a wasteland to a modern Rome suburb, with its noisy car horns and lighted windows. “Which side is the real world?”

The detailed information on the Lascaux grotto is also fascinating. It is probably a minority view, but I would have preferred the author to have applied her impressive research to a non-fiction, illustrated account of all this, using the style employed to write about Lascaux, which contrasts with the overblown excess of much of the rest.

There are some striking, moving or poignant scenes involving the characters which occasionally appear like treasure chests from a shipwreck, bobbing in a sea of verbiage. For instance, the scene where Paula’s apparently brilliant but unfriendly flatmate Jonas, takes a sudden interest in her work and helps her to understand how, to paint successfully a rock like cerfontaine (otherwise known as “fromage du cochon”!), she needs to think of it in context, how it has been formed, the lives of those who have lived in the places from which it comes. Later on, Jonas and Kate are shocked by Paula’s “unwise” choice of tortoiseshell as the subject for her “final exam” painting, unaware of her beautifully described childhood encounter with a tortoise, so strange in appearance that it seemed to her fertile imagination to have come from another ancient world. The visit of Paula’s father’s to Lascaux when it was still open, which turns out to be true, provides a rare moment of humour, via the drama in which his mischievous brother almost manages to carve some graffiti alongside the priceless prehistoric paintings. Other sections, such as Paula’s liaison with a predatory teacher “the Charlatan”, seem more like padding for the novel, which at times seems meandering and uneven.

One of those books which probably needs to be read more than once to appreciate fully, despite finding it pretentious at times, I would rate it as “good in parts”.

“A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry: “A passing drama of the earth”.

In the way that “All Quiet on the Western Front” stands out by portraying the First World War from a German perspective, “A Long Long Way” is distinctive in portraying an Irish viewpoint.

The young hero Willy Dunne is eager to join up as a  means of compensating for the short stature which has made it impossible for him to join the Dublin police force, to his father’s all too evident regret. In the trenches, Willy soon experiences the squalor and tedium alternating with the terror of being the continual target of snipers and deadly gas attacks which gradually bring him to a realisation of the futility of war.

The details of the Irish political crisis which was coming to a head at the same time  are a little hard to follow without prior knowledge, but the fragmented details probably give a very accurate impression of Willy’s own limited understanding of the situation. About to board a ship at the end of a brief period of leave, Willy is caught up in the Easter Rising of 1916, the civil war which pitted rebel Irishmen against their pro-British compatriots. The sight of a young man, very like himself, dying at his feet on a Dublin street  makes a deep impression, but when he tries to express his feelings in a letter  home to his fiercely loyalist father,  the latter disowns him, unable to empathise with the evolution in attitudes that life at the front has brought about.

By turns lyrical and poetic, or filled with “a touch of the blarney” when the soldiers are joshing in the trenches to keep their spirits up,  this is probably the most explicit and visceral, “blow by blow” imagining of a young soldier’s  experiences  of World War 1 that I have read. It captures Willy’s numbed acceptance of fate: on one hand his vulnerability to being struck down at any moment, on the other his apparent indestructibility as comrades die, often before he has a chance to get to know them properly,  to be replaced by others in a seemingly endless cycle.

There is the surreal contrast of the occasional visits home where those closest to him have no inkling of the horror of the trenches. For the most part his girlfriend Gretta serves as a symbol of love and normality for him to cling to in the surreal world of war.  Even when his ordeals in the trenches are  compounded by unexpected and somewhat unjust rejection on a personal level during his final visit home,   all this is offset by one of the most moving and subtle scenes in the book, when Willy bravely makes a point of visiting the family home of Captain Pasley, his first officer in command  who sacrificed his life so pointlessly.

There were times when all seemed so bleak and graphic that I questioned whether to read on, but although the end  was something of a contrived anticlimax , “A Long, Long Way” is worth reading, particularly if one’s first encounter with a novel of the First World War.

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: an outstanding novel which must not be forgotten

Growing up in the New York of the nineteen fifties and sixties, Asher Lev belongs to a strict, tight-knit Jewish Hasidic community presided over by the benevolent dictatorship of the Rebbe, whose interpretation of the Master of the Universe’s wishes is not to be questioned. From an early age, Asher is obsessed with drawing every detail observed in his small world. While his gentle mother urges him to draw “pretty pictures”, and is in due course sufficiently sympathetic to buy him paints and accompany him to art galleries, until driven away by the shock of seeing “forbidden” Christian art, his serious-minded father impatiently dismisses a fad he hopes will soon pass. Frequently absent on trips to Europe where he sets up Jewish schools and helps Jews escape from Russia, he is angered by Asher’s poor grades at school and bemused by the Rebbe’s pragmatic decision to allow Asher to be taught by an eminent artist, completely secular despite being Jewish. The parents’ dawning admiration when some of Asher’s art is acquired by a major museum is outweighed by their refusal to attend any exhibition displaying his portraits of nudes.

As the novel builds to a tense climax bewildering and shocking or sadly comprehensible according to one’s viewpoint, some may find it too slow-paced. Yet the repetition reflects the narrow world in which Asher feels trapped and the often minute detail gives a profound understanding of his development as an artist and a fascinating psychological study of the main characters. It also conveys a strong sense of place, convincing dialogue, and many moments of wry humour amidst the angst.

I am not sure how a deeply orthodox Jewish reader would respond to this novel, and the author himself was intriguingly both a rabbi, inspired to become a writer by reading “Brideshead Revisited” as a teenager, and an artist. However, for an atheist reader like me, it portrays very vividly the tension between religion, ritual and duty on one hand contrasted with and tending to stifle or drive to extremes creativity and personal freedom on the other. In its perceptiveness, it shows how achievement as an artist may require a single-minded dedication which at times appears utter selfishness and self-absorption. There is also the ironic contradiction that art is often exploited for financial gain, the value of an artwork may be artificially inflated and it may be purchased as an investment or trophy by someone who cares nothing for art.

The novel draws on Potok’s own experience in that he was also a painter, like Asher producing Chagall-like portraits of dreamlike Jewish ritual scenes and animals. So Potok’s painting career somewhat paralleled the journey of Asher Lev: a young man, very creative and very religious, who does not fit with his community. “I began to paint when I was about nine or ten years old,” Potok once said in an interview. “It really became a problem in my family, especially with my father, who detested it.” Potok even painted a Brooklyn Crucifixion of his own, resembling the painting in his novel.

This reminded me of “A Tale of Love and Darkness”, the autobiography of the early life of Amos Oz, yet despite being a portrayal of fictional characters, Potok’s novel feels more authentic and and in some ways more insightful, perhaps because it is in fact an exploration and development of his own situation, than a simple account of it.

“Les oubliées du dimanche” by Valérie Perrin: overwrought?

Twenty-something Justine and her younger cousin Jules, still studying for the “Bac”, have been brought up as siblings by their paternal grandparents following the horrific death of both their parents in a car crash. The trauma of this event may be what has reduced both Justine’s self esteem and ambition, leaving her content to work as a care assistant at “Les Hortensias”, the local old people’s home in her French village. Clearly full of empathy for the residents, Justine is particularly drawn to Hélène, who lives mostly in her imagination, on a Mediterranean beach with her long dead lover Julien, yet retains the ability to recount so many of her reminiscences that Justine is able to make a detailed record of her life. It is unclear how much of this she has embellished, but does it matter?

With the chapters switching between past and present, this often seems an overcomplicated tale. When Hélène and Lucien are separated by war, what keeps them apart and how will they be reunited? Their story has a dreamlike quality, larded with sentimentality and melodrama, without flinching from some grim events. The verging on magic realism in the form of Hélène’s guardian seagull, ever-present except when reassuringly absent looking out for Lucien, makes other implausible incidents seem par for the course.

The thread based on Justine and her family forms a more authentic psychological drama which I would like to have seen developed in greater depth to form a larger part of the story. This gradually takes on the character of a crime novel. A malicious caller keeps contacting the relatives of “les oubliées du dimanche” (residents whom they don’t bother to visit) with false notifications that the latter have just died – ironically a way of inducing the relatives to rush to the care home! Then Justine begins to realise that foul play may have been involved in the deaths of her and Jules’ parents.

The portrayal of the care home rings true, and there are insightful portraits of some characters, observed with flashes of wry humour. Others are two-dimensional, like Roman, Hélène’s grandson, an unnerving image of Lucien with his startling “blue” gaze, too often a parody of a woman’s magazine hero.

A screenwriter and photographer, the author is focused on portraying intense repressed emotions and strong visual images. Too much is stirred into the resulting brew. Although there are sections where the narrative drags, it is mostly a page turner by reason of creating the desire “to know what happens”, although as is too often the case the denouement proves unconvincing on several counts.

I read this in French for a book group, and the fulsome praise of most reviewers leaves me feeling too much of a cynic!

“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.