This House of Grief by Helen Garner

A few years ago I read a novel by Helen Garner that was so vivid and so real that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, it was fiction. I picked this book up on the strength of her name. It’s a work of non fiction, telling the story of a tragedy and the court cases that ensued, and it is so very well written and ‘plotted’ that I could have quite easily believed that I was reading a very fine work of fiction

On a spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. It filled with water and sank to the bottom. The man who had been driving the car freed himself and swam to safety, but his three passengers — all young children — couldn’t escape and they all drowned.

22814793Was it an terrible accident, or was it a deliberate act. Did Robert Farquharson intentionally drive into the dam in to kill his three young sons, who he was returning to their mother – his former wife after a Father’s Day visit?

His wife believed him when he said that it was an accident. He said that he had suffered a coughing fit so severe that he lost control of the car. He said that her had tried to save their sons, but everything had happened so quickly and been so traumatic that his memory was gone.

She supported him when he was arrested and charged with three counts of murder. Her family and his own family stood behind him too.

Helen Garner followed the story in the news, and she was drawn to the trial, at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. ‘This House of Grief’ sets out the court proceedings, and her observations, experiences and reactions, clearly and precisely.

It’s difficult to read the story of such a terrible family tragedy; but it’s more difficult to look away. The arguments were so very finely balanced, and I would see from the start that no matter which of the arguments prevailed there would always be some points, important points, that could probably never be explained. As the court case unfolded I began to lean to one particular argument, but I knew that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t now.

The pace is stately, and there are pages of details about technicalities: the trajectory of the car, the marks on the road, the medical condition known as cough syncope …. it was mind-numbing but it was compelling, because so much hung on it.

The author’s observations were lucid and intelligent; she understood that so many lives had been touched and changed. The two men who arrived at the scene, who did their best to help, but who felt they might have handled things better; the divers who struggled too recover the car and the bodies from the depths of the dam; the woman who passed the car before it reached the damn, who had looked across and seen the passengers in that car; the jury who had so much to evaluate.

Her own thoughts and reactions, her emotional journey through the court proceedings are there too; real and vivid. I never doubted her honesty; I appreciated her intelligence and sensitivity; and I understood her desire to understand what had happened and to see justice prevail.

The writing is lovely; the story is compelling; and I turned the pages very quickly.

This true story is going to haunt me for a very long time.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

This is a veritable chocolate box of a novel.

It’s it looks gorgeous, it’s full of lots of different lovely things, it’s almost too much, but its completely irresistible.

I thought for the first time in years – of a particular box of chocolates that my father bought for my mother when I was a very small girl. I remember that it was large, it was casket shaped, and it was covered with pictures of ladies in long dresses. I was smitten with that box, and my mother gave it to me in the end, to use as a jewellery box. I kept that box for years and years, even after one of my aunts gave me a proper, grown-up jewellery box as an eighteenth birthday present ….

9781408862445I looked for an image, but I couldn’t find anything remotely like it.

It’s strange and lovely that a book can pull out a memory like that.

‘The Improbability of Love’ could do that because its so vivid and because it was so clearly written with love and about things the author loved.

Now, back to the story

‘The Improbability of Love’ is a lost masterpiece; a painting by Antoine Watteau, the celebrated 18th century French artist. It had a fabulous provenance, it had been owned by the great and the good, but it had been lost and somehow it found its way into a London junk shop.

That was how it came to be owned by Annie McDee, a young cook who was nursing a broken heart.  She liked it, she was interested to find out a little more about it, but she had no idea just how special her painting was or just what an extraordinary story was about to unfold.

Actually, it’s not just one story, it’s a wonderful melange of stories:

  • A bittersweet romance, and a touching story of a mother and a daughter.
  • A sharp satire of the London art scene; the decadence and the desperation.
  • The story of one family’s entanglement with art theft on Nazi Germany.
  • History that the painting lived through.
  • Luscious gastro-porn.
  • Quests for the painting; an art-world mystery-thriller.

It’s a cornucopia of delights;  underpinned by a lovely depth of knowledge of art, history and the art world. I was wonderfully entertained and I learned a lot along the way.

The writing is smooth and natural, and it swings through a lovely, diverse range points of view and voices, including ‘The Improbability of Love’ himself.

The painting spoke fondly of his creator, proudly of his glorious history, and with concern about its present situation and its fears of what his fate might be. It was a wonderful creation, and I could have spent many happy hours listening to him. I even wondered how he might get on with the armchair who told her own story in Memoirs of an Armchair ….

I was so impressed with the richest and depth that Hannah Rothschild gave to the life and history of this particular artwork, and I had to remind myself from time to time that ‘The Improbability of Love’ was fictional.

The whole cast of characters was very  well drawn, and  I felt so many different emotions as I reacted to different characters and different elements of the story in so many different ways.

It isn’t subtle and it isn’t a book to analyse; it’s a fabulous entertainment and it’s terribly easy to keep turning the pages.

If anything there’s a little too much going on. There were lots of things I’d like to have had a little more of, but there wasn’t much I’d be willing to lose to make more space.

Towards the end things get a little rushed and a little silly, but the grand denouement was exactly right and the ‘what happened next’ was the perfect way to bring this story – a real one-off – to its final conclusion.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I realise that I may be the last person in the world to read ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent’s much lauded debut novel.

It caught my eye a long time ago, when it was newly published, I acquired a copy, but when it arrived it didn’t call me. I think that maybe I read a little too much about it, maybe I felt that what I read and the knowledge that it was based on real, historical events said to me that there was less reason to read this book that there were to read other books.

I picked it up a little while ago, because it had been waiting for long enough, and it was time for me to either read it or let it go.

When I started to read I discovered that, though the story played out much as I thought it would, though there were no real surprises, the telling of the story was so very good that I had to keep reading.

The facts underpinning this book are simple and stark:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

The story opens in  1829, a year after Agnes –and two others– had been found guilty of the two murders. Agnes was sent north, into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson, to work on his farm until the time came for her execution.  where she will await the day of her beheading. District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust, but as they had no choice in the matter and they had to find ways to cope.

17333319Allowed visits from a spiritual advisor , to prepare her for what lay ahead, and Agnes asked for the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. He had no idea why he had been chosen. He was young and inexperienced, and he knew that he was  ill-equipped for the role he was called upon to play.

In time Agnes proves herself to be a good worker on the farm, and quiet and obedient in the house. The family relax, just a little, and Agnes realises and appreciates that. She begins to wonder if a reprieve as possible; and she slowly begins to talk about her past, and about the events that led up to the night of the murders.

The story is so well told. The prose is cool, clear and compelling; perfectly matched to the story.

The setting: 19th  century Iceland, its landscape, its climate,  its small rural communities are as caught perfectly. The isolation of the farms and the claustrophobia that comes when many people must share a small farmhouse are particularly striking. And the atmosphere is exactly right.

The narrative moved from the third person (for the District Officer’s family and the Reverend) and first person (for Agnes) quite naturally, and very effectively. It offered insights into all of the characters thoughts, and it placed events on that terrible, fateful night, as they were lived through by the person charged with the crime, at the centre of the story.

What happened was inevitable, Agnes had realised that, but she realised it far too late. She knew that:

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever.  Too clever by half, they’d say.  And you know what Reverend?  That’s exactly why they don’t pity me.  Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Agnes’s story was harrowing, but it was utterly believable. At times it was difficult to read, already know how her story would end, but she had become real to me and so I had to keep turning the pages.

I can understand why ‘Burial Rites’  has been so lauded. The story is compelling and thought-provoking; the writing is rich and atmospheric; and it’s hard to imagine that a better story could have been spun around the known facts.

My only disappointment was the inevitability of it all. Of course the ending was inevitable, but  I couldn’t help feeling that one thing that stood against that, one thing that suggested things really could be different, might have – for me –  been the spark that would transform this book from ‘very good’ to ‘great’, from ‘memorable’ to ‘unforgettable’.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t find that spark.

In the end I found much to admire  but I found little to love; and now I’m not sorry that I can let go of what is ultimately a dark story with an unhappy ending.

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

I picked up ‘The Vicar of Bullhampton’ because I was looking for a Trollope that didn’t centre around a will or a court case. I should have read the synopsis a little more carefully because there is a court case – one concerned with crime this time, not inheritance – but I didn’t mind too much, because I found much to enjoy in the three entangling stories involving said vicar.

This isn’t my favourite Trollope – and it’s very nearly a curate’s egg – but I did find a great deal to enjoy.

I was very taken with the vicar – Frank Fenwick – who was a good and compassionate man, with a stubborn streak that stopped him being too perfect. I was equally taken with his wife, Janet, and I loved the relationship between the two of them. They had a real, believable genuinely happy marriage.

The first story is a classic Trollope love triangle, concerning the possible marriage of Mary Lowther, a childhood friend of the vicar’s wife. The Fenwicks promoted a match with Harry Gilmore, a Bullhampton squire and an old friend of the vicar. He fell in love with her; Mary recognised that he was a good man, but knew that she did not him as a wife should love her husband. When Gilore proposed, she does not reject him outright, but she asked for time to consider. Because she knew that he was a good match, and that maybe she would never find her true love. Mary did find true love, with her second cousin, Captain Walter Marrable. But their circumstances meant that they were not in a position to marry, and that they maybe never would be.

My feelings about Mary changed over the course of the story. I worried at first that she would be another Alice Vavasor; when I realised that she wasn’t I came to like her and feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy; sadly that didn’t last. I’m afraid that Mary – as is often the way with people in love – became oblivious to the feelings of others. And it didn’t help that her family story was a little too broad and the development of her true love a little difficult to believe.

490912It wasn’t that it was bad, but I know that Trollope can do much, much better, and I enjoyed the other strands of the story more.

The second story is of the family of Bullhampton’s miller, Jacob Brattle. His youngest son, Sam, had been a hard worker at the mill, but when he fell in with bad company his standards slipped and he was absent far too often. When a Bullhampton farmer was murdered in the course of a burglary suspicion fell of Sam’s associates, and it was known that he had been with them. The vicar had known Sam since he was a young boy, he believed him when he said that he was innocent, and he did his best to help.

He also tried to reconcile the miller with his daughter Carry. She had been seduced by a soldier, she had been thrown out by her appalled father, and since then she had been living as a ‘fallen woman’. This being a Victorian novel Trollope did not address the question of how she survived as a woman alone, but his meaning was clear. Her situation was complicated by her involvement with one of her brother’s associates; but that might also be the key to saving her brother and reuniting her with her father ….

I loved the twists and turns of this story, and I loved the very real emotions and reactions of different family members. But what made this book exceptional was the portrayal of the ‘fallen woman’. She wasn’t repentant and striving to be virtuous, she wasn’t defiant and falling further, she was simply a young woman struggling to come to terms with the consequences of what had happened and the harsh realities of this situation.

This is what I love about Trollope. He’s utterly conventional, writing about the natural roles for women being marriage and motherhood, but on the other hand he clearly hoped for a society that had understanding and compassion for those who struggled to reach those goals.

This books illuminates those different sides of Trollope better than any of the others I have read.

I couldn’t completely believe the way the story of the Brattle family played out, but it felt right – emotionally and psychologically – and I wanted to believe it.

The third story concerned the Marquis of Trowbridge, Bullhampton’s principal landowner. He was so appalled when the vicar took up Sam and Carry Brattle’s causes, that he gives the Methodist minister, Mr Puddleham, a plot of land on which to build a new chapel – a plot of land right opposite the vicarage gates. The Fenwicks were aghast as a red brick edifice grew higher and higher, but they had no idea what they could do about it. Until Mrs. Fenwick’s brother-in-law, a brilliant London barrister, looked into things ….

This story balanced the others beautifully, with a well judged mixture of drama and comedy.

Indeed the balance was what struck me about the whole book: three stories different in tone and content, considering many aspects of the human condition, considering many sides of society, And yet they sat quite naturally together, speaking, profoundly and movingly, about forgiveness, about acceptance, and about reconciliation.

I found much to love. Wonderful, real, believable human characters and relationships; lovely letters, reported by an author telling the tale in his own inimitable style; and a large village – or maybe a small town – in the Wiltshire countryside.

And in the end the strength of the whole allowed me to let go of the weaknesses of some of the parts.

Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

‘Vain Shadow’ was Jane Hervey’s first novel; written in the 1950s but put away and not published until 1963, and now reissued as a Persephone book.

It tells a very simple story; the story of an English family in the middle of the twentieth century, the kind of family that had a country house, a small staff, tenants on its estate, over the four days between the death and the funeral of its patriarch.

It’s simple, but it is special because it is so very well executed.

There are just four chapters – one for each of those four days – observing the widow, the adult children, and the one adult grandchild – daughter of a daughter who had died – and their spouses as they do the things that must be done in that particular period, and begin to come to terms with what the death will mean.

The bereaved family is more concerned with that than with grief for the dead Colonel Winthorpe. When his nurse, preparing to take her leave, stops to rest on ‘his’ chair they react to that as an inappropriate act without the slightest emotional reaction to the fact that he will never sit there again. The picture that they paint of him is the picture of a tyrant, a man who bends his family to his will, and takes pleasure in doing so.

This is not a happy family; it’s a family that has walked through life as it walks through these four days; following the rituals, observing the proprieties, but never sharing their feelings and never ever talking about the things that really matter.

It was interesting to observe that his staff and his tenants felt the loss much more, and dealt with the things that they knew should be done so much better that the family. They gave willingly to a collection for a wreath; and the time that they came to the house, to walk past the coffin and to pay their respects was the most moving in the whole story.

It also gave more depth to the picture that Jane Hervey painted of the family.
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The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Vain Shadow'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Vain Shadow’


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She is an incredibly perceptive writer; drawing each character, and each relationship, clearly, distinctively and believably. She is particularly good at sibling rivalries, and the position of those who have married into the family. And she has a wonderful eye – and ear – for a telling detail. The son sending back his breakfast egg, because it is not exactly how he likes it. The widow’s repeated murmur that now she could have the peach bathroom she had always wanted. The housekeeper sailing off erect on her bike, to tell that tenants on the estate everything that they needed to know. Choice possessions being shared out to save a little on death duties.

She moved skilfully between each and every member of the family, missing nothing of any importance. Even more skilfully, she moves between observation of the characters and their individual streams of consciousness, and she makes it feel entirely natural and right.

The widow and the granddaughter were at the centre of the story. One felt her life was over, that it was too late for her to change. The other felt that she had to make a change, that it was time for her to live that life that she wanted.

There were times I might have laughed and there were times I might have cried, but I did neither. Because Jane Hervey walked the line between those two things so very, very well, and because this story, this family, this situation, felt so horribly, utterly real.

I read that this story is – at least in part – drawn from life, and I don’t doubt that for a moment.

It’s not an easy book to love, but it is a very fine piece of writing, it is utterly compelling, and it has left words and images in my head.

I hope – and I think I believe – that Jane Hervey was the young woman who saw a chance to change her life, and I hope she seized that chance.

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

This is a beautifully written story, it speaks profoundly, and I know that I am going to go on thinking about it for a very long time.

It begins in the middle of the eighteenth century, with a girl child who lives on the streets. She and her brother had only their wits to live on, stealing what ever they could to survive from one day to the next. I was captivated by this child, by her life and her spirit, by her utter reality, before I even knew her name. And I knew that I had to follow her story before I understood why.

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The day came when she was caught in an audacious act of thievery; and she was taken to an institution for destitute and friendless children. She was heartbroken to be separated from her brother; she knew that he had been seized by what she would later learn was a press-gang, but she couldn’t tell what was his name, what was her name, what was the story of her life.

She was given the name Dawnay Price, for the man who had taken her from the streets, the man she would come to know as her ‘benefactor’. Because it was her great good fortune to have been taken to an enlightened institution, where it was believed that even an impoverished, uneducated, unwanted orphan could be raised to a place in the world.

As Dawnay was raised she developed a fierce intelligence, a burning curiosity about the world and everything in it, and a passion to learn and discover everything she could. She had a calling to be a natural philosopher – and the belief that she could be just that.

It didn’t occur to her that she couldn’t – because she was a girl, because she had no means – because she hadn’t been raised in a family, in a world, that said she couldn’t. That was wonderful, and Dawnay’s voice was to real and so engaging. It reflected her intelligence, her passion and her scientific outlook on life.

She has the good fortune to meet people what are able to help her, and the even greater fortune that they are open-minded enough to give her a chance and to be won over by the wonderfully persuasive way she argues her case. Dawnay wins wonderful chances, to study, and to travel so that she can discover more and theorise more about the world around her. She sees wonderful things, she has remarkable experiences, and she continues to blaze a trail, never accepting that she should be restricted in her quest for knowledge and understanding.

In time she formed some very advanced – and very controversial theories about the world, about how it came to be, and about how it came to be what it was.

I was utterly captivated by Dawany, by her story, by her experiences. She was – they were – so utterly real, and I was infected by her life and her spirit. She reminded me how marvellous it is to be alive in the world, to travel, to learn, to experience. The world that she moved through, the people that she met, the things that she experienced, were every bit as vivid, every bit as alive as she was.  I was  smitten and I turned that pages very quickly, because I was so eager to now how the story would play out.

I appreciated the wonderful depth and breadth of research that underpinned everything; it was lightly worn but it was clearly there, and I couldn’t doubt for a minute that the author loved everything that she learned and everything that she wrote about. She told her story so very well, and she wrote beautifully. There were evocative descriptions and tumbling lists that captured Dawnay’s interest in the world, there was cool, clear storytelling that reflected her scientific outlook, and there were so many ideas, so many lovely details, to consider.

There was drama, there was humour, there was tragedy – everything that a life story should have.

It might be said that Dawnay was lucky, and yes she was, but to some degree she made her own luck.  History is full of stories of women who stepped outside the confines of the society and the situation they were born into. She did have setbacks too.

I noticed similarities in theme between this book and Rebecca Mascull’s first novel – The Visitors – but I appreciated that they were different in  so any ways. I’m inclined to say that the first book was tilted more towards the heart and this one was tilted more towards the head; I loved both, for the same and for different reasons.

A love story does evolve in the latter part of the book; it’s as unconventional as its heroine, and that felt right. The events and the emotions of the closing chapters were unexpected but utterly right.

I know that there are any more things to be said about this book; and I’m sure that there were things that passed me by because I was so caught up with Dawnay and her experiences.

But I’ll just say one more thing – and that’s that I loved the heart and soul of this book.

Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

This is not the book that I expected it to be – it’s more in some ways but less in others.

The title, the image on the front cover, the words on the back cover – they all suggest that this is a book about the early years and the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. And it is, but there’s a great deal of ground to cover before the story gets there, because this story goes much further back.

It tells the story of two young women who might have been Queen. Each was her presumptive to the British throne, each seemed likely to ascend to that throne, but only one of them did. And she was only born because the other did not.

It’s an amazing true story – or it might be truer to say a series of stories – very well told, in a style that is both chatty and informative. It’s clear that the storyteller knows and loves her subject, and that she is eager to share what she knows.

2785115Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in 1796 to Prince George – later Prince Regent, later George IV – and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but seeing few other children, and seeing her parents very rarely.

And athough it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, she was given little education or preparation for the role she was expected to be called upon to play.

Charlotte was born into an age when the large, profligate royal family was poorly regarded by its subjects. But she was popular; the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. Her dissolute, spendthrift father  hated that, and so he did his level best to keep her away from the public gaze, shut up in a grand mansion run by his own trusted servants. .

She grew up to be spoiled and wilful; but she also grew up to be vibrant, energetic, and very good at managing people.

When her father tried to marry her off to the unattractive and unappealing Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. Charlotte made some missteps, but eventually she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who she described as  “a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.”

Charlotte was eager to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.

The young couple were married on May 2, 1816, and then moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, where for the first time in her life Charlotte was secure and happy. Very soon she was expecting a child.

On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labour, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, she followed him to the grave.

Public grief was overwhelming. And after the Prince Regent and his six brothers, there was no heir to the throne. George  III had ore than fifty grandchildren, but not one was legitimate.

Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several the of the sons of George III. Mistresses and morganic  wives were cast aside. The Duke of Kent, a lifelong military man,  set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, who would be named Alexandrina Victoria.

The Duke died before his daughter was a year old.

Her mother kept her close, and kept her away from the world, determined that she would reign as her daughter’s regent.

William IV – her uncle, who had come to the throne after the death of George IV – steeled himself to live long enough for his niece to come of age, so that she could rule without a regent.

And her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece; and he spent years groomed his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.

That story rolls on until Victoria is a wife and mother and twenty-two years old – the age that Charlotte was when she died.

The telling of this whole extraordinary story is wonderful; it’s full of detail and it is clearly underpinned by a great deal of research.

I loved that it made history a very human story.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t highlight the parallels between Charlotte and Victoria, and that the author seemed more interested in comparisons with the present day. I was disappointed with that lack of analysis generally, and that momentum of the story overtook almost everything else.

I was left to do all of my own thinking, and I loved doing that but I couldn’t help thinking that I shouldn’t have had to do quite so muc hwork.

And yet I was engaged from start to finish by a story I already knew; I had a lovely time reading, and I am eager to read more about many people and events that this books touched upon.