Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr

Catherine Storr’s 1958 novel Marianne Dreams is one of those classic children’s stories that passed me by, but luckily I spotted a Puffin copy from the 1970s, I picked it up, I thought it looked lovely, and so I brought it home.

It was lovely, it was spooky, and it was the kind of book that brought out the child who loved books inside me.

Marianne is confined to bed with an illness that will keep her their for several months. Bored, she starts to draw to pass the time, using an old pencil she found in her grandmother’s workbox.  She draws a house, with a garden, set in rough moorland.

When she falls asleep she dreams that she is standing outside the house she drew. She goes to the door but she finds that she can’t get in, because she didn’t draw a door knob. She adds that the next day, and after the next night’s dream she adds a staircase, so that she can go upstairs to meet the boy she drew looking out of a window.

The next day she goes back to her drawing, and she adds a door handle, and a boy looking out of an upstairs window. That night’s dream makes her realise that she needs to add stairs, and when she has added those she meets Mark. he tells her that he has trapped, because he has been ill and he can’t use his legs properly.

Marianne had been having lessons with Miss Chesterfield, a tutor who gave lessons to sick children in their own homes; and she realised that Mark was another pupil Miss Chesterfield had told her about, who had polio. That intrigued Marianne, but it also upset her when her tutor was a little late on her birthday, explaining that it was because Mark had arranged for his mother to buy her flowers; many more flowers than Marianne had own mother buy.

Later that day, still upset, Marianne drew bars across Mark’s window, and sinister eyes on the boulders that she had drawn to fill the spacce on the page outside the house and garden. Later she regretted what she had done, but the marks that the pencil made couldn’t be arased, and all Marianne could do was add more to her drawing.

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(The black and white illustrations in my copy are really effective.)

I saw that the pencil captured Marianne’s intent as she drew as well as the marks she made on paper. She didn’t notice that, because she was too caught up in the adventure and the practicalities that presented themselves. I would have been the same if I read the book as her age; and I would have been as disturbed as she and Mark were by the watchers.

The eyes that Marianne drew onto the boulders when she was angry with Mark had turned them into sinister, sentient beings that she knew would harm the two children if they tried to leave the house. But she knew that they had to leave the house, because their health and happiness in the waking world reflected their health and happiness in Marianne’s dreams.

What could she draw to give Mark the strength to escape, and to allow them to escape the watchers ….. ?

The idea behind this book was inspired, and the execution was perfect. The internal logic held, and Catherine Storr had the wisdom to not explain so much. She focused her story on her characters; I liked Marianne and Mark, I felt for them and I believed in them; they behaved exactly as children their age would. I do wish I’d met them when I was their age, but I’m glad that at least I’ve met them now.

What I wouldn’t have noticed when I was that young is that the writing is elegant, the story-telling is lovely, and that the book has hardly dated at all.

Marianne’s story was adapted for television in the 1970s, it was modernised for the cinema in the 1980s (Bernard Rose’s ‘Paperhouse’); and a few years ago it was adapted for the stage.

It would sit very nicely among the children’s classics on anyone’s bookshelves; and I understand that it is still in print …..

Weathering by Lucy Wood

I have been spellbound by this beguiling and bewitching book; a book that speaks of mothers and daughters, of memories and ghosts, of the way people and places can hold us and form us, and of other things – fundamental things – that I can’t quite put into words.

The story that the Lucy Wood spins is quite simple.

Ada has come home for the first time in thirteen years with her small daughter, Pepper, in tow. She didn’t really want to come, but her mother has did and it has fallen to her to go through her mother’s things and to clear the house. She had nowhere in particular to go back to, she has nowhere in particular to move on to, but she doesn’t plan to stay.

The house lies deep in a valley that has been carved out by a great river; a river that is replenished by rain that never seems to stop.

The house is dilapidated, it is isolated, and it has no home comforts. Ada just wants to do what she has to do and then go.

But so many things say that she should stay.
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Pepper has never had a place to call home and she is captivated by the house full of relics of her grandmother’s life, by the power and the beauty of the river, and by the small community that welcomes her.

Pearl, Ada’s mother, hasn’t quite left the place that was her home for so long, and her spirit rises up from the river that has claimed her to reclaim her place in the lives and the memories of her daughter and her granddaughter.

And even Ada herself begins to wonder as she recalls and begins to understand the past and as she is drawn back into the life of the world that she thought she had left behind thirteen years earlier.

All of this happens in one time and in one place, but the story is timeless and it could play out anywhere in the world.

The world that Lucy Wood creates lives and breathes; and it’s a world where nature is very, very close. I could feel the rain; I could hear the river. The river and all of the life in and around it has much of a place as the people who move through the story.

The story ebbs and flows, it moves backwards and forwards in time, and it works beautifully. One every page there’s an image, an idea, or a memory, and this is a book to read slowly, so that you can pause and appreciate every one. And so that you can appreciate how profoundly this novel speaks of mothers and daughter, how our relationships and the roles that we play evolve, how our understanding of each other and the world around us change overtime.

The emotional intensity, the clarity and the beauty of the writing is so wonderful. I loved Lucy Wood’s voice when I read her short stories, and it was so lovely to recognise it as soon as I opened this book and started to read. Her voice is distinctive and her prose is glorious and utterly, utterly readable.

This book explores themes that are close to my heart; I love it for that and I love it for its artistry.

I’ve read comparisons to authors like Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. I understand them, I think they’re fair, but I also think that that Lucy Wood isn’t quite like anybody else.

I think – I hope – that one day she will be held as much as esteem as they are.

I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t see Lucy Wood’s name when literary prizes are awarded later in this year.

I know I’m not wholly objective, but I really do think that this book is in that class.

Tryst by Elswyth Thane

I was intrigued by some lovely reviews of this ghostly romance from the thirties, I was thrilled to find that the library had a copy on reserve stock, and as soon as I read the opening words I was smitten:

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books. She tiptoed along the carpeted upper passage and whisked around the corner to the second flight of stairs leading to the top floor of the house. Gripped tightly in one hand she carried her burglar tools- nail scissors with curved points, a button-hook, and some wire hairpins stolen from Aunt Effie’s dressing-table.”

The story of what had lead Sabrina to take such drastic action, and of what happened next, was lovely. If Mary Stewart and D E Stevenson had ever sat down together to write a ghost story it might have been rather like this.

Sabrina Archer was the loveliest of heroines; she was bright, she was bookish, and her sheltered upbringing had made her older is some ways and younger it others than her seventeen years. I found her so easy to love, so easy to understand, and why heart would rise and fall with hers as events unfolded.

TrystShe had moved with her self-absorbed father and conventional aunt to Nuns Farthing, a house they have rented in the English countryside. There was one locked room at the top of the stairs. The housekeeper explained that it was because the family member who usually occupied that room was away, abroad, and that the family hadn’t wanted to disturb his things. It was perfectly reasonable, there was more than enough house room without it, but for reasons she didn’t entirely understand Sabrina was irresistibly drawn to that one room. hence the nail scissors, the button-hook and the hair-pins.

When she gained access to the room, when she saw the desk, the armchairs, the bookshelves, the wonderful array of books on those shelves, Sabrina knew that she had been right to do what she did. Everything about the room felt like home; that feeling grew as she spent time there, and so did her interest in its absent occupant.

Hilary Shenstone was wounded  on assignment in India for the Home Office and then , as he was being flown back for medical treatment, his plane was shot down. Hilary’s final thoughts were of England, and especially of Nuns Farthing. His spirit found its back there, found strangers in the house, found a kindred spirit in his room.

It wouldn’t be fair to say much more about the story than that.

There were some lovely moments, some amusing, some heart-warming, some sad, as Hilary made his way home and as Sabrina curled up in an armchair to read from his bookshelves. And though the arc of the story had a feeling of inevitability it never felt predictable, and I was always held in the moment. I was involved. I cared.

The characters are simply drawn, the logic probably wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, and I can’t deny that the story is sentimental. But it works beautifully, if you take it for what it is: a simple, ghostly, old-fashioned romance.

The ending seemed a little melodramatic, but suddenly it became so very bittersweet.

Oh how I wish that I could shelve ‘Tryst’ alongside stories like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘Still She Wished for Company’ – and not have to give it back to the library.

I know though that, even without a copy of the book on hand,  Sabrina and her story will be staying with me.

 

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I was lucky to discover Angela Carter’s writing at a very young age, not long after I had started to read grown-up books.

I spotted a book named ‘The Magic Toyshop’ on a paperback carousel in the library. What was such a thing doing on the shelves for grown-ups? And why did it have a dark green cover, that looked like a classic, but not the sort of classic I had ever seen before?

I picked the book up, I began to read, and what I read was extraordinary. It was like nothing I had read before and it did things that I didn’t know books could do. After that I read every book by Angela Carter that I could lay my hands on, and I picked up more of those books with dark green covers – Virago Modern Classics – hoping to find more intriguing books and more oh so special authors.

And so it was Angela Carter who set me on a path of picking up books bearing unknown titles and unfamiliar author names, hoping to find more magic ….

Collage 1I had nothing new to read for Angela Carter Week, but I had lots of books that I might revisit, to see what I might find in them with more experience of books and of life behind me. It seemed natural to start again with that first book, to revisit ‘The Magic Toyshop’.

At its heart is a simple story. Melanie is fifteen years-old and she has a lovely life; her parents are happy and successful, she and her siblings are much loved, and they have a beautiful home in the country. But Melanie’s parents are killed in an accident and the three children are sent to live with unknown relations …

But it is clear from the start that this will be a coming of age story like no other.

Melanie’s sexuality is awakening. She is drawn to her mother’s wedding dress, to put it on, to go outside. But she finds herself locked out and she has to shed the dress, bundle it up, climb the apple tree to get back inside.

“She parcelled up the dress and stuck it in the fork of the tree. she could carry it up with her and put it away again in the trunk and no one would know it had been worn if they did not see the blood on the hem, and there was only a little blood. The cat put its head on one side and turned it sequin regard on the parcel; it stretched out its paddy paw and stroked the dress. Its paw was tipped with curved, cunning meat hooks. It had a cruel stroke. There was a ripping sound.”

And when she wakes the next morning she learns that her parents are dead.

Angela Carter painted that scene gloriously, in such rich colours, and there was so much that you could read into it. The whole story was like that; a coming of age story twisted into the most profound, dark, gothic drama.

Melanie found herself in a dilapidated house where her tyrannical uncle ruled over his mute, cowed wife, and her two young brothers. It was a magic toyshop, but it was also a house ruled by fear. Melanie had to  learn to live with that, with dirt and poverty, with her feelings for her aunt’s brother, Finn.

Sometimes she was drawn to him – as he was to her – and sometimes she was repulsed by him.

Conflicts and contradictions like that were threaded through the story.

Angela Carter painted vivid pictures in rich colours, picking out the strangest details. Those pictures are utterly compelling, but they are also disturbing, and sometimes repellent.

The most dramatic pictures of all were of her uncle, his life-sized puppets, and the puppet shows he drew first his family and then Melanie into:

“Red plush curtains swung to the floor from a large, box-like construction at the far end of the room. Finn, masked, advanced and tugged a cord. The curtains swished open, gathering in swags at each side of a small stage, arranged as a grotto in a hushed, expectant woodland, with cardboard rocks. Lying face-downwards in a tangle of strings was a puppet five feet high, a sulphide in a fountain of white tulle, fallen flat down as if someone had got tired of her in the middle of playing with her, dropped her and wandered off. She had long, black hair down to the waist of her tight satin bodice.”

In the end something broke. It had to.

Melanie had tried to change things. But there were some things that she didn’t know, that she didn’t understand.

‘The Magic Toyshop’ touches on some difficult subjects, but the images, the ideas, the symbolism, the eccentricity are just so wonderful. It’s untidy though, not a book for those with delicate sensibilities, who like things neat and tidy.

acw-badge-2-2But I can’t pick this book apart. I loved it the first time I read it and I still love it now.

The best way I have to explain its appeal is to confess that I typed ‘Alice’ instead of ‘Melanie’ more than once, because Melanie’s situation seemed so much like Alice’s when she tumbled down the rabbit hole.

It sounds mad, and yet it works ….

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.

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Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

 “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway.  And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story.