The Far Cry by Emma Smith

In September 1946  23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …

‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’

… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.

A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949

‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.

When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.

He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.

It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,

His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and  it was time for him to play his.

“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”

The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets  – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.

“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”

When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.

In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.

 

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of 'The Far Cry'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Far Cry’

 

The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.

In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.

Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman  she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.

It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.

The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.

There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….

Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story

There is so much that makes it special.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the  set pieces wonderfully well.

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.

The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,

And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.

“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.”

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

When a copy of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ appeared in my porch, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago, my first instinct was to put it to one side, thinking that it wasn’t my kind of book. Curiosity though made me look at the book and I realised that it might be my kind of book after all, and that there was more than enough that was universal and timeless about the story for me to be happy to step into settings and periods that I rarely visit.

This is the story of a family, about the things that go unsaid or unacknowledged, about conflicting wishes and expectations, and about the consequences of all of that.

Don't Let Him KnowIt opens in California, where Romola Mitra has lived quietly with her only son Amit, his American wife June and their young son Neel since her husband Avinash died a few years earlier. Romola didn’t feel ready for that life, so far from her home in India, but she knew that she was lucky and she really didn’t know what else she could do.

“Some days she wanted someone to say, ‘OK, you have followed the rules long enough. You are free now.’ But no one ever did.”

Amit found the last page of an old letter in his mother’s address book. He read words of love, and he took them to mean that Romola had loved and been loved by a man who was not her father. He encouraged her to look for that man, to find out what had happened to him.

He had no idea that those words had not been addressed to his mother. They had been addressed to his father, who had not had the courage to defy convention and stay in America with the man he loved; who had returned to Calcutta on the death of his father, to marry the girl his family had chosen, to follow the path set out for him as an only son.

The story moves pack into the past then, with each chapters telling the story of a significant moment that Romola or Avinash or Amit has never felt able to share. They weren’t an unhappy family, but they weren’t a happy family either;  they were a family who played their roles and lived from day to day without ever talking about so many things.

Sandip Roy writes lovely, lyrical, readable prose, his observation is acute, and his characters are wonderfully engaging. I believed in them, in their relationships, in their situations. There is humour, there is sadness, there are so many human emotions threaded through these stories. Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The human story is always to the fore, but each tale has something to say about the conflicting forces that underpin lives: tradition versus modernity; duty versus desire; the old world versus the new world.

Now I have a head full of images: a broken Mickey Mouse watch, a film star’s funeral, jars of mango chutney hidden under a bed.

I also have memories of less tangible things: the strongest is of Amit’s dislocation when he returned from America after his father’s death, of his wish to do the best thing for his mother, and of his difficulty is balancing that with his wishes for his own life with his wife and child.

After that the story falls away a little, and the final act feels just a little contrived.

I have no context – I can’t think when I last read any contemporary Indian writing – but I do think that as a whole the book works very well.

It makes me realise that, although there are lots of wonderful books in my comfort zone, I should probably step out of it a little more often on future.

Sara Dane by Catherine Gaskin

I read all of Catherine Gaskin’s books years and years ago. I can’t remember which one I read first, but I do remember that I loved it and that I sought out all of her other books. Some I liked more than others, but I grew to love the author and so I was always happy to find a new title and I was sorry when, one day, there were no more titles to find.

All of this came back to me when I was given the chance to read a new edition, published by Corazon Books, I had to say yes, and I am so glad that I did.

‘Sara Dane’ is a very fine historical romance. The kind that makes me think that its author grew up loving the great Victorian novelists and the other wonderful storytellers of the twentieth century who followed in their footsteps; that she loved and was interested in people, and in the world and its history; and that she loved the art of storytelling, and being a storyteller.

Sara Dane 3

‘Sara Dane’ was Catherine Gaskin’s greatest success, selling in excess of 2 million copies since its first publication in the 1950s, and becoming a television mini-series in the 1980s.

This is a story built on fact: on the story of Mary Reibey, a woman convict who married an officer while travelling to Australia, went on to become a successful businesswoman in her own right. And its clear that Catherine Gaskin researched that story and the history of Australia meticulously, and used what she learned with the greatest of respect as she spun a wonderful fiction around those facts.

The story opens in 1792 on a ship transporting goods, livestock, and a convicts, who are to populate the colony and provide a workforce for the new colonial farmers. A couple who planned to become farmers were on board with their young family, looking for a new life and a stake in a new world. When their servant fell ill and died they told the captain that, before they left England, friends had told them of a former servant who was being transported. Might she be on board? Might she take the place of their servant?

Her name was Sara Dane, and of course she was on board. She was found in the prisoners’ hold, she was set to work, and the family – parents and children – came to love her, and she came to love them.

Sara had been destined for greater things, her widowed father was a tutor, but his fondness of drink, his unexpected death left her alone in the world; her love for one of his students made her vulnerable; and an impulsive action – made with no criminal intent – leads to a criminal conviction and transportation.

Her history made a wonderful story, and she became a wonderful character. I saw echoes of Becky Sharp, echoes of Bathsheba Everdene, but Sara was entirely her own woman, and the more I read that more I understood how she became the person that she was.

A young naval officer who fell in love with Sara during the voyage. He told her of his plans to settle in Australia and farm, and he asked her to be his wife. Sara had misgivings. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but she knew that as convict she would always carry a stigma, and she knew that might affect him and his future and, in time, his feelings about her. But he had an argument to match every one of hers, and it wasn’t long before he won her over.

Andrew Maclay was the right man in the right place at the right time. He was a shrewd businessman, and an excellent judge of character. He was ambitious, and he saw how much was possible. And Sarah matched him. They were so alike, they understood each other, and together they faced natural disasters, social approbation, convict rebellions, and more besides, as they raised a family and built formidable farming, shipping and trading businesses.

Sara plays her part, as a businesswoman, as a wife, as a mother; but she cannot escape the stigma of having been a convict. She is accepted by society only when her husband is by her side. And she knows she must keep that position, to assure her children’s futures.

Over the years she will cross paths with her childhood sweetheart, with an aristocratic French landowner, and with a principled Irish political prisoner. She is drawn to them all, for different reason, and they to her, and they will all influence a future.

Always her goal is to maintain the empire she and her husband built, and to maintain their position in society, because that will be her legacy to her children – and to the future.

But is that what they want? Is Sara blind to other possibilities?

So much happens over the years. Triumph and disaster. Joy and tragedy. Often I could see what was coming, but it was lovely to see events play out.

This is not a deep or complex story, but it rings true.

The historical details were fascinating, and they were woven into the story wonderfully well. And that story is so very well told.

I’d shelve Catherine Gaskin’s books alongside Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. Three very different writers, but there is a thread that links them, and if you like one there is every chance you will like the others ….

The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

In ‘The Tenth Gift’ Jane Johnson spins a story around an extraordinary piece of history:

In 1625 corsairs from North Africa sailed into Mount’s Bay, they entered a church and they took sixty men, women and children, to be sold as slaves.

That church might have been St Mary’s in Penzance, standing at the centre of Mounts Bay, just behind the harbour, clearly visible from the sea. My church, my mother’s church, my grandmother’s church ….

That drew me to the book, but it made me wary too. Because I knew that I’d know if she got it wrong. But I’m pleased to say that she didn’t get the things I knew wrong at all, she taught me some local history that I didn’t know, and that gave me so much confidence when she wrote about things that I didn’t, couldn’t know.

cornwall10Catherine Anne Tregenna, nicknamed Cat, was in service at Kenegie Manor, she was betrothed to her cousin Rob, but she wanted more than that. She was young, she was bright, she was spirited, and she hoped that her talent for embroidery would give her a chance to see more of life, more of the world. She had been given the chance to make an altar cloth for the Countess of Salisbury, and she hoped that might help her to win more commissions, and maybe even gain entry to Broderers Guild.

But her life changed when she and her mother went to church ….

Cat’s story was uncovered by Julia, in a second storyline set in the present day. When her lover left her he gave her antique leather-bound book.  ‘ Needle-Woman’s Glorie’  had been Cat’s book, and when she was torn from her home she began to keep a record of what she experienced, writing in between the embroidery patterns.

Julia followed Cat to Morocco – telling herself that she was researching the story she had uncovered, but also running away from the mess she had made of her life.

The two storylines worked well together, and the links and the mirroring of Cat’s and Julia’s lives didn’t feel contrived at all. But I liked Cat  far more than I liked Julia – it’s hard to care about a heroine who has been having an affair with her best friend’s husband – and her story was not nearly as strong as Cat’s. I would have liked the book more, I think, if the present day story had been pulled back to become a framing story, or even if it had not been there at all.

There was for than enough in Cat’s story – her life in Cornwall, her experiences when she was kidnapped, what happened in Cornwall after the raid – to make a fabulous book all by itself. There was a little dramatic licence taken, a little stretching of credibility, but not too much. Certainly no more than I could forgive when I found so much that was good.

The writing was wonderfully readable, the plotting was very well done, and I loved the links to real history and to the authors own story. I appreciated that she was even-handed, that she understood that the corsairs had reasons for doing what they were doing, that there was right and wrong on both sides, that there could be much common ground between people from different backgrounds and different cultures.

The evocation of time and place – of Cornwall and of Morocco – was so very vivid that it pulled me right into the story. And I couldn’t doubt for one moment that the author was writing of what she knew and what she loved.

Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

I fell in love with a Scottish island when I was eight years old.

Looking back it was a mad thing for my parents to do, travelling so far across country with two young children, but that wanted to see Scotland, and they had been guided to a particular place by a very good friend. So if it was madness it was the very best kind of madness, and if I had to live outside Cornwall I should still choose to live on a Scottish Island.

That’s what drew me to ‘Stormy Petrel, even though I knew it was one of Mary Stewart’s later novels and not considered to be her best work; it was set on a fictional Scottish island, and island very close to and very like mine.

the-stormy-petrel-mary-stewart

 

The story opened in a Cambridge where Rose, who write poetry for love and science fiction for money, was  a tutor of English. A newspaper advertisement caught her eye: an advertisement for cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. It sounded perfect. Rose could have the time and space to write and her doctor brother, a keen wildlife photographer,  would love to take pictures of the rare birds that nested on the island.

Rose travelled north before her brother, and she found the island and the cottage to be everything she hoped them to be.

When Rose wakes in the night to the sounds of someone moving about downstairs she assumes that her brother has arrived. But he hasn’t, and another man is making tea in the kitchen. Both are startled, but the intruder is quick to reassure Rose, explaining that he had lived there with  foster parents, he had fallen out of touch, he had no idea that they had moved away. And then another man arrived. His explanation was that he was a visiting geologist, he had been camping, and when the storm carried his tent away he had come to look for shelter where he saw lights.

The two men claimed not to have met, but there was something in their manners towards each other that told rose that they had, that something was amiss. Rose made a sensible decision: she withdrew to her room, leaving the pair to make the best of things downstairs.

When Rose woke again the storm and her house-guests had gone. She thought that was the end of things, but of course it was only the beginning ….

I found a lot to like in ‘Stormy Petrel’.

Moila is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved.

 ” It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.”

I loved that Rose came to love her island as I loved mine, that she appreciated that things that made it so special. And I was pleased that she proved herself to be sensible, capable and practical.

I was pleased that the romance was low-key, and that the resolution of the story was gentle, with future possibilities simply suggested.

I was less pleased that the suspense was low-key, that it became clear quickly who was the hero and who was the villain, that the villain was not so very wicked, and that there was very little mystery to be resolved or danger to be faced.

And so I loved my trip to Moila, I loved the company, but the story – it needed something more.

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – just a few years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I’ve noticed that many readers name ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ as a particular favourite. Now that I’ve read ‘Nine Coaches Waiting’ I can understand why, and I think that it might be my favourite too.

It’s not a realistic, real-world story; but it is a glorious entertainment

And it’s a ‘governess novel’ – a kind of book that I love

3397071The story begins as Linda Martin lands in Paris on a cold, grey, rainy day. She was the son of an English father and a French mother, but they died when she was still quite young, and so she finished her education and became a governess inside an orphanage.

When the chance of a job in France appeared she was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the country she hadn’t seen for many years, and she secured the position. An English girl had been requested, and so she thought it sensible not to mention that she spoke the language fluently.

I warmed to Linda from the start, and I saw such promise in the story that was unfolding.

Her charge was Philippe, who  also lost both his parents in a tragic accident. He was the heir to his father’s title, and to his estates, and he lived in the family home that he inherited, the vast and ornate Château Valmy,  in the French Alps.

Linda was enchanted by the house, by its beauty and history, but she also saw that it was not a happy home.

She warmed to Philippe though, and a strong bond grew up between them.

He didn’t care for his Uncle Leon and Aunt Heloise, but Linda told herself that was just because they weren’t warm or demonstrative, because their lifestyle wasn’t suited to being parental figures, because they weren’t his beloved parents …..

Linda is shaken when two accidents, one in the countryside and one at home, come close to taking Philippe’s life. She knows then that something is wrong then, but she doesn’t know who to trust. She only knows that she will do whatever she can to protect Philippe.

She wanted to trust Raoul,  the dark and dashing young man who had her utterly smitten, but she knew that he was Leon’s son, and that he might have had a hand in those accidents ….

I’d love to say more, but I mustn’t give away any more of the story than I have already.

But I must say what makes this book so special.

Mary Stewart always evokes the settings of her stories wonderfully well, and in a way that feels so natural; she does that here with the loveliest of settings. I was transported to the big house, to the nearby village, to the countryside. I loved it all.

The cast of characters was wonderful. Linda was plucky – but not too plucky – and I found it easy to understand her feeling and how she reacted to people and situations.  Her relationship with Philippe was caught perfectly, and he was an utterly real child; he understood what was happening, but he needed guidance  and support; and he needed a friend. The relationship between Linda and Philippe, and the way it evolved, was lovely, and exactly right.

All of the characters were simply drawn; but they had such depth. Uncle Leon was particularly interesting; a strong powerful man, confined to a wheelchair after an accident, and constrained by the role he had to play as his nephew’s trustee …..

The story was perfectly judged; mystery, suspense, romance, and just a dash of the gothic,  woven together by a craftswoman at the height of her powers. And there was a nice balance of elements that were recognisably ‘Mary Stewart’ and elements that made this story distinctive. It was full of wonderful details; and I particularly liked the way that the small debt to Jane Eyre was acknowledged.

As events played out I was so caught up, so concerned for Linda and Philippe. I wasn’t sure that she was doing the right thing, but I knew that she was acting was the best of intentions. I could think of no better alternative, and I had no more idea than she did, or who she should or should not trust.

I realised, just a little before she did, that a new governess with no home and no family of her own might be a perfect scapegoat ….

The tension grew and grew. I knew how I wanted the story to play out, but I wasn’t sure that it could.

It did. I think ….

An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

An  intriguing title, a lovely cover, a promise of history and mystery gave me high hopes for ‘An Appetite for Violets’, and I am pleased to say that they were met. More than met.

The opening sets up the story beautifully.

A man arrives at a villa in Tuscany, looking for his sister, the lady of the house. But she is gone; her whole household is gone; only her little dog, the dog he knows she never would have abandoned, remains. Downstairs he finds a dining table is laid for a feast.  He climbs the stairs, fearful of what he might find.  But all he finds is a mannequin, clad in a lovely pink dress, and an envelope. He opens the envelope and a fabulous ruby falls out.

I had to find out what had happened, what led up to that extraordinary scene.

19825708A few months earlier Biddy Leigh had been an under-cook at Mawton Hall. I liked her from the moment we met: she was bright, she was curious, she was capable, she loved what she did, and her future was full of promise. She was going to marry her young man, and they were going to run a tavern together.

Biddy didn’t know it, but her life was going to change.

The widowed master of the house brought home a new, young bride. Lady Carinna was spoiled, temperamental and horribly demanding. She had her eye on Biddy for some reason, and she often called her to her side. When Lady Carinna decided to travel to her uncle’s estate in Italy she decided than Biddy would be in her retinue. It wasn’t what Biddy wanted, but her young man told her that they needed the five guineas that she would earn for their future, and it was only for a year. She knew that she had to go.

Biddy was thrilled when Mrs Garland, the cook who had guided and taught her, entrusted her with ‘The Cook’s Jewel.’ It was a journal that had been written in by generations of cooks; an extraordinary anthology of recipes and knowledge. The contents of that book were scattered through the story; recipes from the past and recipes that Biddy learned on her journey across Europe. It was a lovely, lovely touch, and oh how I wish I could have a copy of ‘The Cook’s Jewel’ to keep with my copy of ‘An Appetite for Violets.’

It was clear from the start that Lady Carinna was a schemer, but it took time for her plans for Biddy to become clear. At first I thought I was a step ahead, that I could see what she couldn’t. But she caught on, and she held her end up brilliantly. But she didn’t see all of the consequences, and neither did I.

I loved Biddy’s voice, and there were other voices too, and they opened out the story. There was Mr Pars, the butler, who had nobody who could talk to, but who could share his feelings in his letters to his bother. And there was Loveday, a black slave who had been torn away from his wife and children on a remote island. He and Biddy became friends; she was the only one who was interested in his story, who treated him with respect, who called him Mr Loveday.

Some very clever plotting explained just how that opening scene came to be, with lovely twists and turns, marvellous drama, and lots of lovely details. After that, the story moved forward to a very fine ending. It was unexpected and it was exactly right.

I loved the storytelling: the voices were distinctive, the period touches were lovely, and the story was captivating. There’s a lot more than history and mystery, but this is too good a book for me to spoil for anyone else. It’s a lovely, it’s distinctive, it’s full of interest, and it’s told with just the right amount of verve. The author’s love of her story and everything in it shone from the pages.

I can understand that: she’s written a fabulous first novel!