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.”

A Box of Books for 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with year-end lists.

I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. I know that it’s for the best of reasons: I have learned that there are so many wonderful books out there, and so I have learned to read the books that call; the books I want to read, rather than the books I ought to read.

So I’m going to do what I did last year. I’m going to assemble a virtual box of books to capture all of the things that I’ve loved in this year’s reading. It might sound like a list, and maybe it is, but to me feels like I’ve pulled some great books from the shelves because those are the books I want to pull from the shelves right now. It’s not quite so definitive.

And here it is – in the order that I read them:


Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

“What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“I must confess that, though I loved the recent film adaptation of The Painted Veil, I have been circling my copy of the book for a long, long time. Because for years Maugham lived in my box marked ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

“I was smitten with ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.”

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

“Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.”

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

“In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’ She should.”

Mariana by Monica Dickens

“Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.”

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley

“It’s a lovely period piece, full of lovely characters, pieces of history, references to beloved books, clever plotting, well-chosen details … and it’s utterly, utterly readable.”

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.”

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

“In ‘The Sea Change’, Joanna Rossiter spins her story around a mother and daughter, both caught up in life changing events – real, historical events – that are very different and yet have similar consequences. She does it so very well that I can scarcely believe it is her debut. But it is.”

The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson

“I was so sorry to have to say goodbye to Charlotte and her world, after being caught up in her life and her world from start to finish. That points to very clever writing and plotting. Charlotte’s world, the people in it, all of the things she lived through were painted richly and beautifully. Her story lived and breathed.”

The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

“That I felt so deeply for these three siblings, that I was so upset, is a measure of what Rebecca Wait has achieved in her debut novel. I never doubted that she really knew, that she really understood, and that her accounts of depression, of bereavement, of grief, were utterly, utterly credible.  And the simplicity and the clarity of her story and her writing allowed that understanding to shine.”

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (re-read)

“Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.”

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

“Best of all, the story of the golem and the djinni spoke profoundly of humanity, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of what it is that makes us human.”

No More Than Human by Maura Laverty

“She set off for Madrid,  to become a ‘professora’ – a free-lance tutor and  chaperone. It was an independent lifestyle that suited Delia very well, but it wasn’t easy to establish herself when she was so young, and maybe her reputation would follow her. But Delia was determined, and soon she was setting her sights even higher …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

“There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated. She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for  a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.”


The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (re-read)

“Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.”

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

“I was captivated by ‘The Misbegotten’, a wonderfully readable, utterly compelling story, set early in the eighteenth century. It is story of dark secrets, terrible losses, devastating lies, of the lives that they affect, and of truths that may be brought to light at a very high price.”

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

“The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine. In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.”

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

“It was all so horribly believable. And it was unsettling, seeing how easily a life could be knocked off course, a mind knocked off balance. The story built , slowly and steadily, never losing it’s grip, towards a very clever ending. An ending that I really didn’t see coming, but an ending that made perfect sense.”

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

“Frost Hollow Hall is more than a ghost story; it’s a story that lives and breathes, and paint wonderful pictures, and it’s a story about love, family, loss, regret, and learning to let go, told beautifully, with both subtlety and charm.”


The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (re-read)

“The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.”

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (re-read)

“Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.”

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

“I loved the way that the story of Shiva and Pravati, and stories of her family, were woven into Alice’s own story. The contrast between India and England was very, very effective, and there were so many lovely things to notice along the way: bookish references, period details, real history – everything you could want.”

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

“It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.”

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

“It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.”


And that is very nearly the end of my reading year.

All that remains is to tell you about the very last book I read for my Century of Books, and to wind up that project …..

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

When World War II began Emma Smith was very nearly grown up. She saw young men she knew sign up, she heard news of deaths, she saw other working on the home front, and she wanted to do something too. In 1943 she found her role. She signed on with the Grand Union Shipping Company, who were employing women to get boats that had been lying idle moving again, to move cargoes up and down the country.

I read about those years in Emma Smith’s second volume of autobiography, ‘As Green as Grass.’ It’s a wonderful books, but the Cornish library Service’s copies are in heavy demand, and so I had to hand my copy back before I had time to pull my thoughts together and write about it.

Maidens trip

But I had this book, the book that Emma Smith wrote about her wartime experiences right after the war, the book that won the James Tait Black Memorial Award for 1948, on the shelf; I had to pick it up and read.

‘Maidens’ Trip’ is fiction, but it is very close to fact; this is the story of one journey, up and down the canal, inspired by many trips made and many people met until the end of the year.

It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.

They will manage two boats – a motor boat to provide the power and a butty boat to provide the space – and they will move cargo between London and Birmingham.

“It must have been an astonishing imposition for the canal people when the war brought them dainty young girls to help them mind their business, eager young creatures with voices pitched as to be almost impossible to understand. It must have been amazing, more especially since the war changed their own lives so little, for they read no newspapers, being unable to read, and if they did possess a wireless, seldom listened to the news …..”

Emma Smith paints wonderful pictures of those people: some are curious, some are helpful, some are competitive, and only a few are hostile.

The three girls take to their new life with gusto. They live in cramped conditions, rising early, cooking on a camping stove, and go out in all weathers to do hard physical work. They learn much along the way, they laugh, they cry, they squabble; but it is clear that they have a wonderful camaraderie, that they are completely wrapped up in what they are doing, and that they are absolutely determined to succeed.

The war, home, family, seem so far away, and are barely mentioned. That’s how caught up they are …..

The workings of the boats, the mechanics of the canal and the boats form the backbone of the story, and though I knew little it was easy to understand, and the spirit of the girls always held my interest. If they could do it then I could read it!

There are some wonderful incidents along the way. A kitten is rescued and named Cleopatra. A girl is forced to run along the canal bank when she is left behind, after going in search of proper bathroom facilities. A few tins of food are turned into a wonderful feast. A leak creates panic …..

Emma Smith took all of this – day-to-day minutiae and wonderful memories – and she turned it into a wonderfully engrossing tale. She told it with such verve, such wonderful economy, such subtle wit, such elegant prose; and she brought a world and a time that she clearly loved to life on the page.



Teaser Tuesdays / It’s Tuesday, where are you?


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“It must have been an astonishing imposition for the canal people when war brought them dainty young girls to help them mind their business, clean young creatures with voices so pitched as to be almost impossible to understand. It must have been amazing, more especially since the war changed their lives so little, for they read no newspapers, being unable to read, and, if they did possess a wireless, seldom listened to the news. “

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB


I am on the Grand Union Canal, at the Regent’s Canal docks. You see, I signed on with a scheme to employ women to work boats while the war is on.

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.

This all comes courtesy of Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith.

The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith


I picked up “The Great Western Beach”, Emma Smith’s memoir of her Cornish childhood between the wars, with great expectations.

I had lots of reasons for optimism. I love childhood memoirs and I know Emma Smith to be a wonderful writer. She writes of Newquay, a town that I know and worked in for a short period a few years ago. It is very like the town I grew up in on the opposite coast of Cornwall and the author is of the same generation as my mother.

“The Great Western Beach” more than lived up to my expectations. It is a wonderful book.

Emma’s parents are sadly mismatched. Her father was decorated for bravery in the 1st World War, but he struggles with family life in peacetime, his job as a bank clerk and the financial constraints that imposes.

He in unkind and cruel to his wife who, having losing three fiancés to the war and fearing that she would lose her chance of a family of her own, married in haste.

Emma’s elder sister Pam copes with a mixture of bravado and secrecy, but Pam’s twin Jim is terrorised by their father, who despises the timidity that he largely creates in his son. Emma keeps her head down and is his favourite as a result, a position she is far from comfortable with.

All of this sounds dark, but one of the great strengths of this book is the empathy and understanding that Emma has for all her family. Her father is not a monster, but a flawed and unhappy man.

And there is so much light.

Emma recalls so many details of a wonderful childhood by the sea and writes of it wonderfully well.

The excitement of a trip to the cinema, the thrill of owning a motor car, the arrival of the town’s roller-skating rink, tennis parties, birthday parties and so much more. The details are packed in but the author’s skill is such that the book never feels crowded.

The family’s maid Lucy brings great warmth and Newquay’s varied array of residents and visitors are all portrayed with great charm.

And best of all, there is the beach. Emma and her siblings spent their free time on the beach, on the sands, in rock pools, swimming and surfing, shell-collecting, reading and observing life all year ound. There are holiday-makers, donkeys, ice cream and deck-chairs in the summer and there is a quite magical emptiness in the winter.

Trips to the beach seem to be the times when all of the family can be happy and enjoy together.

All of this is related in wonderful clear prose, and the author balances the perspective of her chilhood with her greater wisdom as an adult wonderfully well.

Emma’s mother receives an inheritance from an uncle and the family move to a bigger house and enjoy some financial freedom. As they advance in society more and more possibilities open to them.

Eventually though they advance right out of Newquay when Emma’s father is promoted and the family move to Plymouth. As the book ends Emma is aware that a significant part of her life is over and that she will miss in very much.

I loved this book and I miss the world it recreated now I have finished reading.

Teaser Tuesday / It’s Tuesday Where Are You?


I am growing up in Newquay, by the sea in Cornwall, in the late 1920s. I have an older sister and brother and my sister Pam and I are thrilled that our mother is about to have another baby.

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“We take it for granted that Newquay residents are, almost without exception, a superior breed to Newquay visitors. The Hallsmiths can thus, being residents, regard the seasonal influx of holiday-makers on their beach – our beach – with aloof condescension and a certain degree of pity”

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB

This all comes courtesy of The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith.

An utterly charming memoir!

I have to say that my teaser isn’t typical, but I had to use it because I live in another Cornish seaside town and the sentiment remains the same.

Library Loot


Library Loot is a weekly event hosted by Eva and Alessandra to share the library books we find each week.

I am in arrears with my library reading, but a couple of books that I had on order turned up this week and I picked up a few more that I just couldn’t leave behind.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This is one of those books that seems to be being talked about all over the place, so I ordered it for the Lost in Translation Reading Challenge.


Words of Love by Pamela Norris

An absolutely wonderful history of women’s writing from Heloise to Sylvia Plath. It’s wonderfully readable and will inspire me a to read lots more books! I suspect that this is a book I won’t want to take back and that i will end up buying my own copy to look back to.


The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith

This is a childhood memoir. Emma Smith is a wonderful writer and she grew up between the wars very near where I grew up some years later.


The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I have been interested in this book for ages and I found a lovely unread “Millennium Collection” edition in the library. Isn’t it nice when you are the first person to read a new library book?!


The Virago Book of Food edited by Jill Foulson

I am definitely a Virago geek and this is a lovely anthology that I will be dipping in and out of over the next few weeks.