A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

This is lovely: a quite beautifully written book that speaks so profoundly. I find myself wanting to say so much, and at the same time being almost lost for words.

‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is a coming of age story, the story of a girl and a boy, whose paths cross one summer on the French Riviera.

Penelope lived there, in the hotel that her father and her step-mother. It was the most bohemian of establishments, catering for artists, performers and eccentrics. Penelope’s life had no rules, she was free to do as she pleased, and she hated it. She longed for a conventional family, and she longed to be free of the chaos that surrounded her.

21155902She watched the family staying at the villa set below the hotel – father, mother, son, daughter, baby – and she so wished that she could be one of them. She couldn’t, but she met the children, Don and Eva, and they became friends. Don and Eva were as taken with her world as she was with theirs.

Pamela Frankau captures that relationship, and the emotions of the young people, wonderfully well. Their fascination with a different world, and the tempering of that interest when faced with some of its realities. The resentment of their own reality that turns to defensiveness when it is criticised. All of those complex things.

Naturally both sets of parents are concerned and in the end a death – a quite natural death ends that friendship.

And that is the first of the three acts, told in Penelope’s voice.

Her voice rang true, and I understood exactly how she had become the girl she was: careful, naïve, and not nearly as sophisticated as the books he read and the stream of guests she met made her think she was.

The second act is Don’s. The events of the summer change him, and they make him question things that he had never thought to question before. He judges his parents, he finds them wanting, and his own interests draw him into the circle of an extraordinary man. He is an unconventional man, but he proves to be a wise counsellor.

Again Pamela Frankau captures his emotions, his growing pains quite perfectly.

He was lucky, he was gifted; but another death, another quite natural death shook him.

The third act is told in Penelope’s and in other voices. She and Don had friends in common, and the events that shook his life also touched hers. Penelope would learn lessons, would learn to see the world as an adult, before she and Don meet again.

They had both changed, but they recognised each other, and they both understood the events of the summer that changed their lives so much better.

The third act is not so easy to warm to as the first and second, because it moves between very different characters, but it is so profound. And it speaks so clearly about life, about death, about learning and growing, about penitence and forgiveness ….

Every voice rings trues, every character is beautifully realised, and every word is utterly right and utterly believable. ‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is not a comfortable story, few of the characters are likeable, but it is – they are – fascinating.

The dialogue is pitch perfect, there’s just enough wit, and the themes and ideas that are threaded through the story work so well.

I really couldn’t have predicted the way the it played out, but it was so thought-provoking and so right.

The only thing that stops me from saying that this book is perfect is the structure. The shifting voices, the overlapping stories, worked wonderfully well, and I liked the more linear story of ‘The Willow Cabin’ a little more.

So ‘A Wreath for the Enemy’ is one small step away from perfection. One very small step. The quality of the writing, the depth of the story, the insight of the author, make this book something very special.

I’m so sorry that none of Pamela Frankau’s work is in print now, but I plan to track down and read as many of her books as I can.

The TBR Pile Challenge 2014 …..

I’m signing up for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader, because I need something to remind me how many good books I have waiting for me on my own shelves.

2014tbrbuttonIt works something like this:

Pick a dozen books that you have owned for more than a year and not read. Pick two alternates, just in case one or two of that dozen, doesn’t work out. Read them in 2014.

I’m only picking books I really want to read, because life is too short and there are too many great books to do anything else, but I did set myself some other criteria.

I’ve picked my books from different shelves around the house so that I look at all of the other books that aren’t on the list along the way.

Every book I picked has acome from a different place – not for any particular reason, just because I wanted to see if I could work things that way.

And none of these books are on my Classics Club list or anything to do with any other projects, because I want to read a wider range of books next year.

So here are the twelve:

Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson

This one came my way courtesy of ReadItSwapIt a couple of years ago. I really do want to read it, because I like the look of one or two of the books later in the series.

Devotion by Nell Leyshon

I picked this up from a book stall because I recognised the author’s name. I loved The Colour of Milk and I have high hopes for this rather different, contemporary story.

The Phoenix’ Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins

I spotted this one in a local bookshop, sadly now closed, not knowing at the time that it was rare. Searches have revealed noting, it doesn’t get a mention in the author’s biography, but the opening suggests that it is set in an Elizabethan theatre …

The First Last Kiss by Ali Harris

I bought this second novel when it was brand new in local bookshop, because I loved Ali Harris’s first book.

The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing

This one was sitting on a charity shop shelf, and I had to bring it home.

A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

I spotted this one at a fundraising sale for our local museum.

Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood

This one was ordered from the publisher after reading Claire’s review.

You by Joanna Briscoe

This one dropped through by letterbox, unsolicited, a few years ago, and I like the look of it but I’ve never quite got around to picking it up.

Darkness Falls All Over Again by Nigel Balchin

I bought this one when I was living in London. I remember listening to the radio, hearing somebody pick this as their favourite book set in London. and saying that it was like ‘The End of the Affair’ – but better.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

This was a gift from a very generous Virago Secret Santa a couple of years ago,

Two-Thirds of a Ghost by Helen McCloy

This is a green numbered Penguin that I picked up in a very good second-hand bookshop in Falmouth.

A Wreath for the Enemy by Pamela Frankau

I can remember my fiancé – a trained spotter of Virago Modern Classics – coming home with this one.

And here are my two possible substitutes:

The Children’s Book by A S Byatt

I pounced on this brand new hardback copy when it was being sold very cheaply at a library sale.

The Heart of London by Monica Dickens

This one came from a bookshop in Redruth, on a day when I had to be very picky because there were so many books I would have liked. It made the cut because I love Monica Dickens, and it is such a lovely editions.

Wish me luck!

The Willow Cabin by Pamela Frankau

When I searched for the source of the title of Pamela Frankau’s 1949 novel, it was lovely to remember how lovely it was, and to realise that it suited the book that I had just read quite beautifully.

“Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love,
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills,
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, you should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me…”

From Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

This the story of Caroline Seward, a young actress who had just had her first taste of success on the stage. Wonderful possibilities opened up for her, but she didn’t take them. Because she had fallen in love – with Michael Knowles, a successful, middle-aged doctor – and she built her life around him.

He loved her.

“He came over to the chair, pulled her out of it and stood holding her hands. ‘If I were really grown-up now, I should say good-bye to you and walk out of your life. And yet I cannot bear to go.'”

But Michael was married. He and his wife were estranged, and he made it clear from the start that that there could be no divorce. Caroline accepts the situation, she lives for the moment, but it casts a shadow over their relationship. How could it not?

The Willow CabinWhen war came, and Michael was called up, Caroline signed up for military service so that she would be as close to him as she could be. But Michael did not survive the was. Caroline, grieved for him, but it was only when she finally met her lover’s estranged wife that she fully understood and could come to terms with everything that had happened.

You could call this a love story, and of course it is a love story, but it is so much more that those simple words suggest.

It is the story of a young woman who changes, and whose understanding grows. And it is the story of her relationships. With theatre friends and colleagues, who appreciate her talent, who want to work with her, but are often infuriated by her.  With Michael’s friends and family, who were also friends and family of his estranged with. With her best friend, who was practical, sensible, and just the friend she needed.

Every character, every relationship is carefully and beautifully drawn, with rich detail and understanding that gives the story wonderful depth and power. Period detail, and a lovely writing style, made it very readable. So many different scenes played out so very well; the story lived and breathed.

Michael was an elusive character, and I’m inclined to think that Pamela Frankau was much better at women that men. Certainly it’s the women – Caroline;  Michael’s estranged wife, Mercedes; Caroline’s best friend Joan; Michael’s sister, Dorothy – who make the story sing.

Caroline was not the most likeable heroine. She was often heedless to the consequences of her actions, and insensitive to the feelings and concerns of others. But she was utterly believable, and I found that I felt for her, even when I was shocked or disappointed by her actions.

Her story and its telling might seem a little dated now, but it is so well done that it more than repays slow and careful reading. And now I’m very interested to find out who I might meet in Pamela Frankau’s other novels …

New Old Books

Until I find a new job I’m not buying any new books. Anything current that you spot me reading will come either from the library or the generosity of kind publishers.

I’m luckier than many, living in the family home and with savings to tide me over, but I still want to be careful while the future is so uncertain.

And there is treasure to be found in charity shops and second-hand bookshops for very little money.

Look what I found last week:

I’ll take things from the bottom up, as that’s pretty much the order that I found them.

The name Eudora Welty caught my eye, and I found an intriguing book. One Writer’s Beginnings. An American book that somehow found its way over the Atlantic to Cornwall. A book drawing on three lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1983, about listening about learning to see, about finding a voice. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?!

I borrowed London War Notes: 1939 to 1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes from the library, but I wanted a copy of my own. And I found one – ex library but in pretty good condition. It really should be in print and would sit nicely along the author’s short stories from the same period in the Persephone list …

My fiance spotted Concerning Agnes: Thomas Hardy’s ‘Good Little Pupil’ by Desmond Hawkins first. I know nothing about Agnes but I love Hardy and so this book, from a local press, seemed well worth the investment of £1.50.

If I’d been working I would have rushed out to buy the new Vintage Stella Gibbons reissues, and so I snapped up a charity shop copy of Westwood as soon as I spotted it.

And finally, Pamela Frankau was a name I recognised as a Virago author. I have yet to read any of her books but I have read a lot of praise as so when I spotted a title I didn’t recognise in a blue numbered penguin I had to take a look. I Find 4 People seems to be autobiography written as fiction, with the author writing about herself in the third person. I was charmed, and so the book came home.

An exceptionally good week, and an excellent haul for less than £10.

Another town, a new bookshop … and now I need more bookshelves …

If you have ever visited Cornwall, or if you ever plan on visiting Cornwall, there are a lot of places you might want to see. St Michael’s Mount, The Eden Project, The Minack Theatre, Jamaica Inn, Tintagel, Lanhydrock House, The Lost Gardens of Heligan, The Tate St Ives, The National Seal Sanctuary….

But, unless you have a particular interest in mining history you probably wouldn’t choose to visit Redruth. It’s a grey, inland, impoverished former mining town. But you really, really should go there.

Why? To visit The Redruth Bookshop. I read a while back that it was Cornwall’s largest secondhand bookshop and realised I needed to investigate. Last week I did. It looked unremarkable from outside, but when we went in we discovered that it went, back and back and back, and that it was packed full of wonderful books. I could have brought home a car full, but I was restrained and settled for these:

Recent paperback fiction was at the front of the shop. I picked up Devil by the Sea by Nina Bawden to add to my Virago bookcase, plus the first three novels by Salley Vickers. I knew as soon as I discovered her not so long ago that I would want to read and own all of her work so it was lovely to find three lined up. And older editions with lovely covers. 

And as I went further back in the shop I found the older books. 

Back at the beginning of the year everyone seemed to be reading Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The library had a copy, but I was in the middle of an ordering ban, and virtuously stuck too it. And maybe virtue was rewarded, because I found a very pretty edition from the 1930s. 

I have an unread copy of Peyton Place tucked away. I remembered Verity writing warmly about it not so long ago, and mentioning that Grace Metalious had written a sequel that was now out of print. So when I spotted a copy of that sequel I had to pick it up. 

And then there was a trio of books by Virago authors that Virago has not seen fit to reissue. The Bridge by Pamela Frankau (in a very pretty 1950s dust jacket), Alone We Embark by Maura Laverty (a wartime economy edition) and Potterism by Rose MacCaulay (a tragi- farcical tract!). All look wonderful. 

I recognised the name Norman Collins, because Penguin reissued his book London Belongs To Me last year. So I picked up Bond Street Story, and the opening paragraphs painted such a wonderful picture of the rush hour in London (I love Cornwall, but sometimes I miss my old London life) that I really couldn’t put it down again. 

Now it probably won’t come as news that I love Margery Sharp‘s writing. So imagine my delight at finding THREE of her books to add to my collection – The Foolish Gentlewoman, Britannia Mews and Cluny Brown. 

Now here is where I was really restrained. There were six books by Monica Dickens that I hadn’t come across before, but I made myself select just one. The Heart of London was the winner and looks absolutely wonderful. 

And finally there was an elderly copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. It was only 50p, so of course it came home. It missed the photocall because my mother pounced on it. She says that it is lovely – and I hope to get it back one day! 

That’s it! And I shall be looking for an excuse to visit Redruth again very soon…