If you've noticed that I've been a bit quiet on here lately, it's because a) I've been travelling and b) all my recent reading has been of books that will soon be reviewed in the Extra Shiny, due out on 3 December. However, though this book is one such, I couldn't wait to tell you about it. I've always been a huge fan of Bill Bryson -- he's so intelligent and well-informed but, as they say, he wears his learning lightly, and is capable of making me laugh out loud, a quality I prize highly though have to watch out for on buses and trains.
As I'm sure you know, Bryson wrote Notes from a Small Island in 1995, and now, twenty years later, has is taking another look at the country he has adopted as his home. He's recently become a UK citizen, which involved taking a knowledge test -- one which no true born British person I know could possibly hope to pass:
You can be denied citizenship if you don't know the number of states in the Commonwealth, who Britain's enemies in the Crimean war were, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Sikh, Muslim, Hindu or Christian, and the actual name of the Big Ben tower. (It's the Elizabeth Tower). You even have to know a few things that aren't in fact true.
So, partly as a result of passing this test, the idea of this book came about. In fact it was owing in part to Bryson's discovery that, though the test asserts that the two farthest apart points in the British Isles are Lands End and John O'Groats, this is not in fact the case. From this was born the concept of the Bryson Line, which runs directly between the actual farthest points, which happen to be Bognor Regis in the south and Cape Wrath in the north. Both of these places are visited, and a great many more in between, with often hilarious results.
But The Road to Little Dribbling is not just a comic ramble through the UK. Bryson is seriously concerned about the many changes he finds as he visits the beautiful villages and countryside of Britain -- not surprising when you know that he has acted as President of the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England. 'There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain', he writes -- 'Let's keep it that way'. And even the British themselves seem to him to be deteriorating -- he tells a story of seeing an obviously wealthy woman slipping a 10p coin into a container intended for tips, and remarks that
The Britain I came to was predicated on the idea of doing the right thing most of the time whether anyone knew you were doing it or not… You might not leave a tip... but you wouldn’t pretend to leave a decent tip and then stick in a small coin… It wouldn’t occur to you to be a dick.
Being Bill Bryson, he surprises us endlessly with a wonderful range of facts: for example, that there are 600,000 people on the London Underground at any one time, 'making it both a larger and more interesting place than Oslo', that 'cows kill a lot more people than bulls', that there are about 50% fewer people in London than in either New York or Paris, and much much more.
Bill Bryson obviously doesn't need my recommendation -- this will head the best seller lists for a long time to come. But I'm absolutely delighted to have had a chance to read it, which I did courtesy of Sainsbury's e-books, so many thanks to them. I've actually written another (different) review which will appear in Shiny in a couple of weeks, so I'll link to that in case you're interested.
From time to time, Audible, or rather their publicists, send me a list of new releases in case I want to review any of them. This is often a great blessing, as it enables me get hold of new books I've been dying to read. However, though I was curious, this was not one of them -- I'd never heard of it, even though I am fond of Agatha Christie's novels. Of course, though it is a new release as an audiobook, it was first published in 1946, and turns out to be a real gem.
I suppose I knew about as much about Christie's life as the next person. I knew her first marriage had ended in divorce, that she'd married for a second time to an archaeologist, and that she used to go with him on digs. But I'd never given much thought to what that must have been like. Well, this is the book that answered that question, in the most delightful way possible. For this is a book absolutely stuffed with humour and charm, and one thing I felt sure of was that Agatha's marriage to Max Mallowan must have been a happy one.
Come, Tell Me How You Live, though not published till 1946, was written during the war, and describes events that took place during the 1930s. Max had got funding to excavate some important sites in Syria, and Agatha decided to go along. Several expeditions are described, as Mallowan and his team found an enormous amount of valuable material at several sites in the area. At the start of the book, though, Christie describes the journey to Syria in some detail, and quite a trek it was, involving a number of changes of train over several days. Then there was the settling in -- eventually the Mallowans had a house built for them by a local Sheik, but before that there was a good deal of roughing it, and life was never as comfortable or easy as Agatha was accustomed to. But she took it all in her stride with the greatest good humour (though not without the some episodes of intense irritation -- with the Arab servants and workmen, and even with Max himself, who seems to have responded with admirable kindness and understanding).
It's wonderful to see Agatha participating so enthusiastically in the everyday life of the dig. It was her job to clean and label the pots, and also to act as the official photographer, a task which made it necessary for her to have a darkroom built wherever they happened to be staying at the time, with extremely variable results. When you realise that she also managed to keep writing her novels during the several months' periods of absence from her English home you can't help admiring her tremendously.
Naturally, a good deal of the book is devoted to the differences she finds between the way of life she's used to and the habits and customs of the Syrian people. She's often struck by the differences between the Arabs -- gloomy, quiet, dressed in black -- and the Kurds, joyful, outgoing, colourfully dressed. But it's their attitudes to life, and to death, that she finds a constant mystery. The term 'inshallah' -- 'if God wills it' -- seems to be useable in a variety of situations, often functioning as an excuse not to commit oneself to any course of action, and of course also enables one to accept that death is unavoidable and not to be feared. And it often makes people careless about treating illnesses and ailments, much to Agatha's occasional irritation, as she gets put in charge of handing out medicines and realises that her patients will frequently not get the treatment they need. This is what happens when the Sheik sends his wives round for a medical visit:
I offer the conventional greeting and lead the way into the little storehouse. Not one woman, but five follow me in. They are all very excited, laughing and talking. The door is shut upon us. Max and the Sheik remain outside the door, to do what interpretation shall be necessary. I'm a little dazed by seeing so many women. Are they all wives? All need medical attention? Off come the veils. One woman is young, and tall, and very handsome. I imagine that she is the new Yazidi [Kurdish] wife, just acquired with the advance rent from the land. The principle wife is much older - she looks about 45 and is probably 30. All the women are wearing jewellery, and all are the gay, handsome, Kurdish type.
The principle wife turns out to have a serious case of blood poisoning, affecting her eyes, but it becomes clear that despite the fact that Max tells the Sheik she needs urgent hospital attention, he is unlikely ever to take her.'Inshallah'.
I suppose if this book had been written in 2015, we might have been talking about racial prejudice here, but in fact Agatha and Max are extremely broadminded, for their day, in accepting the local ways even when they find them hard to understand. Above all, though, this is a really entertaining and often very funny book. I was left feeling I not only knew a lot more about Agatha but also warmed to her tremendously, and was happy for her obviously happy second marriage to a man who clearly adored her.
Wondering about the title? It's a pastiche of a poem by Lewis Carroll, and describes her meeting with Max and her decision to go to Syria with him.
I met an erudite young man/A-sitting on a 'tell'./'Who are you sir', to him I said, /'For what is it you look?' /His answer trickled through my head/Like bloodstains in a book. He said 'I look for aged pots/Of prehistoric days/And then I measure them in lots/And lots of different ways./And then, like you, I start to write./My words are twice as long/As yours, and far more erudite./They prove my colleagues wrong'./But I was thinking of a plan/To kill a millionaire/ and hide the body in a van/Or some large frigidaire.
This audiobook was extremely well narrated by Judith Boyd, who seemed to me to have got totally into the spirit of Agatha herself. I enjoyed it so much I'm going to look out for a printed copy. Great stuff.
PS: When I sat down to write this I discovered the book had just been reviewed on the entertaining blog Clothes in Books. Here's the link.
It's strange how a whole life can be changed in an instant. A dozen years later, I'm still haunted by that moment when I might have reached down and touched Father's head as he passed before me. If he'd known I was there, or if I'd jumped down instead of staying to see the tablecloth, I believe he would not have done what he did.
We Shiny eds are always pleased when people tell us that they've been inspired to buy the books we review. But of course sometimes we are similarly inspired ourselves. And when I saw Victoria's review of Belonging in the latest Shiny, I was immediately sure I wanted to read it. And the lovely publisher, Myriad Editions, kindly sent me a copy so I was able to read what Victoria called 'one of the most gripping, engrossing, heart-in-mouth novels I’ve read in 2015'.
Covering three generations of a family, and spanning a period between 1855 and 1920, this is a big, serious, absorbing historical novel with a mystery at its heart. It deals with important questions about the relations between Britain and India, and between the British and the Indians (not always quite the same thing).
Central to the novel is Lila, whose story begins with her childhood memory of being removed from India, where she was born and grew up, to be sent to England to live with her great-aunt Mina. Her father, as we soon discover, has shot himself, and her mother, always strange and troubled, has been removed to who knows where. The trauma of the events that led to this, and the shock of being uprooted to a cold, colourless, unfamiliar environment far away from everything and everyone she loves, renders Lila unable to speak for a long time. But what exactly the events were is something we have to wait for until practically the end of the novel. And by this time we have discovered the whole trajectory that led up to them, by means of dips into the past in which we learn about Lila's ancestors.
So we meet beautiful Cecily, initially as she's on her way by ship to India, to marry a man she hardly knows who is more than twenty years her senior. Then there's her son Henry, Lila's father, who knows his mother died around the time of his birth but doesn't know how or why and is afraid to ask his silent, remote father. These two have their own stories to tell, alternating with Lila's own as she grows up and struggles to come to terms with her sense of difference from everyone around her. In fact the only person she feels really close to is the Sikh boy Jagjit, who spends his summer holidays with the unusually open-minded mother of a friend from public school. As the years go by, Lila and Jagjit fall in love, but convention and the pressures of the past make it seem unlikely they can ever be together.
In the early years of the twentieth-century, even to befriend an Indian was an unconventional act, and throughout the novel we learn more and more about the tragic and unforgivable way that the British conquerors treated their Indian subjects. When Henry's father is finally able to talk to his son about the mysterious, beautiful Indian woman who lived in a small house in their grounds known as the bibighar, he explains that she was his lover (his bibi) when he first arrived in India. In those days, the first half of the 19th century, the British settlers were encouraged to befriend and start relationships with Indian women. But after the terrible mid-century Mutiny, all this changed, Western women started to travel over to India, and those relationships went underground. This central fact lies at the heart of much of the tragedy that underlies the novel. Also primary are the appalling facts about the Siege of Cawnpore, in which 120 British women and children were massacred -- all part of the Indian Mutiny (1857), a violent uprising by the subjected race against their oppressors.
There's so much food for thought here, and certainly no easy answers. But though I called it a serious book, don't get hold of the idea that it must be boring. Umi Sinha doesn't preach, nor does she allow the important issues the novel raises to overwhelm the excitement and interest of the story. I was completely carried along by the need to know how Lila's story would end, and indeed how and why it began. I already knew quite a lot about India, and about the history of its occupation by the British, but to see it all in the context of the lives of people you come to care about makes it extremely vivid. I think this book should be required reading for anyone interested in India, or in colonialism in general. But it's also a brilliant and absorbing read for anyone who loves good novels. Could that be you?
Does anyone read LP Hartley any more? If not, they really really should. I picked up a 1956 edition of this 1955 novel at a vide grenier (aka jumble sale) in a friend's garden on Sunday, where books were three for a euro. I read it fast, and with huge enjoyment, and couldn't wait to tell you about it.
I suppose Hartley is most famous for The Go-Between (1953), which was made into an excellent film, though he published about eighteen other novels and several collections of short stories. I've also read his Eustace and Hilda trilogy and am certain I reviewed it on here but I can't find the post. But I'd never heard of this one, though it really deserves to be better known.
Essentially, this is the story of the marriage of Harold and Isabel Eastwood. Harold is an accountant, conventional and unimaginative, and Isabel is clever and has literary leanings. Despite this discrepency, the marriage jogs along comfortably enough, largely because Isabel
knew what was likely to happen when a woman of slightly superior social standing, decidedly superior brains and greatly superior imaginative capacity married a dullish man and lived in the provinces, and was on her guard against it.
Are we hearing alarm bells? We certainly should be. For, as the novel begins, Harold has met Alexander Goodrich, a well-known novelist, on a train, and somehow found himself agreeing to take on his tax affairs. When Alec comes to visit some weeks later, two things happen -- he is immediately smitten by Irma, a lovely Austrian girl who is working behind the bar in a local pub, and Isabel is immediately smitten by him. Her smitten-ness, though, is initially highly altrusitic. Thus it is that she believes it is her duty to procure Irma for Alec -- Isabel has lived in London, where she was initially teased by her more sophisticated friends for being a prig, so this is something she has worked on diligently. Harold finds the idea initially rather shocking, but Isabel manages to persuade him that it will benefit both parties, providing a better life for Irma and improving Alec's novels, which have been criticised for being too full of unpleasant, bitter women.
So Harold agrees to ask Irma out to dinner, and is amazed when she says she will come. But soon he finds himself involved in a most enjoyable affair with her. Isabel, meanwhile, is drawn into a passionate relationship with Alec, and spends increasing amounts of time with him in London, at theatres and restaurants and of course in luxurious hotel bedrooms. Initially the marriage rather benefits fron this. Harold becomes a great deal more cheerful, even uncharacteristically playful, and Isabel is grateful for this. In addition, each partner is so involved in their own secret affair that they don't have time or energy to notice what the other is up to. But this apparently happy state of things cannot continue forever, and when Isabel gets hold of the manuscript of Alec's latest novel, things take a dramatic and alarming turn...
This summary cannot do justice to the many great things about this novel, which manages to be both serious and witty at the same time -- there were many moments when I laughed aloud at some particularly apt observation, such as the description of a group of young men in the pub whose dark hair "set off the Brylcreem perfectly". There are some wonderful characters, including Alec's long-term mistress Elspeth, a tragic harpy whose intervention brings about the shocking events towards the end. Then of course there are the children, desperately serious Jeremy and frighteningly emotional and talkative Janice, who at the age of six is obsessed with love and marriage. These two are wonderfully well observed, as their own interactions innocently mirror that of their parents. But above all, the novel focuses on the inner lives of Harold and Isabel, and does so in an astonishingly perceptive and ultimately very moving way. You could justifiably say that Hartley sees into the human heart, and forgives its frailties. There are so many examples of this in the novel, but here's one more or less at random. This is Isabel, back from an illicit week in London with Alec, and surprised by Harold, who she feels she hardly recognises, and his gentle, teasing welcome:
She had braced herself to meet the alien atmosphere of home, the sunlessness, the smilelessness, the necessity to feel, think and act from the dry, dusty centre of her being, without the energizing power of love. Love was not here, how could this pleasant stranger be in love with her? And yet there was a simulacrum of it, to which her heart responded.
Well, I can only say that if you get a chance to read this novel, please do so forthwith. You will not be disappointed. You know you'd have seized upon it if it had been published by Persephone, which it easily could have been. And it is, in fact, available on Amazon for not very much money. So what are you waiting for?
I'm lucky enough to live in rural France, which is lovely in itself, but also great if you want to pop off for a little jaunt to some other glorious places. One such is Finistere, the most western part of Brittany and less than three hours' drive from my home. Close though it is, I hadn't visited the area until a month or so ago, when I took a trip which included a visit to the beautiful little village of Pont-Aven, once home to the painter Gauguin. When I got home I remembered I had a book called Death in Pont-Aven waiting to be reviewed for Shiny New Books, so I read it with great delight and here's my review of it.
In fact the novel whetted my appetite so much that last week I went there again, and visited some of the places Jean Luc Bannalec (who is really a German publisher called Jorg Bong) mentioned in the novel. One such was supposedly Gauguin's favourite beach, which he christened Plage Tahiti. Happy days!
'From grey Britain to a sunny isle: one couple's dream comes true', says the subtitle, and that says it all, really. There have been quite a few books about living, or attempting to live, the good life in France and Italy, but this is the first I have encountered that is set in Croatia. Anthony Stancomb tells the story of how he and his wife Ivana left Fulham, in London, for the island of Vis, the remotest island off the Croatian coast. Ivana's family had once fled from this part of the world, so her visit was quite loaded with emotional baggage. But the house they had found was delightful (or promised to be so once they had persuaded the builders to finish it), and even in April, when they arrived to take up residence, the weather was glorious. So all they had to do now was find their way around and make friends with the locals.
Needless to say this brought many surprises.
At the end of our first week, a terrifying-looking woman dressed as if she was going to a Queen Victoria impersonation competition, appeared on our doorstep. In her sixties and with a face like a weathered block of granite, it looked as if someone had givn her bad news in 1958 and she was still chewing on it. She announced that she had come to be our housekeeper.
This proved to be a mixed blessing, as Kermela was a whizz at cleaning, but brought all her friends round to tut over the ancient furniture and floorboards that had been uncovered when the old linoleum was taken up.
Over the coming months, among other things, Anthony establishes Croatia's first cricket team, starts to learn Croatian and buys a boat, Ivana gets involved with various kinds of herbal medicines, and the couple participate in musical evenings and dinner parties as the locals, very slowly, come to accept them as friends. By the autumn, they have truly become part of the community that viewed them with such suspicion and mistrust when they arrived. 'You make all Vis people so happy', says one neighbour. 'You proper Vis people now. Yes?'
So all in all quite a success story, which should inspire anyone who wants to get out of the rat race (though having a wife who speaks Croatian would be a definite advantage).
Here's a bookI never thought I'd be reading. I have in fact done my fair share of all these things during the course of my life, which is why I went to see the film when it first came out a few years ago. But I didn't like it, and it completely put me off reading the book. I picked it up just a few days ago when a friend who'd been staying with me left it in the house. And I found I liked it very much indeed.
Before I get into reviewing it, a little preamble. I have always tended to compartmentalise my life, which has been rather long and very varied. As a result, I have numerous friends, but they fall into different groups. So I have my theatre friends, some of whom I've known since my childhood because my parents were in the theatre. Then there are my academic friends, met during my thirty or so years in various universities, my blogging friends, most of whom I've never met but feel I know anyway, and people I've just got to know because we lived close by or were friends of friends. And then there are my meditating friends, many of whom I first met forty years ago when I learned to meditate and fairly soon afterwards became a teacher. Though I wouldn't say these groups never overlap, I've learned over the years that many of the non-meditators are not in the least bit interested in what I can only call the spiritual side of my life. It's fine if you tell them about the practical effects of meditation -- relaxation, clarity of thought etc -- but mention God and they all look very sour and scornful.
So for me, reading this memoir was a rare treat. There can be few people who don't know about Elizabeth Gilbert's decision, after a messy divorce and a failed love affair, to spend a year doing three things on her own and just for herself. That meant Rome, to learn Italian and eat delicious food, India to meditate in an Ashram, and Bali to meet up with an ancient healer and of course finally, though not part of the plan, to meet a gorgeous Brazilian who she would eventually marry.
Liz Gilbert is a professional writer and journalist, and she writes in a delightfully readable way. But what I liked most about the book was her honesty -- about her own failings, her moments of unrealistic fantasy, her self doubt, her struggles to understand herself and to overcome the grief and rage that was a legacy of the unhappy past few years. If this sounds as if it might be grim, I can assure you it's not. It's often very funny, but also often very wise. Liz never pretends she has any answers, but she recounts her struggles to find them and the solutions that have worked for her without any attempt to preach.
Obviously with my own background I was particularly interested by the middle section in which she stays in the ashram of an Indian female guru. Having done the same thing myself quite a few times -- though in a different ashram of a different guru -- this was bound to grab me. And having practised meditation for so many years it was fascinating to read of Liz's downs and ups in her attempts to get a grip on it all, the miseries of feeling like a failure at it, the agonies of dealing with all the stuff that got stirred up, and the rare but astonishingly wonderful moments where suddenly everything worked and the experiences were -- well, beyond words, really, though she manages to find some pretty adequate ones.
It was interesting to read, on wikipedia, extracts from some of the early reviews of the book. Most critics seems to have been bemused and turned off by the ashram section ( "narcissistic New Age reading", "this silliness") but that's par for the course -- if you don't relate to that sort of thing, you're bound to feel like that. And yes, of course, as other critics pointed out, Liz was able to make this journey because she had a considerable amount of financial backing -- one reviewer felt that it offered "no real solutions for the astronomically high tariffs—both financial and social—that exclude all but the most fortunate among us from participating". Well yes, but I suppose you could say that about any travel book, and that's really what this is, though some of the journeys are being taken internally rather than externally.
Anyway, I loved every minute of it, and it made me long to go to Rome, India and Bali, all of which I've been lucky enough to visit, though I'd hope not to gain 22 pounds from eating pasta, as Liz did, and I doubt if I'd be coming back with a Brazilian husband.
Anybody out there read it? What did you think?
In an idle moment this morning -- or rather one that should not have been idle except that I was procrastinating -- I googled myself. Of course pages and pages came up of entries to this blog, but buried deep among them I found this, which I wrote for the THE's 'Don's Diary' spot. 1996! That's a heck of a long time ago. I'm not sure why I'm sharing it with you, but here goes. I know I was very chuffed to get it published.
6 MAY 1996
Wednesday. It is bitterly cold as I set off from Gatwick. At the check-in a man asks the purpose of my visit. I tell him I'm going to a conference in Columbia, South Carolina, and he says he has just checked in a professor heading for a conference in the same city. What is mine on? Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women writers, I tell him. Oh well, he says, it cannot be the same one as the professor was a man. The check-in queue hardly seems the place for an ideological discussion, so I smile and move on.
Waiting for my connection in Atlanta, I meet Gary Kelly from Keele, who is one of the plenary speakers on the conference (though not the professor on my Gatwick flight). By 8pm United States time I am in my room. I am saving money by staying in a dorm and am supposed to be sharing a room, though my roommate has not appeared yet. I feel predictably depressed by the room, which is all concrete and lino, with a shared shower-room down the hall. It is also bitterly cold, so I pile the bedclothes from the second bed onto mine, hoping Ms X will not appear and demand them back. I sleep reasonably well, though I am wide awake for an hour at 2am.
Thursday. It is still very cold, but bright and sunny. Spend the morning wandering around Columbia which has some attractive old (by American standards) buildings including part of the campus of the University of South Carolina, which is hosting the conference. At lunchtime I turn up for registration and discover that Gary Kelly and I are the only non-US participants. Everyone I speak to seems astonished that although I have come all the way from England, I am not reading a paper: I would have done, but found out about the conference too late. I attend the first two sessions, and am impressed by the professionalism of the papers. Mostly by graduate students, they are all very well researched, and informed by critical theory without being overloaded with it.
In the evening I attend the first plenary lecture, by a high-flying female academic. It is mainly about women riding horses. I also feel it is rather anglophobic - she makes a lot of jokes about the English weather and national character. No point in taking offence, though. I am exhausted by the end of the evening. Still no roommate! And I have discovered how to turn on the heating, so the room is tolerably warm now.
Friday. Papers start at 8am! Unable to decide which sessions to attend (each time-slot has five to choose from) I session-hop. By the end of the afternoon, I've heard 12 papers plus Gary Kelly's plenary lecture. My head is spinning with terminology and I am increasingly irritated by the way everyone says "quote. . . unquote" and/or signals same by waving their fingers in the air. Time to go back to the dorm for a rest.
In the evening, there is a reception, with the most lavish provision of food and drink imaginable, everything constantly replenished. Everyone gets very jolly. I meet Paula Feldman, on the faculty at USC, who invites me back for drinks. I make my excuses, saying I am too jet-lagged, then regret it. After all, I have come to make contacts.
I meet some interesting people at the reception, though, and volunteer to help publicise next year's conference in Europe. I also sign up to write an entry in a forthcoming dictionary of literary biography.
Walking back to the dorm, I finally meet someone who has read and apparently enjoyed my book on Mary Wollstonecraft, which seems to have only just appeared in the US. Feel pathetically gratified. Sleep like a log. Still no room-mate.
Saturday. I've heard nine papers by lunchtime, some better than others. I am unable to concentrate on one, about two little-known verse dramas by Mary Shelley, because both the moderator and the speaker persist in pronouncing the title of one of them as "PORsepine", which makes me think about pigs. Lunch is laid on in a revolving restaurant, which induces mild nausea.
The afternoon brings the third and final plenary lecture, followed by a round-table discussion under the title "Where do we go from here?", which mostly deplores the lack of women's texts of the period to teach from, and persistent prejudice on interviewing committees towards those who admit to an interest in same.
In the evening I get a second chance to go to Paula Feldman's, and enjoy myself enormously. Champagne is flowing, strawberries and ice-cream appear, we all inspect, and are suitably impressed by, her huge collection of 19th-century women's poetry. Addresses and email addresses are exchanged. I express my intention of attending, and contributing to, next year's conference, which will be in California.
Back in the dorm I reflect on what I have learned. First, the fact that much excellent work is being done on what was, until very recently, an almost unknown body of literature. Second, that though English undergraduates, despite slipping standards, are still rather better informed than their US contemporaries, the gap has certainly closed by graduate level. Third, that conferences are always worth attending for social and intellectual networking, fatigue notwithstanding. The weather has started to warm up, and I have two days to relax in the sun before my flight home.
As you may or may not know (or care) I am in France at the moment. I've got a house here, on the border of Normandy and Brittany, and I'm spending the month of July in it. When I first bought it, over thirteen years ago, I'd thought I would probably come and live here when I retired, but since I retired life has somehow overtaken me-- in the best possible way -- and the move has not yet been on the agenda. But I've always wondered if I should do it, if I'd like it if I did do it, and so on. So I was more than delighted when Sourcebooks kindly offered me a review copy of a book by someone who really did do it.
Karen Wheeler is, I think, a very brave woman. A successful fashion journalist and esrtwhile fashion editor of The Mail on Sunday, she found herself unexpectedly and unhappily single at the age of thirty-five. Increasingly sick of her empty life of handbags and designer shoes, feeling threatened by the twenty-something man-hunters who seemed to have sprung up while she was happily ensconsed with her lover, she decided to give up her Notting Hill flat and move to a small, unrestored house in rural France. Thus, the beginning of this delightfully readable book finds her with a car full of black bin-liners (mostly stuffed with designer clothes) on the road to the coast, and thence to the ferry, and thence to the peaceful village in Poitou-Charentes where her dream house awaits her. Even her departure from London is not without its problems.
As the car limped to the end of the road, its suspension several inches closer to the ground than usual, I realized I had forgotten something. Panicking, I reversed at speed, the sound of china rattling ominously as I hit the traffic bumps.
Fortunately Daisy and Jerome were still standing at the gate.
"How do I get to Portsmouth?", I yelled.
"The A3", Daisy shouted back. "Follow the signs to Hammersmith".
"I give it a month", said Jerome, shaking his head, "before you're back".
In fact, of course, Karen does not come back, or certainly not to stay. The rest of the story tells of her adventures during her first year in the village. The house, bought on a whim a year earlier, is almost uninhabitable. She has great plans, of course, involving Farrow and Ball paint, large comfortable sofas, a wood-burning stove and a courtyard filled with roses, jasmine, geraniums and herbs. But those plans are far in the future as she doesn't have any hot water, there's a huge hole in the kitchen floor, and everything in the house is brown -- wallpaper, paintwork, ceilings and bathroom tiles. Everything, that is, except one room which has been carefully painted in its entirity with white gloss paint by a willing but expensive French workman who misunderstood her instructions.
Slowly, of course, everything starts to come together, though not before Karen has spent a hideously uncomfortable week in a tiny designer tent on a very noisy campsite, a hideously expensive week in a grand and not particularly attractive hotel, and many weeks, even months, camping out in her own house and living on bread and brie. Not for the fainthearted, you will think, and I know this is true having lived in my own unrestored Oxford house for three months without a kitchen, bathroom, or heating, surrounded by builders and holed up in one grubby room. But of course, many ups and downs later, everything does come together as she had hoped and planned, and by the end of a year the house is totally gorgeous.
But this is far from being a house restoration book, or at least that's only a small part of it. This is also the story of Karen's own restoration, if I can put it like that. She has been literally devastated by the sudden disintegration of what she thought was a permanent relationship and her year in France is also the year of slowly healing her broken heart. There are plenty of ups and downs along this road too -- men who appear and then disappear, swear undying love and then return to their girlfriends or wives, or turn out to be gay (as does the gorgeous patissier). But Karen survives it all with enormous gaiety and humour. This is greatly helped by the friends she makes in and around the village, both French and English. Some of her stories of nights out with the ex-pat community, mostly over sixty-five and frequently extremely drunk, are truly and horrendously hilarious, but there are enough people of her own age and inclinations to make her social life, as she comes to realise, a lot more enjoyable than the one she had in London. As for the designer clothes and shoes, there's a wonderful moment when she decides she really doesn't need them any more and bags them all up to take to the depot vente (from which they are then bought by her friends, much to her amusement).
This is of course a perfectly true story, though she admits she has changed names and perhaps embroidered a little bit. But as you can see from her own blog, Karen's life does continue in France and she is still there now. Indeed there's a second book, Toute Allure, and I think a third is on the way. I shall certainly be reading these as I am definitely a fan now, and so would you be if you picked up this very enjoyable book. Highly recommended.