A Sense of Place

Many a creative writing professor has lectured me on the pivotal role a “sense of place” plays in fiction. Writers work hard at creating credible worlds in which to set our stories. We spend sleepless nights trying to draw the reader into these fictional universes. Craft – and every ounce of charm and wit we possess – are devoted to this task. We know that a story with an authentic sense of place will hold the reader under its spell. This truth dawned on me afresh when I took off to London last month for a short stay.

I had never set foot in the city before but I felt a pleasant sense of familiarity as I walked down the streets and stopped to catch my breath in leafy gardens. Virginia Woolf’s luminous prose echoed in my ears: “how beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree–sprinkled, grass–grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally…and far away the rattle of a train.” (Street Sauntering, A London Adventure).

When I strolled down alleys, riverside paths, and quaint, cobbled yards, they came alive with scenes from some of my favorite Dickens novels. Here was the street where Pip had come to meet his lawyer and learn a life-changing truth (Great Expectations). Here lay dark alleys where body snatchers and pickpockets once roamed free (Oliver Twist). A debtor’s prison so tellingly described in Little Dorrit. A hospital, a street corner, a flight of steps under London Bridge, a crumbling ruin of a prison – all of them immortalized in Dickens’ fiction.

Big Ben – that iconic landmark of the English landscape – loomed before me. I looked up at it. It was our first encounter but I felt like I had seen the clockface before. That I had sensed the “leaden circles dissolving” when the clock chimed. 
Mrs Dalloway had imprinted an indelible picture of it on my mind. Woolf’s fiction had made Big Ben seem so real, so immediate, that when I stood in front of the real thing, it seemed like I already knew it inside out.

London seemed so familiar because it had found a place in some of the best works of fiction I have read. The opposite of this phenomenon also works its magic on us. William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County – a fictional setting for his stories and novels – and placed it within the real Lafayette County, Mississippi in the United States. The fictional county seems every bit as “real” as the actual geographical entity. Faulkner’s readers will vouchsafe for the authenticity of his imagined universe. Faulkner himself liked to challenge his readers by referring to Yoknapatawpha as both “actual” and “apocryphal”.
Margaret Atwood paints a chilling portrait of a totalitarian republic in her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Republic of Gilead is painted with such deft strokes that it takes only a few pages for it to acquire the legitimacy of a place on the map. Gilead exists in an apocryphal future but the echoes of contemporary reality are felt there. Using a potent mix of fact and fiction, history and prophecy, and lyrical prose, Atwood imbues Gilead with an eerily real quality.

What does it take to create an immortal fictional world? What ingredients go into its making? What holds up the world on the page when all else crumbles into dust? There is no readymade recipe, no formulaic answer at hand. All a writer can do is to try and paint a specific and detailed picture. Be true to the setting – if a novel or story is set in a certain period in history, get the details right. Do a backbreaking amount of research. Know everything there is to know about that period. If your work revolves around the lives of characters who belong to a particular profession (doctors, lawyers, conmen, poets, strippers, astronauts, journalists..) make sure you understand how things work in their world. Set down the rules of the world at the start. Be straight with your readers. They deserve to get under the skin of your characters and the universe they occupy.

Be consistent. If your novel is set in the past (“never dead,” “not even past”) then the characters must walk and talk and dress a certain way throughout. Similarly, if your story is set in a specific contemporary milieu – make sure the details of the setting are accurate and authentic. Above all remember to get the “human fact” right. This is the backbone of a fictional universe. This is what makes it come alive and keeps it safe from the ravages of time.

Review: How To Be Both by Ali Smith

The word I’ve most seen associated with Ali Smith’s Costa-award winning novel is ‘dazzling’, and it’s the word I’ve reached for most, each time more aware of how telling it is: ‘dazzling’ in that it shines brightly, that it draws and locks the eye, and ‘dazzling’ in that its brightness sometimes makes you want to look away.

This simultaneous – and paradoxical – attraction and repulsion is one of many intriguing dualities in the novel, the first and most startling being its unusual structure. Depending on which edition you pick up, you might first encounter George’s story or Francesco’s story – each edition swaps the stories, with the result that two readers might read the novel completely differently.

In the modern-day section, George is a teenage girl whose mother died unexpectedly some months earlier, not long after taking her on an impromptu trip to Palazzo Schifanoia to visit a fresco by a little-known Renaissance artist. In the historical section, Francesco del Cossa is a Renaissance artist dragged up through time and place to recount its life, unseen, from a museum gallery attended by George.

Within both of these stories are increasingly blurred and fluid dualities (gender, history and memory, life and death) that constantly reference the novel’s elliptic-sounding title and which, in their turn, generate new dualities in a kind of ripple effect. Early on in Francesco’s story (at the beginning of the novel in one reading, and over halfway through in another), a childhood memory is recalled: a seed drops into a puddle and causes a ‘ring’ to ripple outwards, disappearing on meeting the puddle’s outer limits. Upset, Francesco cries, only to be comforted by his mother saying,

It hasn’t gone, it’s just that we can’t se it any more. In fact, it’s still going, still growing. It’ll never stop going, or growing wider and wider . . . When it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you?

There is an endless possibility of readings of this novel, all rippling one after the other, questioning and answering and questioning again. With more than a nod to Virginia Woolf’s genre-bending Orlando, gender identity becomes one of the defining ‘boths’ of the novel’s title. George is a boy’s name for a girl with a boy’s haircut; Francesco was born a girl but dresses as a man to become an artist. (The fact that we only discover Francesco is a girl when we read her/his section is yet another playful structural quirk of this novel: if Francesco’s section comes first, does this make us read George’s subsequent viewing of his/her fresco differently – and vice versa?)

Considered like this, it’s easy to think of the novel as a cool experimental piece of trickery, devoid of narrative warmth. But it’s not: it is quick, sharp, gambolling writing that brims with life and joy and delights in life’s imperfect fluidity. There is warmth and wit in both George and Francesco: George is a grammar pedant, unable to stop herself correcting other people’s mistakes even in the most awkward scenarios; Francesco, too, brings comic relief in his confused reactions to modern life and his snarky hatred of a better-known artist Cosimo. The novel’s ambitious and brilliant structure and ideas thrive because of its characters – and what higher praise is there?

In exploring the fluid nature of dualities and bending the rules of literature in the process (or flouting them joyously, tearing them up and waving the pieces in the reader’s face), Ali Smith manages to be playful, intelligent, sharp, warm, expansive and wise. And at the heart of this novel is a question about what it means to write, create, read and interpret, summed up by George’s mother recollecting a conversation with an artist:

She was making a set of books for a commission for someone who wanted her to make three of these books then deliver them to him sealed in a glass case. So these books would be full of beautifully defined pages that no one’d ever be able to look at, without breakage at least.

And she sat there and said, so my quandary is, Carol, do I even bother to fill these books with beautiful text and pictures or do I just rough up their edges so it looks like there’s something in them . . . Do I choose to be a charlatan or do I make quite a lot of work that the risk is no one will ever even see?

Drawing attention to the fact of writing itself forces the reader to engage at all times (both rewarding and exhausting) with the author’s choices and their implications. So, does seeing Francesco through George’s eyes first (as a little-known male fresco painter) mean we are to assume that Francesco’s subsequent sections are George’s imaginings of Francesco (as instructed by her mother’s opening gambit ‘Imagine. You are an artist’)? Or, in fact, is Francesco’s section George’s jovial attempt to recreate his voice for a school project, as hinted at earlier? But if you were to read Francesco’s part first, these possible interpretations don’t appear until much later . . . and by then is it too late?

Have we read, in a sense, an entirely different novel?

When visiting the Palazzo Schifanoia, George’s mother comments to George:

I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never though such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.

She turns to George.

It’s a bit like you, she says.

It’s a bit like this novel, too: a piece of art that is both joyful and questioning, exploring the fluid and messiness of life. We are invited to engage with its artistry or to look away, dazzled.

Life After a Cult: Peggy Riley on writing Amity & Sorrow

Peggy Riley is an American author and playwright who has lived in the UK for some years. We talked to her about her new novel, Amity and Sorrow, the story of Amaranth and her two daughters and their flight from the polygamous cult where the children have been brought up.

Peggy Riley 2Tell us about how you came to write “Amity and Sorrow”.

I had the idea for a long time before I decided to try writing fiction. I had seen a picture in a newspaper of a wooden church on fire, on a prairie. I thought it would be a fantastic way to start a piece – but I knew it would be impossible to put it on stage. The idea made me want to change how I wrote, to tell the story that came from the picture when I began to ask “what if”.

When you first set out, did you already know that you would concentrate a large part of the story in the period after Amaranth has fled from the cult with her children? Why did you choose to do this?

I deliberately began with the fire and the leaving of the cult, as I had read too many books that ended there. Most books about cults are a build up to the leaving, with only an epilogue to cover what happened next. I was more interested in how the women would cope – or not – after leaving, as opposed to how they left and why. But then, the how and why were too important to the characters to leave out. The book moves backward and forward from the moment of leaving, the history chapters moving backward and the bulk of the book moving forward, into what happens afterward.

You have said that Amity and Sorrow is about ‘god, sex and farming’? Can you give readers a little bit of insight into this?

They are three strands that were particularly important in the writing of the piece. The words reminded me to keep them in balance, to play each one off the other. Most of my pieces come about as an odd juxtaposition of contrary or opposing elements. God and sex are often in opposition in books and dramas. Sex and farming are often found together. So, I combined the three, together and in opposition. Some might say, less of the farming, please.

All the characters, possibly apart from Sorrow, try to do their best, but all are hampered by their limitations. These are not people who ever had big chances and they’re doing their best to cope with what life has dealt them. You’re very honest and non-judgemental in your portrayal of Amaranth as a mother: what drew you to write a story based on these people?

I felt I couldn’t judge any of the characters. Even Sorrow is coping the only way she knows how. They are all making the best decisions that they can, using what limited resources are available to them. I had to follow the cause and effect of the cult on its people, on the children, on the women and on Amaranth, who is consumed with guilt for her own culpability. But in exploring the history of the cult, we see that she, also, made the decisions she did because of her own limitations. Her children, in turn, are far more limited because they have been so cloistered, so protected, so manipulated. I have tremendous compassion for all of them, for every woman who joined the community because it was the best option she had at the time, for Zachariah, who truly believes he can build a new Eden. I feel for Sorrow’s desire for power and autonomy and her inability to understand how and why all the rules have changed, all of a sudden. I couldn’t write them any other way.

amityandsorrowYou never say exactly when the story is taking place. This gives it an extra other worldly quality. We see Amity struggle with learning the basic signs and rules of the world outside the cult, but there’s also something in the world of the farm that doesn’t belong to the here and now.

I wanted to write a piece that didn’t feel modern, but that was in the modern world. The cult is living off the grid without technology, which also increases their isolation and their ignorance of the outside world. I also wanted Bradley’s farm to feel old fashioned, worn out. It is a failing farm and he can’t afford the equipment or technology that would allow it to compete with the larger farms all around him. And the ghost of the Dust Bowl, the ghosts of the Joads and the The Grapes of Wrath loomed pretty large while I was writing.

Indeed, John’s Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath figures in the narrative. How important was this book was for you when you were writing?

It was terribly important. You cannot approach Oklahoma or the Panhandle without dealing with it. My grandmother is from Oklahoma and I grew up with that sense of “Okies” and all the Oklahomans who left during the Dust Bowl, coming to the California where I grew up. My problem was that I wanted to write about men who had lived through the Dust Bowl, too stubborn to leave, perhaps, or unwilling to believe that life will be greener anywhere else. And I didn’t know if they actually existed. So, I also owe a debt of gratitude to Timothy Egan, whose book The Worst Hard Time, was about those survivors. And then I knew I was on the right track, luckily!

Do you think that readers in the US and readers in Europe may have a different response to the book because of the different ways that religious faith tends to be acted out on the two continents?

The responses have been very different, yes. I suppose the book is less alien in the States. Americans are more aware of the faiths and cults that are referenced in the book. They are, perhaps, more aware of the impact that faith has on the lives of these women and how difficult it is to break free of it. In America, readers seem to feel it is more “true”. In Britain, readers seem to understand and respond to its darkness, and have less context for the history of handmade American faiths and cults. I wanted to create my own faith from all the faiths and cults that I remember while I was growing up, from the California cults of Charles Manson and Reverend Jim Jones, the Moonies and Hari Krishnas, the raids on the Branch Davidians in Waco and the recent raids on the fundamentalist polygamous compounds of Warren Jeffs. It is, I suppose, more exotic in Britain. I am simply grateful to have the book available in both, as my head is probably somewhere in between.

What impact do you think your work as a playwright has on your prose?

I felt like I had to learn how to write, all over again. And my first draft reads as if I’m describing what’s happening on stage, over there somewhere. I had a lot to learn and I’m still learning. Dialogue is still the most comfortable method for me to deliver the drama of a chapter. I still think and plan as a playwright, in terms of structure and time frames and character arcs – perhaps I always will – but I am enjoying the feeling of stretching out in writing prose, in writing fiction. I don’t have to fit my story on a certain stage and within a budget. If I want 50 wives, I can write them in and not worry about casting. I can add as many beds (a no-no on stage) and goats as I like.

What’s your response to the idea of the book making a good film?

Well, as a playwright, I would tend to agree! And I did try to put the story on stage, but it was never successful. I am a visual writer and my pieces begin with place, with setting, with the world of the story. I can see it. Wouldn’t it be lovely?


Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press. Read our review of it here.

Novel: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

amityandsorrowI wasn’t at all sure what to expect of a book about a cult. I’ve seen a couple of films about cults and somehow there’s always a point of view tinged with pity, which renders the characters a bit stupid and ends up making me feel uncomfortable. Not so in Amity and Sorrow. Maybe it’s because, in a way, it’s not a book about a cult so much as a book about the after effects of life within one. When I think about Peggy Riley’s writing, the words that keep coming back to me are muscular and sinewy. The style of writing draws the reader in and places them right up close to the characters and the location. It’s almost more visual than a film, the deep red earth, fire, rain, visibly parched heat. Amity and Sorrow is a physical story.

Amaranth is the mother of two teenage daughters, Amity and Sorrow. Down on her luck in her late teens, Amaranth marries Zachariah,  who was brought up in a polygamist cult. He promises her that he left the old way of life behind, yet over the years, he brings more “wives” home and finally Amaranth is one of 50. We first meet mother and daughters at the end of a four day non-stop car journey. Initially, it appears that the trouble that drove Amaranth away from the cult came from outside, in the form of the police and a fire, but the spectre of her husband, who may have followed them, is also there and it is because of him that Amaranth has driven so far without rest, that she falls asleep at the wheel of the car and crashes into a tree.

Bradley, a poor Oklahoma farmer, takes the three women in and slowly he and Amaranth develop a relationship of sorts. New possibilities open up for Amanranth and for Amity, the younger daughter, who develops an awkward child-adolescent relationship with Dust, a boy Bradley has more or less adopted. Only Sorrow remains determined not to look to the future. The only thing she wants is to go home, to her father, to her God.

Amity and Sorrow is the story a battle of wills between a mother and her two daughters as their allegiances change. It is the story of a mother who knows she has failed not only herself, but her children, and is struggling to do something about it. The backdrop is the fight to farm in an environment where nature does not want to be tamed, where it is dry and stubborn. Just like Sorrow.

Is it Sorrow’s inherent nature to be so uncommonly difficult or is the way she behaves more the result of what she has been through? She was brought up to be the cult’s oracle, she believes she has special powers and that she, therefore, is special. She has always treated Amity as if her younger sister is less than her. Will Amaranth be able to do anything to save Sorrow? Will she be able to stop her destroying Amity before she destroys herself? There is more to the situation than initially meets the eye.

What I like so much about the way Peggy Riley tells this story is the subtlety.

All the characters are flawed, but no-one represents good or evil, no-one represents a point of view. And the history of faith is all about point of view. Sorrow is a character who would try your patience to the limit if you met her off the page. Amaranth looks the other way at crucial moments, just as she must have done within the cult at times. Amity tries too hard to please and suffers for it.

I would be curious to see how European and American readers interpret this book. Cults are a more widespread phenomenon in the USA and so readers may respond to that element of the story differently. For me, rather than a book about “god, sex and farming”, which is how Peggy Riley describes it, I think Amity and Sorrow is about the body, nature and hope. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed the book any less than if I’d found it to be about god, sex and farming. I suspect that it may actually mean the same thing, the meaning is just worded differently on the two opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Amity & Sorrow is out now from Tinder Press.

The Architecture of Stories

“Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

So says the King of Hearts to the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, instructing him and a host of wide-eyed young readers on the magical art of storytelling. We learn that it couldn’t be simpler, really: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, there’s very little magic involved at all. We just have to start at the right place, then tell the story until there is nothing left to say. What could be easier?

If the King of Hearts had paid a visit to the Free Word Centre last month, he might have had to rethink his stance. On show was an exhibition, Throwaway Lines, that had a pretty good go at tearing up the storytelling rulebook: fifteen pieces of art based on short stories that were in turn inspired by scraps of discarded writing found on the street, be they shopping lists, angry diatribes, letters or distracted musings. Multiple beginnings, middles and ends rearranged and reimagined across different mediums to create a new kind of storytelling experience—one that we might not even recognise and which demands that the reader fills in the gaps.

Call this pretentious hipster waffle or declare it inventive, avant-garde literature; either way it provokes a debate on what it means to write, how we tell stories, and what the intentions behind reading and writing a story are. For it is not just the White Rabbit who wanted to know how a story should be told; a fixed storytelling structure has informed the way we create and perceive writing for years.

Take the novel, for example: such is its preeminence (which belies its relative “novelty” in the history of literature) that its traditional structure and style have come to dominate the way we think about reading and writing. There’s always a story, of course: it starts somehow, any number of things may happen before, finally, it comes to a close. Countless variations can be achieved using this medium, and curious and original devices are often used to great effect; but it’s hard to escape the fact that by opening a book, we are accepting a beginning; and by reading its final words, we are acknowledging an end.

Is it ever possible, then, to write and read outside these traditional narrative structures? And do authors even bear them in mind when they write? Short story writer Jackie Kay has commented that she often starts a short story with a character or image, which she can then flesh out and develop, and therefore writes in a very different way to how we end up reading. If authors don’t necessarily write the beginning first and the end last, should we be reading in that order? Going one step further are books like Hopscotch (1966) by Julio Cortázar, which includes “expendable” chapters and multiple endings, and House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Z. Danielewski, which disorientates the reader with footnotes within footnotes and typographical mayhem, refusing us the reassuring beginning, middle and end we know so well. This kind of innovative reader-interaction is taken to its logical conclusion in this year’s wonderfully original Building Stories by cartoonist Chris Ware—a box full of books and pamphlets that can, theoretically, be read in any order, and which, by its own design, cedes control of the narrative to the reader.

Building Stories is Kindle-proof. I can’t even begin to imagine how this would work digitally—and the kind of object technophobes might hold up as evidence that ebooks can never compete with the printed book. But, like our King of Hearts, modern-day Luddites shouldn’t speak too soon. The widespread digitisation of media—particularly the Internet and all that comes with it—has revolutionized the way we read, write and interact, for good and bad.

Right now, for example, I might be writing this but in the background there are six browser tabs open, I’m halfway through three different articles and I’m dipping in and out of Twitter, vaguely looking for something that might catch my eye. Distraction, then, is a bit of a problem—writer Kevin Barry recently admitted to checking his emails about 150 times a day—but the Internet is also an incredible source of literature, and one that is constantly expanding and developing.

Forums, blogs and fan fiction websites present us with an unimaginably wide selection of genres, forms and styles from which to choose. Interestingly, there is something of a revival of old “methods” in the way in which chapters are released one by one, echoing nineteenth-century serialisations. Twitter, often hailed for its immediacy and brevity, has also been used as a platform for serialised reading and writing: Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box” was released line by line on the social media site, and the #TwitterFiction Festival is currently underway. Enhanced ebooks and apps, too, invite us to interact with our books in a different way. Embedded videos and audio add an extra dimension to our reading experience, while interactive apps can entirely reimagine and reorder a book or series we thought was set in stone.

Writing practices are changing and, with them, reading practices. But does it make that much difference? Ebooks and digital content might change the way we like to receive our words, but as long as we still want to read, surely it doesn’t really matter? The current proliferation of new storytelling mediums is likely to hold firm for some time, but it’s also likely that we’ll gradually filter out the less successful examples to end up with a perfectly manageable, new kind of storytelling. All we can really do is wait and see.

What, then, of the beginning, middle and end? They are concepts that seem fixed within our storytelling experience, but they have in fact always been satisfyingly malleable—played with and adapted countless times over the years. After all, is an ending ever really fixed? What about the millions of other possible endings the writer sets off in the reader’s mind? Does a story have to end?

You decide.

Novel: Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Take a look at the reviews for Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner on Amazon UK and you might think the reviewers had read quite different novels. Their comments and ratings range from the one-star to the five-star, which reveal a lot about the kind of reaction this slim book provokes. It’s a bit like literary Marmite; you either love it or you hate it.

The reader’s first hurdle to enjoying this novel emerges in its first few pages, when we meet our protagonist and narrator. Adam is a young, middle-class American poet living in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship year abroad. Ostensibly, he is there to research and deliver a long poem on the Spanish Civil War’s literary legacy, something we quickly realize he knows—or cares to know—very little about. Instead, we see him stumble out of bed, peruse news websites, visit art galleries, smoke dope, compulsively lie, sleep with his girlfriends, read English literature, get blindingly drunk, pop prescription pills, and worry about his inability to feel a profound connection with art and poetry.

Presented thus, he is a spoiled and pretentious rich kid with very little to recommend him to the reader—just a very unsympathetic character. But it’s not all bad. Angst-ridden and self-obsessed he may be, but he is also a peculiarly introspective and self-aware young poet who, by painstakingly examining and dissecting his every thought, reaction and observation, offers a narrative essay of sorts on the nature of art, language, translation, poetry and relationships.

Indeed, far from abandoning academia altogether, he has devised his own “research” project. Divided into five phases, this takes the form of a diary of his time in Madrid, and serves as the only real structure in this novel. While the plot feels loose and baggy in its expansive time frame—Adam does very little in a year other than wander around Madrid, move from bar to bar, take drunken taxi rides to parties, and go on trips to Granada or Barcelona—there is an acuteness to many of his observations that lends the meandering prose immediacy and consequence.

Many of these insights are based on his overwhelming self-doubt and sense of fraudulence as an artist. What is art? Can anybody ever have a profound experience of art? Is all art artifice? In a dope-fuelled haze, he expounds on the limitations of his foreign tongue and language. One of the most intriguing aspects of his poetry—which he is unsure is genuine “art”—is the artificial nature of its creation. He opens a page of Lorca in Spanish, copies out the accompanying English translation, then scrambles or changes various words—so that “under the arc of the sky” becomes “under the arc of the cielo”, which is then “under the arc of the cello”. Is this the ultimate artifice or an intensely real analysis of language, poetry and translation? We don’t know any more than he does. Notably, he finds reading poetry in English no easier than reading in Spanish, as poetry is just as opaque and disjointed in both languages—“you could fall into the spaces between words as you tried to link them up.”

The same sense of uncertainty arises when we consider the way in which our narrator writes this diarised research. Despite the immediacy achieved through Adam’s observations, we always feel one step removed from his experience in Madrid—as does he—and occasional slips in the time frame, such as “I would later think”, remind us that this is a retrospective piece. Equally disconcerting are the times when Adam describes how he sees himself looking at himself from a different angle; this dislocated narrative acts as a deliberate distancing from actual experience. Tellingly, the only “real” event in the novel—a girl’s drowning in a Mexican river—is narrated over the internet by his friend; we, like Adam, are disassociated from the experience by the very nature of its telling. Near the end of the novel, Adam experiences the March 11 bombings in Atocha (though he notes that he was asleep in the Ritz at the time), but even when he is caught up in the subsequent anti-terrorist marches he is still unable to feel part of something. What does it mean to experience “history in the making” if you were asleep in the Ritz at the time?

Some readers might find Adam’s relentless self-observation tiresome. It’s not all serious, though. His narrative is witty in its juxtaposition of the banal and literary—“so, after I’d dismissed the Quijote, eaten, jacked off, read some Tolstoy…”—and in its comic exposé of the fawning literati. In fact, one of the great surprises is that Adam might actually be, despite his doubts, an excellent poet and a fluent speaker, as attested by both his girlfriends. A realisation dawns that there is a middle ground between taking oneself too seriously and being able to take oneself seriously at all.

Readers who take Leaving the Atocha Station too seriously might see it as an Ulysses-inspired exploration of the poetic self and the meaning of experience in modern society; those who don’t might consider it a rambling and self-indulgent autobiography (Lerner is also a poet and spent a year in Madrid on a prestigious fellowship) about nothing in particular.

But there is a middle ground. This debut novel is a stylish, audacious and self-assured debut that mercilessly exposes the artistic ego and, in doing so, both ridicules and humanises it. Its wandering and plotless prose might put off some, but it captures something very real about the foibles and struggles of a young artist. For a novel about nothing in particular, it says an awful lot.

Published 5 July 2012 by Granta Books. Available in hardback, paperback, and trade paperback.

Novel: Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne

The follow up to 2008’s acclaimed Submarine, Joe Dunthorne’s second novel, Wild Abandon, takes as its focus a number of odd yet endearingly flawed characters practicing, in their words, “secular but authentic communal living” in South Wales.

Almost twenty years into its tenure, Blaen-y-llyn is becoming increasingly dysfunctional – and so, too, are its inhabitants. In the hopes of attracting much needed new, young members, and a reconciliation with his wife and daughter, commune founder Don sees drastic measures and overblown gestures as the only line of action, deciding upon an A-Level results party with a 10k sound system.

Right at the heart of the chaos is Don and Freya’s son Albert, an eleven-year-old who feels that a wave of destruction is poised to sweep through his life. In addition to his parents’ separation, he feels abandoned by his sister Kate, who leaves the community each day to study her A-Levels, and looks set to attend Cambridge once the autumn arrives. Additionally, it seems his only home-schooled peer, Isaac, is also set to disappear from his life. The ominous, astrological yarns detailing the end of the world spun by Isaac’s mother seem to Albert to account for the doom he senses brewing. The precocious young man becomes convinced of an impending apocalypse, and in the novel’s hilariously sordid climax, sees the rave his father has organised as the perfect time to distribute his words of warning.

Dunthorne’s talent lies in constructing characters from very minute observations. His portrayal of the complex idiosyncrasies of relationships often ring true. The author brings us vivid descriptions of the sights and smells of communal life – smell, especially; scent lies at the centre of the characterisation of each Blaen-y-llyn inhabitant. In many ways, Albert is desperate to become a teenager and expand his horizons, longing to “summon a bodily stench”, his own obscure marker of adolescence. Geodesic dome-dweller Patrick’s success in staving off the weed which racks him with paranoia can be gauged by the smell of bong water on his customary green fleece. Scent is used powerfully in the recounting of Don and Freya’s initial courting. In a reworking of one of the author’s earlier poems, the two meet as young students in a university swimming pool. As the author tells us, “the smell of chlorine would always remind them of their first kiss”, which takes place in the pool’s “intermediary foot-washing room”.

While the charm of Submarine was largely due to Oliver Tate’s skewed first-person narration, and his struggle to comprehend the complexities of his parents’ wavering relationship, Wild Abandon’s third-person perspective allows an objective account of the central couple’s history. The tale of three graduates (Freya, Don and jewellery artist/eventual Blaen-y-llyn resident Janet) and their naïve ideals dreamt up in university halls, which eventually lead to their foundation of a commune in rural Wales, is brilliantly funny, and perhaps warrants a novel by itself.

The idealistic threesome soon add their former landlord Patrick to their number, and after swiftly purchasing land, set about dreaming up policies to implement in their idyll. Don’s assertion that their children shouldn’t be passively subjected to advertising leads to Patrick’s invention of the “Ad-Guard”, a piece of shower-curtain which can be drawn over the television to obscure adverts from impressionable minds, an example of the clumsily whimsical innovations that abound the commune.

Dunthorne’s prose is fluid and elliptical, whilst also accommodating striking, figurative language, and achieving humour through incongruent images. When Patrick’s weed-induced paranoia reaches its apex, he manically flees from the commune, convinced his fellow dwellers are conspiring against him. He climbs a tree on the outskirts of the grounds and falls, and the search party finds him lying in the turning circle of a nearby housing development: “his thin boxer shorts were torn and stained, a purple testicle like a limpet against his thigh… his broken ankle, a half-deflated football, a geodesic dome, the skin dying, turning grey and dusty at the edges, and the impossible angle of his foot”.

It should be noted that Wild Abandon is not an attack on communal living or “alternative” lifestyles. Suburban life is portrayed with the same shades of disappointment and suppressed hope: when Kate leaves the commune to live with her boyfriend, she is struck by his family’s tedious, suppressed middle-class life. The novel speaks about idealism: how the constant struggles of life and rigours of relationships cannot be avoided through a lifestyle change, and how people inevitably grow apart from the beliefs they once held, as well as apart from one another.

There is a sense Dunthorne that has to juggle somewhat to accommodate the large number of characters central to the novel’s plot. While the humour found in Submarine had a certain immediacy and shock factor, Wild Abandon’s subtly crafted and slow building study of a community in slow demise delivers a memorable, implosive climax. Caveats aside, this is a wildly imaginative novel, its ambitious narrative a considerable departure from Dunthorne’s debut. The melancholic tone, dryly humorous dialogue and singular voice evident throughout make this an engrossing and affecting read. An excellent short story read on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb last month further suggests Dunthorne is an exciting author, with a lot still to say.

First published 4 August 2011. Available in paperback and ebook from Hamish Hamilton/Penguin.

In Their Footsteps: Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall

If London’s smoggy skyline, bright lights and bustling pavements aren’t helping you put pen to paper, maybe it’s time to leave the capital for greener pastures. Follow in the footsteps of Britain’s literary greats for a spot of creative inspiration…

Seeing as it’s July and the weather forecast is looking promising, this week I’d recommend following Daphne Du Maurier down to the craggy cliffs of Cornwall. The writer famous for her haunting and romantic novels was notoriously secretive in real life, spending much of her time hiding away in the West Country.

Cornwall’s mysterious and myth ridden moors, secluded coves and changeable seas – the county’s Celtic landscape is present in much of her work. Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn and, most famously, Rebecca are as ingrained in Cornwall’s identity as pasties and fudge. Well, maybe not quite… but travelling around the coast of Cornwall, it is just as easy to stumble across the houses, towns and views which inspired Du Maurier to put pen to paper.

There are undeniably similar names: Menabilly, near Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall, is often considered to be the inspiration for Manderley, the gothic setting for Rebecca. Like the fictional Manderlay, Menabilly, though edging onto dramatic coastline, is hidden in trees and cannot be seen from the shore. The Elizabethan house in which Du Maurier and her family lived for twenty-six years is still private, but two cottages on the estate are rented out as holiday homes if you fancy a longer stay.

Fowey itself, a place beloved by Du Maurier, is definitely worth a visit. Though much more commercial than it was when Du Maurier first visited, it still has an inspirational air to it. The Annual Literary Festival held in the town each May sees many a Du Maurier enthusiast flock to the pretty seaside town in search of a glimpse of the novelist’s Cornwall.

Port Eliot, one of the oldest houses in Britain, also claims to have inspired Du Maurier’s Manderley. Set in acres of Grade 1 listed garden, the large estate fits the fictional description of an impressive mansion fit for entertaining and also boasts a meandering two mile long drive similar to the one which Du Maurier vividly describes in Rebecca. The house grounds are open to the public during June and July.

Port Eliot is also home to Cornwall’s biggest creative festival, dubbed the Glastonbury of the literary world. From the 21st – 24th of July, the estate fills with the best art, music, literature and creativity Cornwall has to offer

The Jamaica Inn, the haunted setting for Du Maurier’s novel of the same name, is one of Cornwall’s many must visit pubs. Sat on the Bodmin Moor, the legendary coaching house was once on the main road from London to Cornwall and, aside from its literary connections, is teeming with enough history and mystery (excuse the rhyming) to spark your creativity and maybe even inspire the beginning of a ghost story.

Filled with plenty of swashbuckling pirates, countless moonlit encounters and lashings of seventeenth century passion, another of Du Maurier’s famous novels, the romantic Frenchman’s Creek, is again set on Cornwall’s coastline. The Helford Estuary is the perfect place to while away a summer’s day following in the footsteps of Du Maurier and her fictional lovers. The still pace of life and rural surroundings provide the impression of a time warp which inspired Du Maurier’s historical romance. Take life slowly for the day and wander through the estuary’s overgrown pathways, lush greenery and dappled sunlight. The setting for Frenchman’s Creek is still the ideal location for an illicit encounter, fictional or otherwise…

Nearby St Ives is certainly worth seeing if you are still suffering from writer’s block. An artistic haven, the town’s cobbled streets are edged with art galleries, book shops and vintage stores. Du Maurier herself also frequented St Ives during the forties and stayed in a tiny white washed house in the middle of the town that can now be rented out for holiday stays.

Du Maurier once admitted that she could only really write in Cornwall which perhaps explains why she spent so much of her time there. The county has fuelled the creativity of writers and artists for generations, so if you are struggling for inspiration a trip around Cornwall should really do the trick. And even if it doesn’t and after all of this you still can’t string a sentence together, you can always just take advantage of all the good ale, wonderful food and sandy suntraps the county also has to offer.

Gormenghast Lives On at the Titus Awakes exhibition

Titus Awakes exhibition launch: 9 July, 4-8pm @ Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors, 11 Mare Street, London E8 8RP. More information here.
To celebrate the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth on 9th July 1911, Viktor Wynd Fine Art will be hosting the launch of Titus Awakes, the recently rediscovered sequel to the Gormenghast Series, at this exhibition opening exactly 100 years later. The fourth installment in the Gormenghast saga continues the story of Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan, as he wanders in the modern world and finds his final resting place in Sark.

The Gormenghast series is often wrongly called a trilogy, but was in fact intended to be a longer series, charting Titus’s life from cradle to grave. Titus Awakes was written by Maeve Gilmore shortly after her husband’s death from Parkinson’s Disease in 1968, and is formed from a page and a half of fragmented notes that Peake left to her, detailing how he wanted the story to continue. Maeve died in 1983 and the existence of her manuscript, handwritten in brown ink on four exercise books, remained unknown until Sebastian Peake’s daughter discovered them in the attic of the family home.

Gormenghast is a tour de force that ranks as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable feats of imaginative writing. According to C.S. Lewis: “Peake’s books are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Titus Awakes is published by Vintage, who are also bringing out a new illustrated edition of the original Gormenghast Trilogy which features over 100 illustrations by Mervyn Peake. You will be able to buy your copies at the launch event on the 9th July between 4-8pm.

The opening will be in the presence of Sebastian Peake who will be giving a reading from Titus Awakes, as well as signing copies. To secure a signed copy of the book, please pre-order from http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org and collect at the event.

The launch is free, but you will need to RSVP. Email [email protected]  to reserve your place.

Also: 20th July – Sebastian Peake on his Parents
As part of the Hendrick’s Lecture Series, Sebastian Peake will be giving a lecture about his parents on the 20th of July at 7pm.  Tickets are £7 from http://www.thelasttuesdaysociety.org/tickets.html

What’s In A Name?

We all know that novelists devote a staggering amount of their energies on structural details: the enticing openings, the teasing suspense at the end of each chapter, the rising dramas, heartbeats and tensions of the tales’ closures, but what about the names of characters? Are there any significant meanings attached to these fictional names? Were these names conjured up by the magic of a random lottery or were they created by intelligent decisions for purpose and effect? It is certainly true that a striking, unusual character name can assist in locking the character’s dispositions, traits and experiences firmly into one’s memory. Some character names are so intriguingly memorable that these identities become a regular feature in everyday language, and even lexicographers may deem it worthy of gaining some space in reputable reference tomes. For instance, you can locate Charles Dickens’ Scrooge from A Christmas Carol in Chambers dictionary as a noun for ‘a miserly person’, and describe someone as Jekyll and Hyde, and you will instantly know that this person has a bizarrely dual personality. Thus the names bestowed upon the stars of riveting fictional stories most definitely have huge importance.

Character names which are perfectly matched to their personalities can leave a deep imprint etched in audiences’ minds. Emily Brontë’s darkly glamorous, Byronic hero, Heathcliff, has an aptly chosen name. His name refers to the wild elements of nature which reflects the wildness of his passionate love and obsession with Catherine. Furthermore, the solitary name Heathcliff, without a surname as a companion to his forename, creates an immediate sense of mystique to his character. A lack of a surname suggests an enigmatic family background, social status and identity. And how about sinister Barbara Covett from Zoë Heller’s brilliantly chilling Notes on a Scandal? Covett certainly coveted Sheba Hart with more than a tad too much passion and force of feeling. And let’s not forget Sheba Hart’s name. The name Sheba is a reminder of another adulterous Bathsheba; that is, in the Bible (2 Samuel 11: 2), David has an affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, after he sees the breathtaking beauty bathing. Her surname Hart, conjures up the image of the deer and the hunter, and Hart can obviously be a pun for the emotional icon of desire, the heart. Sheba is being ferociously chased and metaphorically hunted down by Barbara’s domineering possessiveness.

A highly ironic name can also have an equally enormous impact as a greatly suitable name. Take the innocuous sounding name, Angel Clare, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The syllables in his name are soft, dreamy and harmonious. Surely Angel is a heavenly, malice-free creature as befits his name? Yet, Angel cruelly rejects Tess after her confession of her experience of sexual violation. This is the act of a cold, brutal monster in sharp and dramatic contrast to the divine connotations of his name.

A cleverly constructed character name may also summarize or encapsulate the whole plot or the main theme of the story. Thomas Hardy named Jocelyn Pierston’s love interest, Avice Caro, in The Well-Beloved. Avice means ‘bird’ and Caro can be linked with the word ‘carus’ which in Latin means ‘beloved’. The image of the bird has connotations of flight and escape. Thus, Avice Caro’s name suggests that Jocelyn’s ideal woman or beloved is constantly escaping and flying away from him, and that it is never possible to grasp the ideal in real life.

An inventive or distinctive name has a most bewitching power, since a fantastic character name can evoke a startling kaleidoscope of emotions, images, meanings, associations and memories to reflect over. If an author ponders deeply over each word choice, grammatical decision and sentence construction then it makes absolute sense for a writer to also spend a significant portion of their time contemplating names for the characters that drive their narratives. So what’s in a name? Everything.

Summer reads, whatever the weather

The British summer is almost, but not quite, upon us. April taunted us with the promise of a long, hot summer, only to pull the carpet out from under our flip-flops and replace the cloudless bank holidays with grey and drizzly 9-5s.

Maybe you are in the middle of exams or just plain sick of work? Perhaps you’re eagerly awaiting your summer holiday or maybe, like me, your student bank account won’t let you book one. Either way, while we are all stuck inside dreaming of the sunshine, here are a few books to give your imagination an ash-cloud free holiday.

Cider with Rosie (rrp £7.99)

Who needs to go abroad this summer? Cider with Rosie is a beautifully written memoir of Lee’s childhood spent in the lush Cotswolds. Lyrically written, Lee evokes a postcard worthy picture of rural England before high speed trains, mobile phones and the internet. Reading Lee’s gentle descriptions of sunlight speckled fields, rural festivities, and long summers is almost as good as being there and will certainly make you want to don a daisy chain and lie in a British meadow.

A Room with a View (rrp £8.99)

Perhaps a staycation is not quite your thing? E M Forster’s A Room with a View has the best of both worlds. Opening in Florence, Forster’s tale follows Lucy and her troublesome love life through rustic Tuscany back to Surrey’s undulating countryside. Forster’s descriptions of love in Italy will undoubtedly distract you from your dreary your office and the dribble of rain on your window.

Eat Pray Love (rrp £7.99)

Fancy a more extended trip? Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best seller, Eat Pray Love, takes you on a journey through Italy, India, and Bali. Satisfying even the most demanding holidaymakers’ desires, (gorging on ice-cream, achieving spiritual peace, and toying with a summer romance) after finishing Gilbert’s autobiographical journey of self discovery you’ll feel like you’ve been away too. On top of that, Gilbert’s descriptions of her exploits with Italian cuisine actually made my stomach rumble; I’ve never felt more like dropping everything and finding a cheap flight to warmer Italian shores.

These books will give your imagination a well deserved break while we wait for the British summer to start, but if an imaginative holiday just won’t cut it, pick up a travel guide.

Ellie Walker-Arnott

A Word with Joe Dunthorne

Rob Fred Parker talks to writer Joe Dunthorne about his latest novel, the film adaptation of his debut Submarine, and more. Fans of of the magazine and Litro Live! may also recognise Joe from last year’s Litro Summer Party, at which we were delighted to have him read, and he will be joining us again for Litro Live! at the Camden Crawl, this May Bank Holiday weekend.

Joe Dunthorne is a Welsh born, London based poet, novelist, performer and literacy champion who is certainly busy at the moment.  We spoke about his brand new novel, where he draws inspiration from and his two upcoming shows at London Word Festival.

Last year saw a collection of Joe’s poetry published as part of Faber’s New Poets series, and Ministry of Stories, a creative writing centre Joe helped found in Hackney, open its doors to school classes in Hackney. This year has already seen his 2008 debut novel Submarine become a critically-acclaimed film, and promises his second novel in the summer. Drawing upon Dunthorne’s adolescence in Swansea, Submarine, from the opening page’s examples of the loaded questionnaires narrator Oliver issues his parents, is incredibly funny. But, for all its humour, there are very raw emotional undertones, documenting the despondency and depression of adolescence. On this balance, Joe comments “writing it was a challenge, definitely. Particularly when you have a character who avoids his emotions, who always analyses his feelings as a way of dismissing them, the challenge is to give the reader a glimpse of the actual emotions that are below the surface”. Fortunately, Richard Ayoade’s adaptation brings the tone and wit to the big screen faithfully with cinefile flair, and Joe hasn’t been put off from future adaptations of his work. “I had a great experience so, yes, I’d do it again — as long as I was confident about the people I was working with”.

Joe’s second novel, Wild Abandon, takes as its focus the disintegration of a secluded commune and the delusions of characters certain of an impending apocalypse. Like Submarine, it is a ‘book about family’.  “There are young people in Wild Abandon, an eleven-year-old, Albert, and his older sister, Kate, who’s seventeen, so that creates some parallels to Submarine. Plus, it’s set in Wales. Again. But Wild Abandon has a different perspective, setting, and tone, and there are more characters, and it tells a story in a way Submarine didn’t”. Whilst Submarine’s first person narrative drew influence from J. D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut, Wild Abandon was inspired by a number of other dryly humourous American writers. “One of the key books was White Noise by Don De Lillo which, for me, is pretty much perfect. The characters are vivid, unusual, and very funny, the story is really gripping and yet De Lillo smuggles in wonderful diversions on imagery, shopping and death. He incorporates all the detritus of contemporary culture in to something truly transcendent. I was also reading lots of David Foster Wallace:  again, a writer who is funny, but also, hugely honest, insightful and generous. It must be said, however, he is a risky man to be influenced by. I’ve had to go back through Wild Abandon and cut out all the passages of adjectival, page-long sentences — and blame them on reading Infinite Jest”.

In addition to this printed work, Joe performs regularly. “Writing is a solitary experience so I like to have performance as a counter-balance to that. Some of the writing I do I wouldn’t want to publish, but it seems well suited to being read out loud. Plus, I like the different opportunities — crowd participation, video, multi-vox, theatrics — that being on stage creates. It’s a good place to experiment”. For London Word Festival, which began on April 7th, Joe co-wrote The Crash with, among others, comedian Tom Basden, a financial murder mystery in the form of an ‘immersive installation’, plus will be performing The Goodbye Library, a show influenced by library closures, with musician Emmy the Great and poet Jack Underwood.

Joe has been involved in projects in each of the last three festivals, and sees it as a good opportunity to collaborate with like-minded writers and artists. “I’m an East London resident and have always really admired the festival. I’ve seen lots of good events over the years — Iain Sinclair in St. Augustine’s Tower in Hackney, springs to mind — and it’s something I’m always keen to be involved in. Lucky for me, they keep inviting me back. There’s loads of events I’m looking forward to this year: the night for Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic, which is an amazing magazine; Keep Breathing by Chris Goode, one of my favourite playwrights; This Is Just To Say by Hannah Jane Walker, a fantastic intimate performance about apology; and… Intergender Wrestling!” (a reinterpretation of cult comedian Andy Kauffman’s provocative act featuring comics Simon Munnery and Josie Long).

So, what advice does he have to other aspiring writers? “Just the boring advice that everyone gives young writers. Write and read. Read and write. And turn off the internet”. But before you all shut down your laptops in favour of a good old HB and notepad, take a look at the details of Joe’s upcoming performances, as they promise not to be missed.

Litro Live! at the Camden Crawl is on Saturday 30th April at the Bullet Bar. Please see our Litro Live! page for more details.
The Goodbye Library is at The Nave on Wednesday 27th April
The Crash runs at 60 Farringdon Road from Friday 29th April to Sunday 1st May
Full details on all festival events can be found at: http://www.londonwordfestival.com/

Vintage Classics Day at Foyles

Vintage Classics Day

Foyles Bookshop, Charing Cross Road, 7th May 2011, 10am-5pm

Vintage Classics is introducing the Orange Inheritance collection this week. This collection of classic novels, selected and introduced by six Orange Prize winners as the book they would pass on the next generation, will be published on Thursday 7th April. The intriguing list includes classic and acclaimed novels, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, including: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (selected by Helen Dunmore), Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (selected by Lionel Shriver, 2005 Orange Prize winner), Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac (Rose Tremain, the winner in 2008) and more.

To celebrate the new collection, Lionel Shriver, Kate Mosse and Mark Haddon will be speaking about their ‘Inheritance Classics’ at the Vintage Classics Day at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London on Saturday 7th May. The fantastic line-up of speakers includes Jake Arnott, Sadie Jones, Sebastian Peake (Mervyn Peake’s son), Rose  Tremain and Sebastian Faulks.

There are limited early bird tickets available for the Vintage Classics Day only until Tuesday 5th April. These tickets are priced at £12. After Tuesday tickets will be at full price (£18/£15 concs).

To find out more about the event and to book tickets, visit the event page here at www.foyles.co.uk. For more details on the collection, including a full list of the novels, please see the story in the Orange Newsroom or read the Guardian online article here.

Novel: The Little House by Philippa Gregory

Say the name “Philippa Gregory” and one immediately thinks of tightly laced corsets, the corrugated lace of magnificently decorative ruffs, cunning plots and manipulative manoeuvres in the dangerous arena of Tudor politics, thanks to her most famous novel, The Other Boleyn Girl. Yet, Philippa Gregory also proves that she is just as competent at producing a deeply engaging novel set in the 20th century as in the drama of 16th century court life with her psychological thriller The Little House, which was first published in 1998 to great success. The novel has also been recently republished with a splendid book jacket makeover due to the ITV1 drama, aired during the channel’s 2010 Autumn/Winter season.

The novel tells the story of Ruth, who simply adores her beautiful Bristol flat and who has great hopes for her career in radio journalism. However, her pushy husband and her in-laws eventually persuade her to give up her independent city life for the quieter and lonelier countryside. Ruth and her husband, Patrick move into Manor Cottage, the little house situated just down the lane from Patrick’s parents’ farmhouse. When Ruth falls pregnant she finds that her in-laws become increasingly meddlesome in her private affairs, to the point that she feels as if her baby isn’t even her own. Patricks’ extremely possessive parents offer their assistance, such as his mother Elizabeth making decoration decisions for the little house while Ruth “rests” (Elizabeth convinces Ruth that a biscuit-colour Berber carpet is far better than Ruth’s preference for varnished floorboards), but these “well-meaning” acts of kindness actually have more ominous undertones than one would think. The claustrophobia and the stifling closeness of Ruth’s interfering in-laws eventually reaches a startlingly eerie climax.

Gregory may have swapped the Tudor fashion trends of French hoods and farthingale skirts with contemporary clothing choices of leggings, waxed jackets and Wellington boots, but both The Other Boleyn Girl and The Little House essentially make a similar comment about the institution of the family. In both stories, there are certain self-centred and power hungry family members who are not afraid to exploit and control one another all in the supposed name of protecting or enhancing the family’s fortunes. Families are not always filled with sickly, sweet candy-floss moments, cuddly hugging and breathless giggles, but instead families are shown to be constantly in a tussle, scuffle and strained tug-of-war for power. What makes The Little House a genius creation is that Gregory shows this overzealous desire to dominate others in the family achieved through subtle and sneaky little acts, which are far more disturbing than overt and direct displays of a domineering attitude. It is the steady accumulation of quietly menacing scenarios which is the best thing about this novel. The terrific, shocking ending will completely remould the readers’ attitudes and feelings about specific characters which have been developed throughout the course of the novel.

 Top marks for Philippa Gregory’s The Little House, which is a complex, sinister and suspenseful novel. The various characters’ feelings of obsession, egotism, jealousy and resentment will definitely leave readers hooked with this well constructed and clever story.