What My Dark Side Did On Holiday

Blogging friends, I told you the funny stories last time, but here’s where I confess that the past three weeks have also seen me having to confront a lot of limitations. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been able to do the difficult things in life – show me a tough intellectual challenge, and I’m your woman – but I struggle to accomplish the easy things. So, to take an example of that, I find it very difficult to travel. I’ve mentioned here before that I suffer from claustrophobia, and never more so than in a moving vehicle of any kind. On the whole, cars are better than planes or buses or, god forbid, coaches. I’d rather never get on a ferry again, if I have that option, but trains are okay so long as the journey is brief. Before we went on holiday, it had been quite a while since I’d undertaken a lengthy car journey, so long in fact, that I had quite forgotten how the claustrophobia felt. Having removed so many stresses from my life, and having reaccustomed myself to a life that doesn’t include daily challenges to my anxiety levels, I was taken wholly by surprise by the old, old feelings of panic and horror that started to creep over me as we undertook the first leg of our journey. We did three hours in the car, not particularly long, but my goodness, was I thankful to break the journey in Bath and have a day to recover. But getting back in the car for the next stretch down to Cornwall was tougher than I imagined. One’s lizard brain takes over, and the purely instinctual animal side was wailing ‘Get back in the tin crate again! Oh but I can’t!’.

Well, of course, I did. That’s the problem with journeys. You can stop, but you’ve got to get going again. So off we went, while I focused on my breathing and put both feet on the floor and my hands on my knees and concentrated on those mindless extremities, and generally did all I could to find a place of meditative calm. We made relatively good time for the majority of the journey, but you can’t travel in the UK without hitting road problems – our roads are just too congested and in need of repair – but I fear them most of all. About two in the afternoon we hit a trail of crawling vehicles and inched our way forwards with no obvious sign of greater flow in the traffic up ahead. I always follow the map and, having kicked myself for failing to direct us off onto smaller roads at a previous junction, noted a thin white line of track that bypassed what I assumed was the problem – the road narrowing from a dual to a single carriageway quite three miles up ahead. My husband and son were ready to go off-roading, and so we turned off onto what was really a goat superhighway on the side of Bodmin Moor, which, running at a higher gradient than the road we’d left behind, allowed us to watch the poor folk stuck in the jam as we whizzed by them. Well, we weren’t exactly whizzing over the cattle grids, but it felt marvelously spacious for a moment there. We rejoined the road as a single carriageway where the traffic was flowing, even if slowly, and cheered at the best short cut we’d ever made. We entered dual carriageway again, calculated we’d reach our destination in half an hour, rounded the corner and…. stopped. Oh yes, we hit yet another wall of traffic and this one was completely stationary. People eventually turned their engines off and, despite the rain that was now falling, got out of their cars. You might say to me, why not get out myself and ease the claustrophobia? Alas, in my book we were still trapped. As trapped as tin cans on a production line. After about forty minutes, we began to crawl. We crawled for another fifteen minutes or so, eventually passing the wreck of a burnt out vehicle on the side of the road, and after that we were moving normally again. I hadn’t lost it, hadn’t got out of the car and knelt on the tarmac and cried for deliverance, because a) I would hate to embarrass my menfolk and b) it wouldn’t have done any good. There was absolutely nothing I could do until the traffic began moving again. You see? That’s what I mean by trapped.

Well, it took me a couple of days of holiday to get over the after effects of the journey. I seem to effortlessly convert extreme stress into physical symptoms. And much as it was lovely to spend time with my boys, and the place was cute, it did rain an awful lot and I began to be homesick. I turn out, oddly enough, to be more deeply attached to places than to people. I’m a hopeless homebody. And I suppose deep down, I was trying not to think (and therefore endlessly thinking) about that return journey. My husband is very kind to me, and was happy to arrange it however I saw fit. So we decided to travel at the quietest times we could imagine – Friday evening and early Saturday morning, breaking our journey again at a travel lodge this time.

My apprehension levels were through the roof before I even got in the car. I was giving myself constant pep talks, trying to reassure myself we’d be fine traveling at that time of the day, and that I would be able to contain my anxiety. Well, in actual fact I didn’t do too bad. As the hours passed, and we made good time, and the roads were indeed clear and fast moving, I kept up my meditation practice and got as good a hold on my fears as I could. Darkness fell, but I knew that we were only twenty minutes or so from our stop for the night. At around a quarter past ten we arrived at the travel lodge and I was cautiously congratulating myself for having made it this far. Only do you think the travel gods were going to let me off the hook like that? Oh no. We went to book in only to find that a mistake had been made, and we did indeed have a room registered at the lodge – only in two day’s time. And of course that night they were fully booked.

Well, what were we to do? The reservation clerk my husband was talking to was trying to persuade us to stay in a different travel lodge about 25 miles south of Reading, but I felt if I was going to have to get back in that car, I wanted at least to be heading in the right direction. The obvious thing to do was to keep going and to finish driving home that night. We had a good two hours’ or so of journey ahead of us, and my husband insisted that he was fine to drive it, and my son was stoically good-natured, and I completely agreed it was the right thing to do. But as we made our sorry procession back through the car park, my heart was hammering in my chest and I started to shake from head to toe. I have a deal with the chronic fatigue that if I can be peaceful from about nine in the evening and in bed from about 10.30, it leaves me alone. Well, that one was broken. But worse was the deal with my anxiety about car travel. Something felt utterly betrayed inside me that I hadn’t kept to the plan and was clearly about to let me know it. I arranged to swap places with my son on the grounds I could sleep in the back of the car, and I did indeed pretend to sleep. The boys had enough on their plates getting us home without having to worry about me and, well, I just didn’t want to let on how awful I felt because there was once again absolutely nothing that anyone could do. So I kept quiet in the back of the car, and how I got through that journey (that included a nightmarish trip around a heavily roadworked M25) without throwing up or having a full-blown panic attack, I really don’t know. But the time passed, and the car ate up the miles and eventually we reached home. On the following day I felt like a butterfly must feel as it breaks out of its chrysalis – my body was rigid with the tension I’d been carrying since we left home ten days previously. And then the day after that I fell ill with a terrible headache and dizziness and nausea that I thought was part bug, but part also the long period of tension and strain I’d just been through. The worst thing about it was that I couldn’t read because my head hurt so – can you imagine! It’s enough to make me want to become a recluse and to say, that’s it. No more traveling for me, not ever.

Except of course there’s my husband and son to consider, and nothing is ever as simple as it sounds. Still, I plan on as quiet a few weeks now as I can manage, because my anxiety is rather like the Kraken, in that it slumbers but never seems to die. Having awoken it, it troubles me at the moment over every little thing. But if I stay peaceful and empty and quiet enough, it may be lulled into a false sense of security and encouraged to nap once again. I find it all so frustrating, because there’s a world of people out there who seem to travel all the time and barely notice it, who enjoy visiting lovely parts of the world and who even find it restful and relaxing to do so. It’s difficult to feel so limited, so eccentric and strange. But I cling to my fallback position, which is that I’ll go anywhere in my head, and my imagination has no boundaries. At least there, I have no sense of constraint.

What I Did On Holiday

So, let’s catch up a bit on the past fortnight. We went to Cornwall because it’s a lovely part of the country, and it’s been years since we did that long journey kind of family holiday, carting buckets and spades, or at least in our case, fishing nets, overland to the sparkling blue sea (as opposed to the pewter gray North Sea, which is not so far from our door). We rented a teeny cottage in a pretty community called Charlestown, where the television series Hornblower is filmed (for those of you who know it). And I packed lots of books.

There were some truly memorable moments. On the way down we broke the journey by stopping off for a day in Bath, one of my favourite cities. It’s so gloriously elegant and I just love the shopping there. There were several things we needed – my son needed new shorts, my husband needed holiday books and I needed underwear. Now, sensitive male readers may wish to avert their eyes; no need to upset yourselves unnecessarily. I’ve never been that bothered about underwear, preferring to spend my money on the garments that the other 99% of the population sees. I can cheerfully hook my elderly off-white bra out the washing pile which makes my husband sometimes suspect that I am not a Real Woman. But I draw the line when the underwiring starts to stab me in the heart; I mean, what is it with all the scaffolding in bras these days? I have no need to be cantilevered into position. Anyway, I was calmly headed off to Marks and Spencer, as per usual, when my husband began to steer me in a completely new direction, and before I knew it, I was being ushered into one of those small, scary little shops that have three silver-sprayed torsos in the window displaying wispy, frilly numbers that calculate out to an outrageous price per metre of fabric, and have apparently no stock on the inside.

‘My wife,’ said my husband firmly to the lady seated on a little velvet stool behind the cash desk, ‘needs underwear. Nothing fits her. Please help.’

The assistant was a woman of German origin with a business-like platinum bob and steel-rimmed spectacles. She guessed my size through the shirt I was wearing, and when I demurred, said, ‘Na jah, I think ve try something on, and you will see I am right.’

So, I was invited with steely kindness to undress in a tiny but compassionate changing cubicle with low lighting and nice furnishings. There’s an advert on the television here for Bravissimo, which is a firm specializing in underwear for the larger lady. An endless array of well-endowed models present acres of cleavage to the cameras while cooing ‘Bravissimo – how does it make you feel?’ To which I usually respond, to my husband’s amusement: inadequate. I don’t look at myself undressed much; I’m thin as a whippet which was probably okay in the lengthy era of rationing that followed the second world war, but which nowadays makes me look in comparison to most normal folk like a victim of famine. Believe you me, it is no fun being thin; people feel they have the right to insist you are anorexic and make snorting noises when I point out that I eat three meals a day plus snacks. Well, abandoned to my body in this little cubicle, I felt remarkably like Eliza Doolittle, some waif and stray recently picked out of the gutter by a benevolent benefactor and brought to the big city to be spruced up. Whilst that same benevolent benefactor sat up front on a spindly chair having the time of his life, a pig in muck, legitimately achieving his life’s dream of being surrounded by ladies’ lingerie.

My German assistant returned with armfuls of underwear (where did she get it all from?) that turned out to fit me perfectly, which was a shock as I’d given up all hope of that kind of miracle about a decade ago. And I began to quite enjoy myself. Almost everything I tried on was coloured, which was unsettling as I only ever wear white (no issues about matching), but it was all so pretty, and so beautifully made and, biggest surprise of all, so comfortable.

‘I speak viz your husband and tell him you have an expensive body!’ my lovely assistant crowed. At which point the woman in the next door cubicle, also being attended to by another kind and charming assistant piped up, declaring, ‘I wish someone would say that about me! I’m sixty-one and a grandmother and the only way I’m expensive is if I charge for flesh by the pound!’ I tell you, it’s quite a party they have back there in these shops.

So, I left with three new bras; one cream, one black and one pink. I refused the knickers, though, on grounds of rampant impracticality. ‘You really should have ze pink knickers,’ my assistant reproached me. ‘You’ll never get a precise match of colour.’ ‘Oh I know,’ I said, but they are so frilly; they just wouldn’t be comfortable to sit around in all day.’ At these words both assistants, as of one woman, took a step backwards and threw their hands up in despair. Had they taught me nothing in our brief but significant acquaintance? ‘It’s not just about comfort!’ they declared, and my husband shook his head sadly in a you-see-what-I-must-put-up-with kind of way. Still, I’m the one having to sit on my bottom with (most of the time) a hot laptop on my thighs, and I know my limits.

Goodness, that took a long time to tell, didn’t it? Sensitive men may return to the fold now. The other story I must tell while I’m recounting the good bits concerns my son. Ever since he was little, he’s had a genetically untraceable fascination for fishing. My husband is always trying to redirect it towards boats and sailing, thus coinciding with his own cherished interests, but my son stubbornly hangs onto his rod and his net and has quite a surprising degree of success. Charlestown has a tiny working harbour that expands, at low tide, into a shingle cove with good rock pools. Initially my son began with his fishing net in the pools and returned (dodging the heavy showers that plagued the holiday) with a brimming bucket full of crabs and prawns. I would forget the bucket was there and be suddenly freaked in the kitchen when that day’s crab started up chattering its claws. Then he decided to move into sea fishing on the incoming tide, something that happened about nine in the evening at that point. It was getting dark by then, and was raining, and blowing a gale, but he ventured out doggedly with his resigned father. An hour or so later, they returned triumphant. As ever, my son had the luck of the devil and, to the chagrin of the massed fishermen sitting patiently by, had plucked a pollack out of the black waters. It was quite a reasonable sized fish, glossy gray and sinuous, staring up at me out of the bucket with wide, trusting eyes.

‘He wants to eat it,’ said my husband.

‘Must you?’ I asked. ‘It would be so much kinder to throw it back.’

‘I caught it,’ said my son with determination, ‘and I’m going to eat it.’

Not of course, that he had the stomach to gut it. Instead, he wanted a few moments of quality time with his catch, in which he stroked the pollack’s bristly back and pronounced a fond, touching farewell, then went to sit in a different room while his father, thanks to a rural Suffolk childhood full of nature red in tooth and claw, did the necessary. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the combination of compassion, squeamishness and gruesome intent. Still, the pollack fulfilled its destiny and my son had it for lunch the next day. Plain fish isn’t something my son will usually accept on the menu, and it made me wonder about the power of hunting your own food. If only broccoli ran wild and had to be tracked down and overmastered. ‘Broccoli with eyes?’ said my son, aghast, when I suggested it. ‘I don’t think so.’

Well, those were the more entertaining moments of the holiday. I think I will have to make this a two-parter and discuss the rest on another day. So, more later!

Arabian Nights

I’ll tell you about my holiday in another post, but first, I’m behind in reviewing Kate Pullinger’s excellent novel, Mistress of Nothing, for her blog tour. So let me tell you all about that first.

Mistress of Nothing is the fictionalized story of Sally Naldrett, real life lady’s maid to the eminent Victorian, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, whose translation of French and German texts won her a place in the heart of intellectual society. But when this novel begins, Sally’s mistress is suffering from life-threatening tuberculosis, and immediate exile from her beloved family and the poor climate of England is strenuously advised. To save her life, Lady Duff Gordon agrees to renounce all her ties and to travel to the heat and dust of Egypt for at least two years, taking Sally as her only companion. Whilst many servants would dread such a transition, Sally welcomes it. She longs to see the world and is a natural traveler, independent, curious and bored with gossipy, narrow-minded English life. Embarking on a lengthy, dangerous voyage to the other side of the world is a prospect she relishes.

Lady Duff Gordon settles in Luxor, in a small household consisting of Sally and the resourceful Egyptian dragoman they found they needed to deal with the intricacies of a different culture. Omar Abu Halaweh is charming, devoted and highly efficient and the two women come to depend on him utterly. Despite finding isolation from her husband and children hard to bear, Lady Duff Gordon throws herself wholeheartedly into Egyptian society, learning to speak and write in Arabic, and involving herself in the political plight of the Egypt workers, cruelly and unjustly treated by their tyrannical leader. Enjoying an unprecedented degree of freedom for an English servant, Sally follows her lead, learning the language, helping Omar in his tasks and eventually casting off her stays and her formal English clothes in favour of native dress. Sally, Omar and their mistress become an intimate, unusual household as their English constraints fall away, and a new mode of living brings them all peace and contentment.

But inevitably trouble comes to paradise. Sally and Omar fall in love and the intricate patterns of their loyalties, along with the strength of their new freedoms, are put to the test. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this is a gripping narrative that combines a multi-cultural love affair with deeper questions about the strength of cultural attachments, the possibilities open to women in the Victorian era and the strange but binding ties between master and slave. I haven’t mentioned her very much so far, but for me the most intriguing character in this three-hander is Lady Duff Gordon herself. Capable of great generosity and flexibility of mind, intellectually enlightened and fiercely committed to the cause of justice, she nevertheless reveals herself to be limited in her close, personal relationships, needing to be the one who is looked after, fêted, admired and cosseted. But perhaps the greatest character in the novel is Egypt itself. This is a beautifully written book, pitch perfect in its historical tone and almost incandescent with the white heat of the Nile. It transports the reader effortlessly and seamlessly into another land and time, bringing the reality of living in an exotic, hostile climate vividly to life. Social comment is cleverly, delicately interwoven into the rich pattern of the narrative, so that the reader understands perfectly the deadlock that grips Sally and Omar when their loyalties are divided between their mistress and their child. All in all, this is a classy read, a historical novel that shimmers vibrantly on the page and lingers long in the mind.

And guess what: I have two review copies to give away! Leave a comment if you’d like your name to be put into the draw.

Also, the author, Kate Pullinger, was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for her:

1. I’m impressed by the range of contexts and situations that your novels span. The Mistress of Nothing is your first historical fiction – what drew you to this particular period and interested you in your subject?

My novel ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ had three different time frames in it, and with one set in the 19th century, in Canada and what was then British Guyana.  So I had done some historical research for that, and cut my teeth on getting to grips with the main problem, as I see it, of historical fiction, which is figuring out how to absorb the research and create fiction out of it.  My interest in the subject matter of ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ sprang directly from Katherine Frank’s wonderful biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, which I first read in 1995.  The story of Sally struck me forcefully then.  As well as this, I had been to Egypt once, including spending time in Luxor, and had loved it, so was very happy to find myself writing a novel set there.

2. I read that it took you ten years to write this novel and that at one point, a year’s devotion to writing it had left you with only one page. This is a plight any writer can identify with! What caused the difficulties with this narrative, and how did you finally overcome them?

Perseverance!  But also the story wouldn’t let me go – the historical fact that Sally gave birth on the Nile on Christmas Eve, having hidden both the romance and the pregnancy from Lucie, with whom she spent nearly every minute of every day, was fabulous territory for fiction.

The problems were many – I’d never written about a writer before and I found this hugely problematic; Egypt is the Land of Clichés when it comes to the way Europeans often view it, and Victorian Lady Travellers are also pretty clichéd territory now.  I found myself grappling with many subjects I knew next to nothing about – Egypt in the 19th century, Islam at that time, tuberculosis – I even tried to learn Arabic!  Also, I found it very difficult to get the point of view right, though now that the book is told entirely from Sally’s point of view, it seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t think of it in 1995 when I first had the idea for the novel!!!

3. What is the heart of this novel for you? What was the central question or concern that you wanted to address?

The absolute heart of the novel is that moment on the Nile. And for me the thing of greatest interest was trying to tell an otherwise completely invisible story; while Lucie Duff Gordon’s life is well documented, no one knows what happened to her maid Sally Naldrett.  For me this is of huge interest; while Lucie was an amazing woman, much loved to this day in Egypt, it’s the forgotten lives that interest me.  Also, having written a novel, ‘A Little Stranger’, that deals with a woman who is overwhelmed by the experience of motherhood and can’t cope with having a child, I was interested to explore the story of a woman who faces losing everything.

4. The Mistress of Nothing is an orthodox novel, but I know you have a great deal of interest in the digital world. I read an interview with you in the Observer in which you said: ‘Our ideas about what reading is will have to change to keep up with what is going on in a digital culture.’ I’d love to hear more about what you think on this issue.

For many years now I have had a foot in two camps, so to speak, the print publishing world, and the digital world, and while these worlds are edging closer together now, for me they are still too far apart.  I write digital fiction – look at http://www.inanimatealice.com and http://www.flightpaths.com for some examples – and I am very interested in thinking about the future of fiction and what the digital age could mean for writers and readers.  I’m not talking about ebooks that recreate print pages digitally, but new forms of storytelling.  When you think about the long history of storytelling from cave painting onward, it is possible to view the print novel as part of a trajectory and not a glorious endpoint.  Storytelling is evolving.  However, for long form prose storytelling, like ‘The Mistress of Nothing’, the book remains the most brilliant, reliable, and beautiful technology.  But that
might change!

5. You’re currently involved in the project Flight Paths that aims to create a networked novel on and through the internet. Could you explain more what that means, and what you’re hoping to explore via the experiment?

I was interested in working on a fiction project that opened up the research and early development phase to other people from the very beginning, and this is essentially what ‘Flight Paths’ means to me. The story is one I’ve had in my head for a long time, but putting it up online, creating multimedia elements, inviting contributions from other people (we have fantastic contributions), is very exciting.  The project is unfolding slowly, and will continue to evolve – I don’t really have any clear idea of where it will lead.  With both this project, and ‘Inanimate Alice’ (mentioned above), I work very closely with my collaborator Chris Joseph; without Chris neither of these projects would exist. http://www.chrisjoseph.org/

6. I noticed a series of creative writing articles that you wrote for the Guardian. What advice would you give to an unpublished author working on a novel?

I think the main advice I would give anyone is to keep your head down and concentrate on the writing – don’t get caught up in worrying about publishing and agents and that whole side of things until you’ve got a manuscript that you are very confident about.  Remember it is much much easier for any agent or publisher to say ‘no thanks’ instead of ‘yes please’.  Read as much and as widely as possible.  And try to find impartial advice on your writing – usually friends and family are anything but impartial, so join a rigorous writing group or class, find an MA where writers whose work you admire are teaching, or join a mentoring programme for 1-1 editorial advice.  Most writers, including professionals, value good strong editorial advice.  And good luck!

7. Where do you see your work heading next? You have so many intriguing strands to your career – will you seek to consolidate them or to branch out into further new territory?

‘Intriguing strands’ is a nice way of putting it; sometimes I worry that I go in too many directions and would be better off doing just one thing!  But one of the great things about being published and getting your work out there in both print and digital forms is that opportunities come your way – and it is hard to say no!!!  I am, in fact, doing something completely new to me at the moment – writing a libretto for an opera!  I’ve been commissioned by the Slovak National Opera, in Bratislava, to work with a Slovak composer, Lubica Cekovska, to write an opera based on Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’.   So from new media to very old media – with full orchestra and singers!  My favourite line so far:  ‘She drinks the poison, and sings, and dies.’

Last Reviews

I’m sorry, blogging friends, I should have made it clear in those first sentences of the previous post that I wasn’t leaving immediately. But this IS the last post now, so you needn’t worry that you’ll be saying goodbye and bon voyage endlessly!

But a few final reviews before I go. First up, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton. We have long been big fans of Crompton in this family as my son has loved the Just William stories since he was little. He still listens to them on tape while falling asleep at night and they have entertained us on many a long car trip. I had no idea that Crompton had written adult novels, however, until alerted to the fact by the wondrous blog world, and Danielle’s posts in particular. Well, Family Roundabout is everything I had hoped it would be. It’s the story of two families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys, each headed up by powerful if very different matriarchs. Mrs Fowler is gentle and distracted and infinitely loving. Mrs Willoughby is strong and fearsome and completely controlling, and the difference in their managerial style, particularly in the absence of husbands (both are widows when the novel begins) means that they are set up against each other as alternative possibilities of mothering. In the early stages of the novel, Mrs Fowler’s approach seems infinitely preferable. Mrs Willoughby’s children are completely under the thumb, unable – and not in any case permitted – to think for themselves, which causes all kinds of problems for her daughters in particular, whose husbands justifiably resent the extent of their mother-in-law’s meddling in their lives. Mrs Fowler, by contrast, remains the epitome of loving kindness in her children’s minds, and nowhere is quite as wonderful as by her side. Her children are more disparate in temperament but, as the story progresses, it turns out they are not noticeably better at dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

I call them children, but we’re talking about young adults on the brink of their independent lives here, and the narrative follows their passage through the complications of love affairs, marriages, decisions about what profession to undertake. The families are joined (awkwardly) when bossy, smug Helen Fowler marries the eldest Willoughby son, Max, a jolly, mindless type who now runs the family business. This is a triumphant union, against which their siblings measure themselves. Anice, Helen’s sister, burns with old, tenacious jealousy; Oliver, Max’s brother, tries to summon the spirit to evade the family business and find an occupation that’s truer to his spirit; whilst Peter, Helen’s brother, struggles in marriage to the manipulative, hysterical Belle, who uses her beauty to fulfill her almost psychotic need for fraught emotional battles. As the years pass, the generation of grandchildren grows up to face its own difficulties – a hated boarding school, the uncertainty about a lost father, a sad, shrewish mother. It’s a book about reaping what we sow, but it’s also about the way that life, in its brutality, outwits us all, but provides us, in its unbidden bounty, with a series of crux points in which we have the chance to change our ways, learn our lessons, or expand into a new level of being. Mostly, Mrs Fowler’s and Mrs Willoughby’s children make the usual human choices; they take the easy route, the one that salves their pride or conforms to their egotistic image, and thus they end up with decidedly mixed fortunes.

In the end, Crompton is exquisitely even-handed in her evaluation of different kinds of mothering. Both Mrs Fowler and Mrs Willoughby suffer and emerge with dignity, their children still loyal and more or less loving, even if somewhat bruised from life’s collateral damage. This was a delightful read, as I’m coming to expect from Persephone, compassionate, insightful and most of all, very amusing. Crompton has a glorious turn of phrase, which I would be quoting here, if I hadn’t already lent the book to my mother.

The other books I must review are a bit unusual. The Ox-Tale books are four collections of short stories (Earth, Water, Fire and Air) that feature the work of some of the best and most exciting authors writing in English at the moment. For instance, the collection entitled Earth features stories from (among others) Kate Atkinson, Jonathon Coe, Marina Lewycka, Rose Tremain and Hanif Kureishi; the collection entitled Water features Zoe Heller, Esther Freud, William Boyd, Joanna Trollope and Michael Morpurgo. Vikram Seth has written a cycle of element poems that are spread across the volumes, too. They’re the product of a collaboration between Profile Books, Oxfam and Hay literary festival to raise money to combat poverty; all royalties from books sold will be going to charity. Frankly, I would be behind this venture on the strength of the writing alone but the good cause makes them irresistible.

One reason why I wanted to read them was as a way of sampling several authors who interest me but whose novels I have yet to tackle. The majority of the pieces compiled here are short stories, but in some cases authors have submitted a self-contained piece from their work in progress. In the Fire volume, I read a piece by William Sutcliffe about a hopeless father left to look after his two small children on the beach that was funny and true, until it suddenly turned dark – that’s a novel I’ll be looking out for. In the Earth volume, I read a story about the death of Tolstoy by Rose Tremain that made me wonder why I had ever held back from her work. Hanif Kureishi provided a story about a grown man meeting his long dead father in the pub and returning home with him, giving him unexpected and illuminating insight into his childhood. I’d be interested in reading something longer by him now. Geoff Dyer is another author I’ve long wanted to read, and his contribution, an essay about three potentially disastrous events that occurred to him but from which he escaped unscathed, is clever, bleak and compelling; his work is most certainly on my list. But naturally, I’ve also been enjoying stories from authors I love. Zoe Heller wrote an acidic little story, ‘What She Did On Her Summer Vacation’ that details a shocking loss of innocence, and Kate Atkinson’s extraordinary story, ‘Lucky We Live Now’ is touched by the fantastic as a young woman realizes that everything she owns is reverting to the state of nature from which it was made. That’s been the standout story of any of the collections so far and shows that she’s a writer at the height of her powers. I’m looking forward to the contributions I have yet to read from Ali Smith, Esther Freud and Lionel Shriver.

These stories are really edgy and contemporary and enticing and the quality of the writing so far has been excellent. I’ll be taking one of the books with me on holiday, although what goes too is still undecided. I will probably take The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and possibly Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. But then I’m torn between Anita Shreve’s Testimony, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française, Owen Sheers’ Resistance, Tana French’s In The Woods and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves. Aren’t decisions tough? Well, I hope everyone in the blogworld has a peaceful and fulfilling fortnight – take care and enjoy your reading while I’m gone.