Sometimes it’s impossible to part with the things we love the most…
Published on February 4th, this novel is billed as “Perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant and The Keeper of Lost Things, this exquisitely told, uplifting novel shows us that however hopeless things might feel, beauty can be found in the most unexpected of places.”
Personally, I can’t wait.
When Amy Ashton’s world came crashing down eleven years ago, she started a collection. Just a little collection, just a few keepsakes of happier times: some honeysuckle to remind herself of the boy she loved, a chipped china bird, an old terracotta pot . . . Things that others might throw away, but to Amy, represent a life that could have been.
Now her house is overflowing with the objects she loves – soon there’ll be no room for Amy at all. But when a family move in next door, a chance discovery unearths a mystery long buried, and Amy’s carefully curated life begins to unravel. If she can find the courage to face her past, might the future she thought she’d lost still be hers for the taking?
‘It got better, in time, though to be truthful it always felt more of a duty than a pleasure: a little like homework, satisfying when over, and done well, but never exactly enjoyable. But then nobody had ever suggested it could be otherwise.’
This was the view of Claudia Faraday, 1920s respectable wife and mother of three, on the subject of sex. That is until an unexpected turn of events shakes her out of her torpor and propels her back into the world revitalised and reawakened, where she discovers, as Marie Stopes might have said: Approached in the right way, even homework can be fun.
The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a delightful little novel which consistently confounds expectations. The cover, with its silhouetted protagonist could be for a new spy series, the pink writing could signal traditional “chick lit” (urgh – what a bind of a brand that is), the “Roaring Twenties” strap line makes it sound like a PG Wodehouse romp and the blurb description could be anything from a Jilly Cooper bonkbuster to a serious and measured study of the sexual awakening of upper middle class women in the early part of last century.
And, in the end, this rather sad, rather charming novel is a little of all of these things, (although spy thriller is a stretch. The only revelations here are of the human heart and mind, it is a little lacking in unmasked super villains to be fair.
It is sad. This is a quite and understated sadness of withering dreams and slipping youth. Claudia is a lovely protagonist. A gentle and well intentioned woman who, in her sixth decade, is only beginning to question her wants and desires.
Trench writes with such a penetrating pathos of the boredom of a newly empty nest that the reader’s heart aches for our heroine, so used is she to being of service to others that she is not even the lead character in her own story.
“And so the weeks passed, September into October, and no omnipotent author stepped in to liven up the shapeless plot that was Claudia’s life. She was back to counting the creaks as she ascended the stairs on her way to her bedroom.”
I spent a huge amount of time in the novel feeling desperately sad for Claudia. The Twenties were in distinct danger of not only failing to roar for her but also to go out with barely so much as a whimper.
It was clear that not only sex, but also any agency had been ground out of the character: by society; by men; by her friends; by her mother. This fundamentally sweet woman hadn’t noticed the hypocrisy of everyone else and so was facing the outgoing sands of time in baffled and barely articulated sorrow.
This gentle gloom is alleviated by the light touch, page turning writing skill and the assortment of charming oddities which surround her.
The loyal housemaid Lily – fairly consistently having to let her hand fly to her mouth after yet another misplaced observation of her mistress – is a cutie, old friend and occasional sparring partner Prue, seems to be made up of equal parts scandalous affairs in hot climates and terrible driving.
The absentee husband Gerald sounds what used to be called a perfect pill. Having ruined sex for her, then impregnated her three times scooting off overseas for archaeological digs, he could only make it to one of their children’s weddings.
The children themselves add colour and charm to the rather drab world of their mother. Jessica has a horsey laugh, a disordered house and is a flapper with a jolly husband with an alliterative name; Harriet is a Bohemian with a penchant for interior design and a wayward husband while the youngest daughter, Flora is all horse breeding and country air.
It is not a difficulty to spend time in the world of these delightful characters. It is especially easy when Claudia is making her slightly waspish observations such as:
“It was invariably the revolutionaries who managed to consume most of other people’s wine, and their food, while looking down on them from some lofty moral plinth upon which they had placed themselves.”
In conclusion, The Awakening of Claudia Faraday is a nice little novel filled with excellent characters, charming locations and the quiet desperation of some of our fellow citizens. I can’t wait to meet up with them again.
Patsy Trench lives a quiet and largely respectable life in north London. Claudia’s story shows a side of her normally shy and reserved nature that is little known, even to her friends and acquaintances. Her previous books, about her family’s history in Australia, are entertaining and informative accounts of that country’s early colonial beginnings. She began writing late, and in a previous life she was an actress, scriptwriter, playscout, founder of The Children’s Musical Theatre of London and lyricist. When not writing books she emerges from her shell to teach theatre and organise theatre trips for overseas students. She is the grateful mother of two clever and grown-up children, and she is addicted to rag rugging and, when current circumstances permit, fossicking on the Thames foreshore for ancient treasure.
Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c
Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today.
A world of smoke and mirrors
The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest.
But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.
As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster.
Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable.
His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work.
Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of
He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of.
And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.
I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.
Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.
A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre
The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.
Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again.
Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.
Which is as good a place as any to begin with John Le Carrè’s latest work, Agent Running in the Field. Rumoured to have angered his former employers, (according to one very put out spook at the Cliveden Literary Festival at least)
Mr Le Carrè’s somewhat classy retort in The Times was enough to generate some publicity for what is certainly a lower key release than 2018’s Legacy of Spies (which even got a session at the London’s Royal Festival Hall beamed to cinemas over the UK).
This was supposed to be his Brexit rant – his anti-Trump, reactionary wail of despair at UK national suicide, the world gone mad, manipulated by the kleptocratic, Tsarist spook-in-chief in Moscow. This was supposed to be his deconstruction of the British state and it’s Cambridge Analytica-altered, Putin fiddled with, Big Red Bus of Deceitful Propaganda opus. Hell, even the title sounds like a riff on our former Prime Minister’s childhood agricultural misdemeanours. And, at least in the character of Ed, the novel does reflect those emotions.
“It is my considered opinion that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the Us is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.”
This, in fairness, is hardly an equivocal position. But, nor is it a radical stance so far out with the opinions of many of the people watching Brexit unfold and, in comparison to – say 2003’s Absolute Friends – this is a quiet and measured response.
And, really, that is my take away from the novel. It is a small story in a way that the absolute first rate Le Carrè pieces aren’t. The character of Ed is a graceless and, as a narrator in one of his novels might say, seems to have elevated gracelessness to an art form. Nat is an unreliable narrator, the seemingly happy marriage undermined by what everyone else sees in him apparently, although the influence of this on the plot seems slim.
Overall, it’s always better to read Le Carrè than others. There are the usual damning characterisations, the usual pithy descriptions and he does physical nuance just about better than anyone but, here, the plotting lacks surprises and the ending fails to pack the sort of punch that even a relatively minor novel of his latter period, Our Kind of Traitor or A Most Wanted Man for example, manage to produce.
Is it really 23 years since first we met? Who could not love Commisario Guido Brunetti and his loveable collection of family and colleagues?
Venice – it is traditional at this point to say that the city is as much a character in the novels as the humans, – the city Brunetti navigates with as much detached san froid as he can muster as the murky world of Italian police work intrudes on his homelife.
Donna Leon’s 24th addition to the Brunetti series is Falling in Love
There are many theories as to why people read crime fiction – catharsis born of frustration at their own lives, vicarious wish-fulfillment to name but two – but there’s no doubt that Donna Leon’s characters buck the trend of the standard tropes found in the genre.
So much so, that to define the character of Brunetti, it may be easier to say what he is not.
Brunetti is not divorced. Married to a wonderful professor of literature, Paola. She may have been born into the Venetian nobility, but this rebellious left wing academic with a burning – necessarily unrequited – love of Henry James is mother to his children and always on hand to tease him, gently chide or act as a moral arbiter for Guido if he begins to stray too far from the path of righteousness. Paola can cause him problems, such as when, in fury at the authority’s lack of power to counter a sex tourism travel agency, she was driven to smashing the firm’s window with a brick, but she is almost always on hand to provide a sumptuous home cooked lunch or dinner.
Brunetti is not an alcoholic. Although, he is partial to a little tipple on his terrace at the end of a long day. Or lunch time. Or whenever the Veneziano weather will allow.
Brunetti is not fetishistic about the law. As a Commisario of the Italian police, Brunetti is most often found examining his cases in terms of real politik – can something be done? If so, at what cost? And, how many favours will it cost a good man? If the answer to any of these is too much; then he may well let things slide. But never too far – after all, he still has to face Paola at the end of the day.
Brunetti is not estranged from his family. He has too children, Raffi and Chiara. They have not aged a great deal over the preceding near-quarter of a century, Raffi is a perpetual teen at university and still coming home to Mama, whilst Chiara has inherited his mother’s social conscience, but both children will still do the washing up after a family meal – even with a little grumbling.
Brunetti is not a lone wolf, or vigilante against the world. Guido relies heavily on a support network of colleagues, most notably his sergeant (later Ispettore) and friend Vianello, who plays Horatio to his Hamlet.
His greatest asset in his work – at least in terms of getting results – is the mysterious Signorina Elettra. His boss Vice-Questore Patta’s secretary, well connected and with a varied dating history, she spends the finances of the Questura on flowers to brighten her day and spends the rest of the time frightening Patta with her intelligence and Brunetti with her ability to circumnavigate the computer systems of the Italian state. Oh and the law, but she never seems to worry too much about that.
Some of the Brunetti books were adapted fro German television, apparently to Leon’s displeasure.
On the other hand, Brunetti is in conflict with his boss. One trope of the genre Guido does fit is his dislike of his boss. Vice-Questore Patta is vain, lazy and southern. Not a great combination in Brunetti’s opinion. He is joined by his subordinate brought along from Naples in the unlovely form of Lieutenant Scarpa who, over the course of the novels, has done nothing but snarl and act as a counter-weight to Brunetti and Vianello’s innate goodness.
Across a series this long, there is some variation in quality, for sure. The earliest novel, Death La Fenice was a promising start, but the series really hit its stride with a run that took Brunetti from a military academy in Uniform Justice to the famous glass works on Murano in Through a Glass Darkly.
Latterly, the novels feel like they have fallen into a comfy rhythm that pleases rather than pulsates on the reader’s palate. The latest novel, Falling in Love, is the 24th in the series and brings us back full circle to the opening opera-themed novel. And it’s fine. Not the best, not the worst.
But, if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Brunettis, dip in. You’ll not be sorry.
The 17:15 had one seat left. Tattered, and coloured in the paint factory explosion beloved of rail company liveries, it was tucked against the wall with an embarrassed air.
Tinny music leaked from cheap headphones seeping from behind her; an old woman tutted. A mother could be heard explaining why the train hadn’t moved. Two men in expensive suits spoke in incongruous accents about West Ham’s defeat.
Her shoes were off, balancing on the hardened edge of the seat. The must rose through her tights and she took off her glasses and massaged her temples in a clichéd pose.
She looked at the window. The smear of forehead grease, the nicks and scratches of countless tree branch scrapes and dashes. There was mould around the loosening putty of the frame and a creeping fog of condensation between the two glass sheets in need of replacement.
She scrabbled through the detritus of her bag for a book and she clutched at the bag as it nearly slipped, threatening to scatter tampons, lipstick, pocket book and purse onto the floor.
She heard the automatic door and began shuffling her feel, trying to tuck them back into her slip-ons.
He was tall. Tall, like he had to duck to move through the door, tall.
He raised an eyebrow of permission.
She opened her book at the same moment as the bells pinged. There was the three ring blast of closing doors and the train began to chug out of the station. She was self conscious now. He had wonderful eyes. She opened the chubby novel and shifted in her seat. She chanced a glance up from her page and saw this he was reading his newspaper, casually folded in on itself.
‘If it’s the Daily Mail, I’m giving up on men once and for all and visiting Sapphic island, that’s all there is to it’ she thought.
The newspaper was a curve ball. She had hoped for The Guardian – at best – at worst The Independent, if one really must take a newspaper fashioned in a dolls house. Obviously no one took The Times now it only came in comic size. But the International Herald Tribune was a surprising selection. American? Possibly.
The train ambled on. The motion not soothing enough for sleep, nor uncomfortable enough for complaint. She looked out the window. Darkness had drawn in whilst she’d been indulging her taste for amateur media analysis and now she was back to the harshness of her reflection, backlit by the firefly strength bulbs of the carriage.
She knew that he was watching her. Is it an animalistic, danger signal left over from prehistory that makes us sense being watched? Whatever, he was watching her so it would pay to check that her nose was clean and that her blouse hadn’t unwittingly fallen open.
She shuffled her eyes to the left and met his eyes in the reflection. They glistened even in the smudged reflection of the South Central service window. She risked a look directly across at him. He still held her gaze. Smiled.
It was a good smile. Well judged. Not sleazy or louche nor honed and practiced to the point of confidence. His teeth were white enough to be attractive without speaking of masses of expensive cosmetic dental treatments and evenly spaced enough to be right, but not so regulation as to speak of teenage anguish and slurred sibilance.
She held his eye for a flirtatious fraction too long and went back to her book. When next she peeked up, he was sunk in his crossword. Yet she knew he was looking up too. A mating dance of apprentice peacocks. She wanted to fan herself like Elizabeth Bennett and be witty and coy, yet seductive at the same time. But wit, coyness and Jane Austen never feature highly on public transport so she, once again, returned to the novel.
As the adenoidal voice of the announcer gibbered the imminent arrival of the train into South Ruislip, she realized with horror that he was preparing to get up. He was fishing for his battered briefcase and pedantically clipped the lid back onto his fountain pen.
He caught her eye, stood and ducked as he moved through the panting of the automated door to wait for egress. Continuing on to West Ruislip, and the end of the line, she went back to her novel. From across the carriage, she watched the tall man bob his head as he walked briskly along the platform.
Idly, she reached across for the orphaned Herald Tribune which lay lazily folded on his still warm seat. She wondered how well he’d got on with the crossword. She frowned. He wasn’t as methodical as she’d have liked. Words were in the boxes but no clues had been scored through to denote completion. Very ill disciplined.
In the boxes, block capitals spaced evenly between horizontal and vertical, were the words:
If not now…
He was sitting in his chair reading when the doorbell rang. He closed the book; put it on the side table, stood and went into the hall.
Weak late evening sun shone through the stained glass inserts. He brushed his arm against fabric of the over-crowded coats and pulled the door open. “Evening, George,” he said extending his hand. They shook. “Come on in,” he added. “Do you want a cup of tea? Or would you prefer coffee?”
“Coffee would be great, thanks.” They made their way down the hall to the kitchen. He got out two espresso cups and their effete saucers and placed them on the table. They sat on the wooden chairs.
“What’s the news, George?” George seated himself opposite him. “Nothing with me.” He took a sip of the espresso. “We’ve missed you at High Table, you know. Is it true? Are you really going to go ahead with this?” He grinned. “Of course. Quite excited actually. Nearly all packed and everything.” He drained his espresso and put the cup back on the saucer.
“If you say so, old boy. I was just wondering if this was the right time…”
“I think it’s the perfect time. I’ve always wanted to work out there. The position is an enticing one, Providence has more coffee and doughnut shops per head of population than any other city in the US.” He smiled. “Got to be the perfect time.”
George thought for a minute. “But without Sophia, I was just –“
“Sophia’s not here, George. There’s nothing I can do about that now, to misquote Willie Nelson. No, no, Providence, Rhode Island, it is for me, I’m afraid.”
“Well, at least you’ll be able to indulge in your bizarre country music taste over there. I’m still not convinced that you can satisfactorily be a professor of history in a country younger than this cottage.”
He gathered the cups and set about getting out a bottle of iced water from the fridge. “Stuff and nonsense, George. We’ve just been working in this cloistered community too long, that’s all. I’m looking forward to it, I really am. Besides, I can’t help thinking that Professor James Pearce, Chair of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at an Ivy League university has a nice ring to it. Now, do you want a real drink?” George nodded. Pearce went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of wine. “Last one we’ll share of these for a while, unless you and Sara want to come out and visit me.”
“I’m not sure that Sara is really a doughnut and coffee shop type of lady, I’m afraid.” He drank. “How long is it going to take you to settle in? Surely you’re giving yourself a long lead in time?”
“Brown have set me up with somewhere in an area called College Hill, which sounds appropriate, if nothing else. But I’m not going straight there anyway. I’m meeting an old friend and taking a trip to Alaska.”
“Alaska? You truly have lost your mind. Since when have you been a mountain man? Do you even own any tools?” James laughed. “None whatsoever; just some welly boots and a pair of gardening gloves. But… Well. Sophia and I had planned the trip and I thought, what the hey. I’ll go anyway… Changed days or not.” They sat in silence for a moment and regarded their glasses. Pearce coughed. “I’m flying to Fairbanks, meeting my friend and then renting a, what do they call it? An “RV”, I believe. Driving up the coast to a charming destination called “Deadhorse”. We shall be fishing in the Arctic Ocean, camping in the woods, avoiding Sarah Palin-alike ‘soccer moms’ and driving back after three weeks to take a flight to Seattle. From there, I will be driving in my own quiet way to arrive in Rhode Island after a lazy 2,500 miles give or take.” James nodded. George reached across the table and wrapped a hand around the wine bottle. He poured a healthy glug. Then he took out his pipe and tobacco and began filling the bowl. “What will you be fishing for?”
“I can’t say I know really. Largemouth bass, I expect.” George puffed at the pipe. He ran a hand through his whitening beard.
“Isn’t the Largemouth bass found only in southern states such as Georgia and Florida?” James grinned at him. “That will teach me to gently mock a don of Marine Biology, won’t it?” George laughed. He pushed the bottle back across the table. James said, “Actually, I have no idea what I’ll be fishing for. Lucinda hasn’t specified what fish are available up there. I think the trip is more important than the destination. Her husband recently died and I think, by the sound of it, she’ll just be grateful for the company.” Now it was James’ turn to re-fill his glass. “Will there be many Pleustonic organisms for me to investigate while I’m freezing to death in the frozen wilds of the north?”
“Shouldn’t have thought so. They don’t many Portugese Man-o-wars up that way.” His pipe had gone out. Pearce bustled off to get an ashtray from the back of the cupboard. George said, “Who’s Lucinda?”
“A college friend of mine and Sophia’s. Was anyway. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
“Is she American?”
“God no. She’s from Basingstoke. An environmental scientist, as far as I know. How she ended up getting stationed in Alaska to track hectograms of animal feed or some other such ghastly project, is just something I shall have to discuss with her during the hours on the road. I’m certain it will be a fascinating tale.” George looked skeptical. “Was Lucinda coming on the trip with you and Sophia?”
“Of course she was, George.”
George busied himself with packing away his pouch and pipe. George coughed, “What’s your first topic of research when you get there?” Pearce brightened. “Ancient History of China 101. Paleolithic carbon dating, the use of fire by homo-erectus and the history of the Xihoudu in Shanxi Province right through both the Yellow River and the Yangtze River valleys in the Neolithic era. Not a bad start to the semester for drunken undergrads and credit seeking miscreant sophomores, I wouldn’t have thought.”
The wine was finished and George rose and pulled on his coat. James got up and placed the glasses on the sink and the bottle in the recycling bin.
“And you’re sure this is the time, James?” Pearce bowed his head and looked at his feet. He straightened and moved the glasses into the sink. “I’m sure. Thank you. Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis, and all that. Now is the perfect time, I think.”
They walked down the hallway to the door. The streetlamps had replaced the sun. At the door, George turned to say something. Instead, he put his hand out. James shook it.
“Take care, George. I’ll see you soon.” George nodded and headed out into the night.
James turned and headed back to his armchair and book.