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Book Reviews: 25 May

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THE CHEMISTRY OF TEARS by Peter Carey (Faber and Faber, £17.99)

Culture-Books-Chemistry-of-Tears-176When Matthew, Catherine Gehrig's lover of 13 years, unexpectedly dies, her world collapses. But her grief is all the more challenging as she must remain silent. Not only was Matthew married to another, he was also her colleague at the Swinburne Museum. As her coworkers buzz around, complicit in their grief, Catherine can only look on helplessly. It's a powerful premise for a novel that promises to unravel a beguiling story.

Following Matthew's death, Catherine's boss gives her a project in which to bury her grief. It is that of an automaton – a mechanical swan – that needs an horologist to bring it back to life.

Catherine, too, needs bringing back to life. And this is partly achieved through one Henry Brandling. It was Brandling who, over 200 years ago, commissioned the swan and recorded its creation in diaries, which Catherine reads.

With his young son sick and his marriage hanging by a thread, Brandling had taken a leap of faith by travelling to a German town to find a clockmaker willing to recreate Vaucanson's famous mechanical duck. Instead he found Herr Sumper – an immodest giant of a man who lived in the woods with a talented boy called Carl, his mother and a silversmith, Arnaud. It was this odd band of mechanics to whom Henry entrusted his son's happiness and fortune. And it is in these ancient misfits that Catherine seeks solace.

Her need to connect with Brandling and resurrect his swan channels her grief. He is a man in uncharted territory, in fear of never seeing his loved ones again.

At the museum, Catherine clashes with her enthusiastic assistant Amanda and, through a haze of grief and vodka, becomes paranoid that she is being spied on. The irony of this – coming as it does after her affair, during which she and Matthew exchanged hundreds of emails at work – is not lost on the reader.

Carey revels in portraying characters at odds with one another and with life. Yet their disjointed experiences propel the reader to a conclusion: that even in our darkest hour, life fi nds a way. That's a lesson worth learning.

Claire Cohen


Culture-Books-History-of-England-176A HISTORY OF ENGLAND IN 100 PLACES by John Julius Norwich (John Murray, £12.99)

From Stonehenge ('about the same date as the Great Pyramid. Admittedly the pyramid has lasted longer...') to the Gherkin ('less delicately known as the crystal phallus...'), is the subtitle of Lord Norwich's enthralling book about the 100 places that have informed the history of England. Sadly, the Shard, now dominating the London skyline, is too late for inclusion, but this monumentally shiny, but opaque, construction doubtless has much to tell us about the City and its inhabitants.

But back to the other 100. Lord Norwich roams from prehistoric England to the 20th century, via the Roman walls of Colchester, Sutton Hoo, Offa's Dyke, Battle Abbey, the 14th-century manor house, Ightham Mote, Hampton Court, the Grand Pump Room at Bath and the Albert Memorial. The National Theatre and Greenham Common also get a look in.

It's good to have such a survey of a land about to be submerged under a tide of bunting. Take it on a 'staycation' and be astonished afresh over architectural delights.

Carolyn Hart




Culture-Books-Journey-to-Nowhere-176A JOURNEY TO NOWHERE: Detours And Riddles In The Lands And History Of Courland by Jean- Paul Kauffmann, translated by Euan Cameron (MacLehose Press, £18.99)

Jean-Paul Kauffmann's Journey To Nowhere is an intriguingly eccentric book – a kind of Gallic version of Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes. Both are fuelled by an obsession and a quest. Kauffmann – a French journalist – is obsessed with a region. Courland, a stretch of land between the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic and Lithuania, no longer exists. It was once ruled by Teutonic Knights, captured by Nazi Germany, then returned to Soviet Russia. It's now part of Latvia, and its strange history holds a potent charm for the author and reader alike.

Kauffmann is a gripping narrator. The minute he lands in Riga to fi nd out more about a place that's possibly 'not going to be very jolly', the 'opposite of Italy', you're hooked. His first book, The Dark Room At Longwood, about Napoleon's exile on St Helena, won six prizes. This should win a few more.

Clare Russell




Cuklture-Books-Must-Read-176MUST READ

Love and betrayal

MRS ROBINSON'S DISGRACE: The Private Diary Of A Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury Publishing, £16.99)

Follow-up to her bestselling The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale's latest is a true story of misplaced Victorian love and betrayal. Isabella, a widow with a child, marries Henry Robinson, a civil engineer. They move to Edinburgh, where she meets Edward Lane, a young married man who is training to be a doctor. A friendship ensues, but Isabella becomes infatuated and recounts this in her diary. When Henry reads it he decides to divorce her. The book is about the dire repercussions of the court case, the stolen diary and its outpourings: true? Or mad fantasies? A gripping read: thoughtful, and studded with asides on Victorian culture.

 

 

 


BOOK OF THE WEEK

Culture-Books-Hebden-Bridge-176Not so grim up North

Christopher Hirst discovers a Yorkshire mill town that has morphed into 'the Greenwich Village of the North'

HEBDEN BRIDGE: A Sense Of Belonging by Paul Barker (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)

Filling a narrow Pennine Valleylike grouting, Hebden Bridge is a community that has experienced a radical makeover in the last 30 years. Once specialising in the manufacture of a hefty cloth called fustian, it is now variously known as 'the Greenwich Village of the North' and 'the lesbian capital of Britain'. The fi ne journalist Paul Barker grew up in this town made of millstone grit. He says: 'I sometimes think the obdurate, utilitarian nature of that rock tells you all you need to know about the psychology of old Hebden.'

This perceptive, enjoyable book places interviews he did in the 1970s with factory workers and farmers alongside encounters with the new Bohemians of Hebden Bridge, such as puppeteers, tattoo artists and graphic designers. I was fascinated by Barker's account, since I grew up in Cleckheaton, another small industrial community in gentler terrain 20 miles to the east.

Like him, I left to become a journalist in London. From my distant childhood, I can remember nothing unusual about Hebden Bridge, other than the scarily tall houses (in effect, one house built on top of another). It was yet another blackened, decrepit mill town.

The low point came in the 1960s, when the town's once dominant Co-op shut up shop, but regeneration was just around the corner. 'In the long run,' suggests Barker, 'the town's doziness paid off.' Saved from the wholesale destruction that afflicted Bradford and Liverpool, the unusual housing stock and cradled location appealed to art students, polytechnic lecturers from Huddersfield and TV trendies from Granada in Manchester.

Hebden Bridge has thrived while other communities in the region have continued to decline; when I last visited Cleckheaton a few years ago, it seemed sadly down-at-heel compared with the proud, bustling place of my childhood. The 'offcomers' (as incomers are known locally) have transformed Barker's home town into a place that declares, 'It's so Hebden Bridge,' on its preening signs. He notes 'Community was a word seldom out of the new arrivals' conversation.' In fact, there remains a chasm between new and old.

Complaining to Barker about 'the mad ideas of Hebden Bridge', a teacher told him a story about a parent writing to complain about a campaign to eradicate hair nits: 'Even lice have a right to live.' Despite this friction – and Yorkshire wouldn't be Yorkshire without something to complain about – Barker concludes that Hebden Bridge 'feels like a place people care for and nurture'.


PAPERBACKS

Culture-Books-Paperbacks-590

HER MAJESTY: 60 Regal Years by Brian Hoey (Robson Press, £9.99)

Brian Hoey's forte when it comes to the Royals, is affectionate anecdote relating largely to the early years. So lots on the Queen's relationship with her children (not as frosty as you may think) and the impact of Diana (worse than you can imagine). But the recent nuptials get barely a mention.

THE IMMORTAL DINNER: A Famous Evening Of Genius And Laughter In Literary London by Penelope Hughes-Hallett (Vintage, £9.99)

Masterly reconstruction of a real 'dream' dinner party. On 28 December 1817, the painter BR Haydon hosted Keats, Wordsworth and Charles Lamb. Haydon described the night in his diary: 'There was something interesting in seeing Wordsworth and Keats and Lamb... and hearing the voice of Wordsworth repeating Milton with an intonation like the funeral bell at St Paul's...'

A BUNCH OF FIVES by Helen Simpson (Vintage Classics, £8.99)

Five stories from each of Helen Simpson's collections. Comic, caustic, riven with offbeat charm, they explore a woman's world of love, loss, children and men. 'They should be read by men wishing to understand women they live with' wrote a critic. Just read them for yourself – you'll be glad you did.


ALSO PUBLISHED

Culture-Books-Also-Published-590

THE LITTLE BOOK OF NITS by Richard Jones and Justine Crow (A&C Black, £7.99)

Nits, like chilblains used to be, are a schoolchild's curse. There's no escape. This is a book that'll help (up to a point) eradicate them, debunk some nit myths and provide a distraction while you search for the mini nit-pic hidden on each spread.

FLOATING GOLD: A Natural (& Unnatural) History Of Ambergris by Christopher Kemp (University of Chicago Press, £14.50)

Fascinating history of ambergris (its value is nearly that of gold), a rare secretion produced only by sperm whales. Used in perfumes it is one of the world's most expensive substances.


THE BRIDE OF ENGLAND

Cuklture-Books-coronation-176What happens when a family forsakes its annual seaside holiday to travel to London to see the Queen's Coronation? Paul Gallico's touching story, extracted here, is a classic

'High up in the eaves of the Abbey, trumpeters with one unanimous movement set their silver instruments to their lips and blew a fanfare that went echoing through the great church, shattering the silences through vault and nave. It was the signal for the ceremony of recognition, in which the Queen to be crowned was made known to the nobles of her realm gathered to acknowledge her. The Queen, attired in gold-embroidered white, was a tiny figure in a pool of light, standing on the bluecarpeted floor in the centre of the Abbey. The colour of her raiment was symbolic, for that day she would also become the bride of England, wedded indissolubly to the State, the Church and British subjects throughout the world.

There stood a lone woman, so gentle and helpless as a butterfly. She had no power beyond the history and travail of the nation she represented. At her side stood only an old man in glittering green cope, holding a cross. The might of man appeared to be personified by the black-clad figure of the Lord High Chancellor in his great and terrifying wig, the Lord High Chamberlain, the Earl Marshal, the Garter King of Arms in his multicoloured tabard, seeming almost to be arrayed against her, and by the aggregation of men and women, peers and nobles, hemming her in on all four sides.

In the stillness that followed the drifting away of the last echoes of the fanfare to the vaulted stone of the Abbey eaves was heard the old, clear portentous voice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as for a moment he clasped the small hand of the Queen and, turning with her to all that conglomeration of shapes and faces looking towards the east, he said: 'Sirs, I here present unto you Queen Elizabeth, your undoubted Queen.'

Coronation by Paul Gallico (Bloomsbury Publishing, £10).



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