Book Reviews: 29 June
THE SEAMSTRESS by Maria Dueñas (Viking, £12.99)
Maria Dueñas's first novel has been a big seller in Spain since 2009 and is now translated into English. The protagonist, Sira Quiroga, leaves behind her life in 1930s Madrid, her fiancé and her apprenticeship as a seamstress, to follow her typewriter-seller lover Ramiro to Morocco. But he soon abandons her, stealing her inheritance and leaving nothing but a note. Penniless, pregnant and alone in Tangiers, she loses the baby and, unable to return to Madrid where there is civil war, she has to rely on the one thing she knows – her skill making dresses.
Navigating 'the whims of the fashion trends dictated from Paris' as adeptly as the vicissitudes of her own life, she becomes a sought-after couture designer dressing rich expats. Having decided to put 'a layer of make-up over the past, invent a present in great haste and plan out a future, as false as it [is] magnificent', she is so successfully reinvented that she is drawn into a world of international espionage. She returns to the continent during the war and passes titbits of gossip from her employees – including the wives of Nazi officers – to the British Secret Service.
This is an unchallenging, but enjoyable read, the somewhat unbelievable twists sustained by a likeable main character and well-researched historical detail.
WHO'S WHO IN WOMEN'S HISTORICAL FICTION by Kathy Martin (Pen & Sword Books/ Remember When, £14.99)
Kathy Martin has an historical fiction habit. 'Through my teen years I read the complete works of Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton and Mary Renault, interspersing them with brief encounters with Georgette Heyer, Catherine Cookson and others.' She is thus uniquely qualified to write this book – an A to Z of characters appearing in works by all the above as well as books by Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Dodie Smith, Jane Austen and the Brontës. It's a brilliant idea, let down slightly by the muddy illustrations and annoying design of the pages, but full of witty character sketches and acidic asides. Jane Parker, for instance (from The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory) is 'a rabbit-faced lady-in-waiting' who 'listens at keyholes, spies on fellow ladies-in-waiting... and passes on sleazy [gossip] to anyone willing to listen'; Mrs Ferrars (Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen) is 'a ghastly over-bearing woman... ungenerous and narrow-minded... vicious when thwarted.'
As in all the best lit crit, it sends you back to the original books, but also acts as an aide-mémoire for those who, when picking up a new novel, often feel as though they have been launched into a cocktail party full of strangers. You know you've been introduced to this or that person, but cannot remember their names/status/place in plot. Worry no longer – Martin is on hand to remind you.
ADVENTURES AMONG BIRDS by WH Hudson (Collins Nature Library, £20)
WH Hudson was a founding member of the RSPB, an intense, eccentric man for whom birds bought an 'uncontrived joy, conviviality and kinship'. Indeed, in an earlier book, Afoot In England (1909), he referred to birds as 'feathered people'. In this one, originally published in 1913, he quite often wants to become a bird as well, but makes do with revisiting the 'glorious gladness' that the sight of birds produces. Anyone with a twitcher in the family will sigh with happy recognition, not least because Adventures Among Birds will make an excellent Christmas present – it's old-fashioned, pleasant to hold and free from illustration. The words count and the imagination soars – as when Hudson, describing the appearance of a sparrowhawk among a flock of starlings, writes 'at no other time does a company of these birds appear so like a single organism composed of many separate bodies governed by one will. Only when the [hawk] is in the midst of the crowd... do they instantly all fly apart... like the fragments of a violently shattered mass...'
Hudson (1841-1922) grew up in Argentina, one of six children born to immigrant American sheep farmers; he spent most of his childhood exploring the pampas, an experience that gave him a taste for remoteness and solitude and a lifelong suspicion of 'attachment'; a suspicion that he applied to his landlady turned wife. No wonder birds seemed so appealing...
BARACK OBAMA: THE MAKING OF THE MAN by David Maraniss (Atlantic Books, £25)
Obama revealed much in his own memoir, but Maraniss's biography (which ends when its subject is 27), goes into even greater depth. He starts in 1926 with Obama's great-grandmother (who committed suicide to escape an unhappy marriage) and carries on via pot-smoking in Hawaii, the pre-Michelle love life and much speculation on Obama's problems with his half-white, half-black status ('He felt like an imposter,' one girlfriend reveals). Obama was brought up by his mother and grandparents, and made his first political speech aged 19, delivered with passion, notes Maraniss – something he may need to re-ignite if he's to have a second term as president.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Paths of delightfulness
Stephanie Cross reviews a book about wayfaring
THE OLD WAYS: A JOURNEY ON FOOT by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, £20)
For nearly a decade, Robert Macfarlane has headed the field of 'new nature writers', a group of writers who rejected the cosy, rosy pastoral in favour of the experimental, blending travelogue, memoir, natural history and cultural biography – all of which feature here. Concluding a loose trilogy – Macfarlane's previous books, Mountains Of The Mind and The Wild Places, have explored the enduring appeal of craggy peaks and Britain's threatened wildernesses, respectively – The Old Ways is the author's own contribution to the long literature of wayfaring. Starting out from his own stamping ground, Cambridgeshire – he is a Cambridge don – Macfarlane journeys to Essex and the site of Britain's most dangerous path, the Highlands and beyond: to the pilgrimage routes of Spain, to the Himalayas, and to Palestine.
This is a book about landscape – chapters are titled 'Granite', 'Limestone' and the like – but it is also about those whose lives have been shaped by it: 'paths run through people as surely as they run through places,' writes Macfarlane.
So, in the course of his travels, Macfarlane meets a Hebridean artist/shaman who keeps a leather-covered human skeleton in his workshop, and a naturalist whose 'family' extends to a clutch of (unexpectedly clever) limpets. In Palestine, Macfarlane learns the difficulties of tramping in a place where maps and binoculars are suspicious objects, and he and a friend trespass together through a terrain comprised of olive terraces, discarded nappies and dead dogs. In Madrid, he meets a man whose 'library' contains not books but reliquaries, filled with natural treasures collected on 1,100 different walks.
Throughout, Macfarlane strikes out images like chips of diamond: geese fly in 'lettersets'; storm clouds form 'sky-reefs'; a heron is 'a foldaway construction of struts and canvas'. Unlike many of his imitators, his lyricism is never self-indulgent, but brings its subjects more vitally to life.
He concludes with a masterful portrait of the wanderer and poet Edward Thomas, who was killed at the 1917 Battle of Arras and for whom ancient paths were 'potent, magic things'. In this magnificent volume, Macfarlane captures that magic
AS GOOD AS GOD, AS CLEVER AS THE DEVIL: THE IMPOSSIBLE LIFE OF MARY BENSON by Rodney Bolt (Atlantic Books, £8.99)
Described by Gladstone as 'the cleverest woman in Europe', Mary Benson (1841-1918) was the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But this role only comprised half her life – Bolt reveals that Benson spent much of her married life having passionate affairs with women.
A HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN 100 OBJECTS by Neil MacGregor (Penguin, £9.99)
Book of the extremely successful BBC Radio 4 programme in which MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, described how humans have shaped the past two million years through 100 of the objects they invented. Stars of the show include the Rosetta Stone, gold coins, the Hoxne pepper pot and the credit card.
LAY THE FAVOURITE by Beth Raymer (Vintage, £7.99)
Gambling low-life, strippers, offshore betting and a brilliantly funny depiction of living and working in sleazy Vegas hotels and diners – Beth Raymer's sharp, well-written memoir (true, though you can hardly believe it) of an innocent abroad has been made into a film by Stephen Frears.
IDENTICALLY DIFFERENT: WHY YOU CAN CHANGE YOUR GENES by Tim Spector (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
Spector, a professor working in genetic epidemiology at Kings College London, pulls off the rare feat of being able to make genetic theory both intriguing and comprehensible to the ordinary reader.
THE LAST HIGHLANDER: SCOTLAND'S MOST NOTORIOUS CLAN CHIEF, REBEL & DOUBLE AGENT by Sarah Fraser (HarperPress, £20)
Rip-roaring tale of Lord Lovat, chief of the Fraser clan in the early 18th century, who kidnapped fellow chieftans, terrorised his wife-to-be and was beheaded at Tower Hill.
MEASURING OUT THE WORLD IN FEET
Duncan Minshull discovers that in literature, something always happens on a walk
Walkers have often wandered across the page. But accompanying their early efforts doesn't reveal much about this simple and complex activity.
In the Bible, or in various epics, mythology and folklore, people are named as walkers and that's usually it. It took the Victorians, and later the Edwardians, to really reveal why people went on foot. Author-walkers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Leslie Stephen and his daughter Virginia Woolf describe well-trodden urban and rural routes while also delving into the physical, psychological and spiritual reasons for setting out.
After the authors, came the poet-walkers: John Gay, John Clare and Edward Thomas all record what it means (and feels) to put one foot in front of the other. But pedestrian literature needn't stop here. Walkers in fictional accounts are placed on path, peak and street for the same reasons that preoccupy the poets.
'Something always happens on a walk,' Charles Dickens said – which is very true. The road is a stage. The road offers possibility. The world comes closer now. Perhaps Dickens was suggesting to his readers: look how I can toy with the destinies of Oliver Twist and Little Dorrit, who are always out there, footing it.
In Edith Wharton's The Reef, a figure strolls through Paris as if walking through some lovely meadow. Poe's people move 'like a tide' with 'knitted brows', vital and anxious; and, earlier, Elizabeth Bennet got 'muddy and glows' outdoors. They all have enough in them to prove Dickens right – that indeed something always happens when taking a walk.
From the introduction to The Burning Leg: Walking Scenes From Classic Fiction, edited by Duncan Minshull, author of The Vintage Book Of Walking and a contributor to numerous newspapers and magazines on the subject of pedestrianism.
FIVE OF THE BEST
- On the road you'll see life close up and all of its 'bare possibilities' (Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding).
- Their outings end up nowhere, but bring the family closer (Swann's Way, Marcel Proust).
- Gerald and Gudrun become 'unthinkably near' (Women In Love, DH Lawrence).
- The rhythms of a stroll stir up profound thoughts for Froulish the writer (Hurry On Down, John Wain).
- Too much walking and you'll turn into Sir Jack – patriot and official rambler, and altogether outlandish (England, England, by Julian Barnes).