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Book Reviews: 23 January

The Lady reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


Books-Jan23-Thornfield-176THORNFIELD HALL by Jane Stubbs (Corvus, £7.99; offer price, £7.59)
A retelling of Jane Eyre through the eyes of elderly housekeeper Alice Fairfax would seem, at first sight, to be hardly original, following in the footsteps of Longbourn (Pride And Prejudice as seen from the servants’ hall). But Stubbs’s carefully crafted novel has more in common with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, focusing on the shadowy figure of Bertha Mason, Mr Rochester’s incarcerated wife, with whom feminist authors have had a field day for decades.

Here, though, the intersecting lives of the housekeeper and her fragile charge make for an interesting study of women’s vulnerability in the period and also their resourcefulness. One is an impoverished gentlewoman who has fallen down the social ladder, the other an isolated foreigner with an illness that carries a stigma – but their friendship and cunning put them back in charge of their own lives.

Stubbs fills in the outline of Brontë’s ‘madwoman in the attic’ with unexpected dimensions: maternal instinct, wit, exquisite needlework, a flair for sums. With nuanced characterisation, intelligent plotting and respect for the original, this reimagining casts an inquisitive ‘what if’ eye on one of 19th century literature’s most intriguing characters.
Juanita Coulson

Books-Jan23-AngelicaHuston-176WATCH ME: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Simon & Schuster, £20; offer price, £16)
‘If the rich are different, the very famous can come from another planet altogether,’ wrote F Scott Fitzgerald. It is an observation that could have described the actress Anjelica Huston, daughter of legendary film director John Huston.

In this second volume, she recounts her roller coaster, 17-year, on-off relationship with actor Jack Nicholson and his hedonistic circle. Whirling through the eccentricities and excesses of 1970s and 1980s Hollywood, Huston proves herself an acute observer.

Cocaine is everywhere. Nicholson writes her poems and calls her ‘Toots’; Marlon Brando tells her she’s a queen; Ryan O’Neal kisses her ‘for six hours’ and David Bailey photographs her and proposes. She writes movingly about her father’s death and her long marriage to sculptor Robert Graham, who gave her ‘a new kind of stability’.

A compulsively readable look back on a life lived in full, which occasionally sounds a bit trippy – but then it was the 1970s!
Rebecca Wallersteiner

Books-Jan23-Bletchley-176THE DEBS OF BLETCHLEY PARK And Other Stories by Michael Smith (Aurum Press, £20; offer price, £16)
Our fascination with the debutantes of the first half of the 20th century shows no sign of abating. Smith has collected the stories of the upper-class young women who worked at the hallowed codebreaking centre during the Second World War, tracing the privileged lives they gave up in order to ‘do their bit’ for the war effort, and the part they played in the vital work of Station X.

Despite the undeniably interesting subject matter, the book is somewhat marred by a feeling of déjà vu: these stories have featured in other recent biographies and Smith adds little fresh insight. Still, it is a pleasant read that will appeal to those interested in wartime code-breaking.
Lyndsy Spence


Books-Jan23-Lightning-Tree-176Splitting branches
THE LIGHTNING TREE by Emily Woof (Faber & Faber, £12.99; offer price, £11.69)
The tree of this expansive and enveloping novel’s title stands on a hill in Pendle, Lancashire, ‘its branches stripped bare like a claw raking the sky’. The site of one woman’s long-ago rapture, its influence reverberates through generations, coming to have particular significance for Ursula, a troubled, drifting young woman.

Born in the 1970s, Ursula’s comfortable middleclass childhood is complicated by the presence of Mary, her embittered grandmother. As the increasingly senile Mary is swallowed by memories of the past, so Ursula falters into the future, her ever-changing hairstyles a symptom of deeper uncertainties. But for Ursula’s working-class boyfriend Jerry, the future seems less fraught: as he accepts a place at Oxford ‘to highlight the absurdity of privilege’, he and Ursula soon inhabit separate worlds, straining their bond.

A love story at its heart, it also explores the many strange ways in which our lives branch out and intersect. Even more daringly, it captures those rare moments of transcendence that elude not just words but understanding, yet still have the power to shape a life. As such, Emily Woof could easily have fallen foul of feyness or whimsy, but in fact, as her time-lapse narrative spools out, there is not a page of this sympathetic novel that isn’t illuminated by her verve and wit.
Stephanie Cross


ALICE’S WONDERLAND: A Visual Journey Through Lewis Carroll’s Mad, Mad World by Catherine Nichols (Race Point, £23; off er price, £20.70)
Ever since a mathematician called Charles Dodgson (pseudonym: Lewis Carroll) created his surreal world of white rabbits with timekeeping issues and flamingos who double up as croquet mallets, his seminal children’s classics Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking- Glass have inspired generations of illustrators and artists.


This delightful book showcases the results, from John Tenniel’s original drawings to the work of contemporary illustrators such as Helen Oxenbury, and Wonderland’s endless reinventions on stage, screen, catwalk – and even apps. Deliciously bonkers.


FRENCH WOMEN DON’T GET FACELIFTS by Mireille Guiliano (Corgi, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
The author of French Women Don’t Get Fat returns with some invaluable tips for ageing stylishly, from how to get a good night’s sleep to the not-to-be-underestimated importance of a trusted hairdresser. While some advice may seem questionable (the best time for a haircut is, apparently, under a full moon), this is a useful guide – not just for looking one’s best, but for physical and mental wellbeing.
Sarah Fortescue

EFFIE: The Passionate Lives Of Effie Gray, Ruskin And Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper (Gerald Duckworth & Co, £8.99; offer price, £8.54)
Married at 19 to art critic John Ruskin, Scottish beauty Effie Gray became trapped in an unconsummated union. Well-educated and confident, she was not a typical Victorian wife. In 1854, with her parents’ support, she took Ruskin to court and got the marriage annulled on the grounds of his ‘incurable impotence’. Effie went on to marry Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais – and to inspire some of his best art. With exclusive access to private papers, Suzanne Fagence Cooper has produced a riveting glimpse into the Victorian age.


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