Book Reviews: 13 July
PIECES OF LIGHT: THE NEW SCIENCE OF MEMORY by Charles Fernyhough (Profile Books, £14.99)
Fernyhough is a novelist and academic psychologist who introduces current work about memory by means of exploring examples from real lives and fictional instances. Why are early childhood memories so unreliable? Why do we forget? Why might sensory stimulation unlock memory (as in Proust)? How can we get lost in a familiar city? How do terrible memories create posttraumatic stress syndrome? What role does memory play in old age?
The book sides firmly with contemporary theories about memory as 'reconstructive', rather than with popular ideas where memories exist as permanent physical possessions. It is absorbing to see the analysis of such a broad range of instances and interpretation of literature using cognitive psychology and neuroscience. In offering us a meditation on memory, Fernyhough has something important to say about one of the forces that is central to our lives: we are all storytellers of ourselves.
A LADY CYCLIST'S GUIDE TO KASHGAR by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury, £12.99)
The title of Suzanne Joinson's first novel promises much and delivers. In 1923, three women are travelling through inhospitable terrain in China to establish a mission. Evangeline English, the lady cyclist of the title, has jumped at this chance to leave 'ghastly, dull England' and is writing 'a bicycling guide for the desert'. The two women she accompanies are her sister, Lizzie, wedded to her Leica camera, and Millicent, who 'aspires to catch young women in her holy net' and bring Christianity to the heathen, at any cost.
The secondary narrative strand, alternating with Evangeline's diary entries, introduces Frieda, a 'free spirit', in present-day London, who travels ceaselessly in her job. Scarred by a childhood with her self-absorbed mother, neither work, nor her relationship with a married man, fulfils her.
Past and present collide in a legacy left to Frieda by an unknown woman, which includes strange artefacts. Together with an illegal immigrant from the Yemen, Frieda discovers the identity of her benefactor, 'Irene Guy'; the fates of the three women missionaries and, tragically, her estranged mother. Joinson's characterisation is finely drawn and brings Kashgar vividly to life – it's a debut novel of note.
STRANDS: A YEAR OF DISCOVERIES ON THE BEACH by Jean Sprackland (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)
For more than 20 years, Jean Sprackland has been walking a short section of England's northwest coast, sifting treasures swept in on the tide. Her strandline is not the prettiest: there's an offshore wind farm in the Mersey estuary and Blackpool's landmarks on the horizon. But what washes up on Ainsdale Sands is a source of constant fascination and joy.
This delightful book is, like a practised treasure-seeker, a questing thing: the discovery of a china cup from a Cunard liner sends Sprackland to the archives of Liverpool's Maritime Museum, while a skein of olive-green seaweed takes her to Swansea in search of laverbread.
Sprackland's evocative imagery is never self-conscious and she is a wryly witty companion. She is also clear-sighted: picking through her tally of bottles, bags and wrappers, she notes that while we talk about 'getting rid' of rubbish, what we consign to the waves has a habit of returning to haunt, and beguile, us.
THE PURPLE SHROUD by Stella Duffy (Virago Press, £16.99)
The Byzantine empress's rags-toriches story was the subject of Duffy's previous entertaining novel, Theodora (2010). Born in 500AD, and a former child star of the Hippodrome, 'Theodora-from-the- Brothel' is now the most powerful woman in the world, and not about to be usurped. Purple makes 'the perfect burial shroud', Theodora informs her husband, the Emperor Justinian, referring to the Imperial chlamys in which she is robed: 'I intend to wear it until I die.'
Duffy's absorbing novel opens two years into the Imperial couple's reign and there are foreign enemies to be fought, riots to be put down and the Church is a headache. For Theodora herself there are private struggles, too – with temptation...
This second instalment of Theodora's life is a darker affair, but, if The Purple Shroud lacks some of the verve, Duffy's heroine remains a source of fascination.
An extraordinary life
THE SPY WHO LOVED by Clare Mulley (Macmillan, £18.99)
Rumoured to be the mistress of Ian Fleming, and the model for Vesper, James Bond's lover in Casino Royale, Christine Granville was Churchill's favourite spy. Polish by birth, she was Britain's first female special agent of the Second World War. Her initial mission was to ski into occupied Poland to disseminate anti- Nazi propaganda; she also rescued three British agents who were about to be shot by the Nazis. Her love life seemed as spectacular, but, by the end of the war, despite being decorated by France and Belgium, Granville was dismissed. In 1952, aged 44, she was murdered by a spurned suitor who was hanged for the crime. This is a nerve-shredding read.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
England made me
Amicia de Moubray reviews a book about what it means to be English
HOW ENGLAND MADE THE ENGLISH: FROM HEDGEROWS TO HEATHROW by Harry Mount (Viking, £20)
Harry Mount's infectious passion for England is what makes this volume a delightful companion to dip into time and time again. Divided into 12 chapters under headings such as 'Why England Doesn't Look Like England', or 'How Railways Made The English Suburban', every trait of the English character, from place names to the history of moatdigging (at its peak from 1150- 1325), is unravelled by concentrating on four factors: England's geography, geology, history and, of course, the weather, with a fair sprinkling of nuggets of architectural history thrown in. Whoa, Harry... the prodigious number of extraordinary facts spilling out of this fascinating book is breathtaking...
The three most popular house names in Britain are The Cottage, Rose Cottage and The Bungalow; after the Second World War, sales of garden sheds soared, as returning servicemen desperately sought a refuge from the shock of domestic life; London gets 1,500 hours of annual sun compared to Rome's 2,500.
All these statistics that dictate who we are, Mount skilfully weaves together, interspersing them with pithy personal views: 'If you visit a rich, fashionable British household these days, you'll see something that has never existed before in the civilised world – an active dislike of any objects that belong to a human civilisation previous to their own... The stripping of the altars in the Reformation had nothing on this.'
But it is, by no means, an exercise wallowing in nostalgia, rather a personal observation of what it is to be English at the beginning of the 21st century, examining current trends by diagnosing what has gone before. For example, the English love of large-scale enclosed shopping spaces can be traced back to the first Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, themselves inspired by the glassed-in galleries of Italy and Paris.
It is surprising, just at the moment, to discover that 'London is dry 94 per cent of the time'.
I defy anyone to be disappointed by this book.
THIN PATHS: JOURNEYS IN AND AROUND AN ITALIAN MOUNTAIN VILLAGE BY JULIA BLACKBURN (Vintage, £9.99)
A great holiday book for those contemplating, or returning from, a sojourn in rural Italy. Blackburn and her husband moved to a little house in mountainous northern Italy. Thin Paths recounts not the all-too-familiar trials and tribulations of ex-pats in a foreign community, but the stories of the old people Blackburn meets in her new kingdom. Lyrical, occasionally moving, always absorbing, these tales lodge in the mind.
DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY by PD James (Faber & Faber, £7.99)
Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and life is proceeding as you might expect, when a chaise appears bearing a screaming Lydia. It's not the first time Lydia has cast a spanner in the works of her elder sister's love life and PD James's follow-on to Pride And Prejudice is a masterly recreation of (future) Bennet life combined with a gripping murder mystery. Brilliant.
THE PRAGUE CEMETERY by Umberto Eco (Vintage, £8.99)
Dangerous 19th-century conspiracy theories explored in a book that makes much of the overlap between fiction-making and criminality. Eco's novel of betrayal, terrorism and murder combines a chilling idea – a hoax that led to genocide – with a blackly comic style and ingenious plot.
CRIME ROUND-UP BY VICTORIA CLARK
DEATH IN SARDINIA by Marco Vichi (Hodder & Stoughton, £17.99)
This is a languorous journey through Inspector Bordelli's life in the weeks coming up to Christmas 1965. He has long been suspicious of the loan shark Badalmenti and when he is found dead, Bordelli can conduct an investigation into his affairs – and his murder.
Bordelli bears no resemblance to the grey-faced English copper of fiction. He may worry about his ageing physique, but his days consist of sipping espresso, eating wild-boar pasta and ruminating on the passing of a world he knew.
He feels the separation of the pre- and post-war generation and, while entrenched in his ways, envies the young their anger and insouciance. This is a pleasure for those who like their crime enmeshed in the life of the hero.
AN EVIL EYE by Jason Goodwin (Faber & Faber, £7.99)
Set in the Ottoman court of 1839, Yashim the eunuch is called in when a body is found in a monastery well. Teeming with characters, the plot twists like the back lanes of Istanbul. Aimée du Buc de Rivéry appears as the dowager Sultana and the harem is rendered in all its tatty glamour.
Not only does our hero detect, he also plays mentor to a runaway schoolboy and reads poetry with the stateless Polish ambassador. Jason Goodwin conjures up such an image of Istanbul that the urge to buy a ticket and visit is great. Read this and save the air fare.
GONE MISSING by Linda Castillo (Macmillan, £12.99)
What a guilty pleasure. Kate Burkholder's fourth outing finds her investigating intrigue and mayhem among the Amish of Ohio. For a seemingly peaceful and God-fearing people, Castillo creates all sorts of devilry with fast-paced action and a spiderweb plot. No Nobel prizewinner, but a pleasurable enough way to spend a wet afternoon.