Review: The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley

The Go-BetweenThe Go-Between was an instant hit when it was published in 1953. Its first line has become almost as famous as the book itself: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ The story is narrated by Leo, as he looks back on his childhood. Leo finds a diary for the year 1900, and it prompts him to recall the scorching summer that changed his life, a summer when he was drawn into the dangerous world of adult relationships. In his naivety, he didn’t see the danger at all.

I was intrigued from the beginning. The found diary is a wonderful way of telling the story. We do not get the diary itself, but it provokes the older Leo to remember. This tragedy, which took place in an England which is out of reach, has a feeling of completeness and distance. It is a time and place which has ended. The past is indeed a foreign country.

Leo is spending the summer with his friend Marcus, with Marcus’ family. Leo is fascinated by the family, especially the enchanting Marion. But an exhaustive list of characters is of little interest to someone reading a review.

One of the novel’s great strengths is that it gets into the mind of a child. Leo lives in a world of wild imagination, of magical powers, of unqualified admiration for certain grown ups. It’s a world where things really matter – school, summer holidays, young friendship. Leo’s friend Marcus comes down with flu, which means Leo is deprived of young company all of a sudden, in a house full of adults. This is when Leo becomes the ‘go-between’ and enters a dangerous situation of passing notes between two people who have a secret.

I am thankful I never studied this book at school. I came to it fresh and without prejudice. I never had its themes drilled into me just in case they came up in an exam, or the meaning taken apart and dissected. (it was probably Mark Twain who said that humour is like a frog – when you dissect it, it dies. The same can be said of certain books.)

I won’t try to give a summary of the story here. Often a book will leave you with an impression, or a glimpse of something you had never seen before. These things can last a long time after some of the plot details have faded from memory. There are some aspects of this story which are handled very deftly – the relative poverty of the protagonist, which is so alien to the others they do not recognise it; the memory of the English countryside when there was the ‘big house’, the village, and the farms, and the complex rules and relationships between those different people, who nevertheless amounted to a community.

It is no surprise that this book is a classic, and no surprise it has been adapted into every medium imaginable (okay, not all of them. I’ve not seen a Go-Between video game. I would love to see a Go-Between video game. It would be terrible.) Harold Pinter famously adapted it for the screen. Less famously, it has been an opera and also a musical. This is a special story. I will always think of it as a good example of how to write a novel. Theme, character, setting, plot, pace, etc, all come together  in harmony. If you don’t know it, I recommend you don’t read another word about it, but get hold of a copy and read it.

Review: The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett

The Secret GardenI expected this book to be sentimental, but the first chapter gave me a surprise. Familiar with the story, but unfamiliar with the novel, I decided to read it myself. The opening chapter, in which we meet Mary Lennox as a spoilt child in India, is sharply observed and utterly honest. She simply is an obstinate, difficult child, and that is a fact. Her father is busy, and her mother prefers having parties to engaging with children. Then, from a child’s perspective, we see the effects of disease wiping out a whole household. Mary Lennox, forgotten about by everyone, is found by some soldiers who come to clear the bodies.

The girl’s nearest relative is Mr Craven, who lives in a huge house on the Yorkshire moors. The house has ‘hundreds of empty rooms’, and there is a sense of decay and loneliness in the description of it. The household lives in the shadow of Mrs Craven’s sudden death. A lot of humour comes from the clash between a spoilt, rude child, who doesn’t care for anyone or anything, and the staff and family who have to care for her.

The first half of the book is great. Not just because it surprises, and gives a realistic portrait of a difficult and unloved child, but because it builds a sense of mystery. I might as well be honest and say that I will probably read anything that has the word ‘secret’ in the title. I love mysteries. I love the idea that something hidden will be revealed. This is one of the strongest cards an author has. Writing a novel has been described as raising a number of questions, then delaying the answers. We keep reading when we want to know the answer to something, impatient to find out the truth. Unanswered questions are the writer’s best friend.

In the first half of The Secret Garden, the garden is referred to – a secret garden which has been locked up for years since Mrs Craven died in it. Gradually, more is revealed. We learn that a key to the garden is buried somewhere. Even when Mary finds the garden, there is still an element of suspense, because the fact that she knows about it and goes there is a secret no one else can know. There’s another element of mystery – Mary hears a child crying in the night, but everyone else in the house denies the noise. What – or rather whom – are they hiding?

But soon the tension ends. The questions are answered too quickly. The mystery is revealed too soon. With still around half the book to go, we have all the answers. Why should we keep reading? This is where sentimentality creeps in. Perhaps Hodgson Burnett wants us to delight in reading about how everyone is friends now, and they all enjoy gardening. There’s only so long that sort of thing can hold my interest. The drama has deflated. I believe Hodgson Burnett began to like her characters a little too much.

The change in Mary Lennox is well told, gradually showing this damaged young girl learning empathy and patience, but always with that stubborn streak which is actually very charming. The final chapters and the reconciliation between the young Master Craven and his father are very predictable, and very far from the realistic and unflinching opening of the book. As a children’s classic, this book deserves its place. But it’s one of those books which might have been something wonderful.

 

Review: Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light

LisbonI came across this book during my search for reading matter on Portugal – its history, politics, and culture. There is a scarcity of reading matter about Portugal in the English language (I’m not talking about travel guides), and yet if you are interested in Spain, France, or Italy, there is a wealth of entertaining, well written material exploring several aspects of the culture, history, cuisine, and politics of those countries. If the English-person-moves-abroad-with-comic-consequences is your thing, there is even plenty of that. But just as Portuguese wines get lumped with the Spanish ones in supermarkets, the country itself gets sidelined too.

My Portuguese isn’t yet good enough to read anything in great depth. There are, obviously, many books in the Portuguese language about various periods of Portuguese history. After a visit to Estoril a few years ago, I became interested in the stories of spies and espionage during World War II. But I found almost nothing to follow it up with. I couldn’t even find an in-print book about Salazar. Every search gave me travel guides and books about how to buy a villa in the Algarve.

Then, by chance, I came across this. Neil Lochery’s entertaining account of Portugal during the war years has a perfect balance of being scholarly and entertaining. It is full of anecdote and interesting detail, and yet it reflects deep research. It might be about the political, economic, and ideological state of Portugal, but it is never dull. It is filled with characters from the famous Espirito Santo, head of the banking dynasty, to the ‘Portuguese Schindler’ who abused his position to get as many Jewish people out of France and into Portugal as he could.

I would argue that anyone with a strong interest in World War Two history should read this book. It is rare to get a detailed look at the Portuguese perspective. The relationship between Britain and Portugal – the longest unbroken ally relationship in Europe – is fascinating. Portugal was put in a difficult position, and whether Salazar did the right thing is still a contentious issue. Should he, for example, have sold metal to the Nazis, and accepted their gold in return? On the other side, Germany were disappointed that Salazar allowed the British to use the Azores islands as a naval base, and in the city of Lisbon there were diplomats from Britain and Germany doing everything in their power to swing things their way.

The book’s portrait of Salazar is also something worth noting. For those of us who know almost literally nothing about him, it is tempting to put him in the ‘baddie’ box of right-wing twentieth century leaders. However, this book is not interested in making clumsy judgements about either politics or character. Salazar is presented as an academic, intellectual, lonely figure, and any strengths and weaknesses are examined without easy conclusions.

The Provenance of Nazi gold becomes another focus of the book. Salazar regarded the persecution of the Jews as a German problem. Whether or not the gold Portugal received was stolen from Jewish families was similarly seen as an issue for the German state. This is the book’s biggest challenge to the reader, because it becomes uncomfortably close to the present day, and asks the question ‘How much Nazi gold is still in the Portuguese banks?’ This is also where some of the references get a little murky, as Lochery says he has contacts within the Portuguese banking system, and has used them to get information in this area.

It is difficult to write history which avoids being dry, or which covers almost unknown territory. I suspect this book will never be a bestseller in the way Ben Mcintyre has achieved with his narrative history. But it does belong on the bookshelves of people interested in Portuguese history, the city of Lisbon, and for those who are interested in the complete picture of Europe in the 1940s. When my Portuguese is good enough, I would love to dig deeper.

 

Review: Printers Devil’s Court by Susan Hill

Printers Devil CourtI might as well admit to being a huge fan of Susan Hill’s ghost stories. They are exactly the kind of book I read with unreserved pleasure. I’ve read all six of them, and have previously written about them here. What Hill does so well is to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the world M.R. James’ characters lived in – a world of open fires and old buildings, foggy London streets and forgotten corners of the countryside, family histories and unassuming men who unwittingly stir up the past. Hill rarely presents us with explicitly grotesque or horrifying images, but instead introduces a tone of menace and uncomfortable mystery which compels the reader to keep reading. Something sinister is happening. It is revealed slowly, in the quietness of a world without the sounds and sights of modern comforts.

Printers Devils Court is about four medical students in early twentieth century London. One of these students narrates the story of their disagreement over the ethics of trying to bring a corpse back from the dead. In the conceit of the story, the narrative is presented as a single bound volume which has been found after the narrator’s death, a secret hidden for all of his life, which will finally come to light in this startling confession.

At the centre of the story is a grim experiment where two irresponsible medical students capture the life of an old, dying man, and use this ‘essence’ to put life into a young woman who is dying. The unexpected results put a chill down the spine. I won’t reveal them here, because the reader should have the pleasure of reading about the consequences as they unfold.

This book is more slight than her previous novellas. One of the characteristics of her ghost stories is that most can be read in one setting. This one is even slimmer than usual. Does it matter? I felt that it did, because there is room for this story to be expanded and given more life. At times it feels almost rushed, and lacks the the suspense of stories such as Dolly and The Small Hand. In this respect, the story feels unsatisfying. Unfortunately, some editor (I presume) has decided to include period illustrations to accompany the text. That would be great, if only they did illustrate the text. They are actually at odds with the text, so obviously taken from other novels and included for their Victorian flavour. But at times they are depicting a scene which is only slightly similar to the scene of the story, and sometimes with very different details. I suspect future editions of the book will exclude these pictures. I can only think that whoever decided to include the pictures did so because the word count was low, and they wanted to make the print edition thicker. This adds to my earlier point – the story should really have been longer and more developed.

I would welcome another longer Hill ghost story, something the length of The Woman in Black, or The Mist in the Mirror. Brevity is important in the ghost story, because it is all about what you don’t see, and being told too much takes away from the effect. But being told too little can make the story less than memorable.

Review: The Little Man From Archangel by Georges Simenon

The Little Man from Archangel‘She’s gone to Bourges’ is the lie which Jonas Milk tells at the beginning of the novel, and it is one he cannot escape from thereafter. One night his wife, a woman who is known to have occasional affairs, leaves the house to see a friend and doesn’t return. Jonas believes she’s gone off with another man, as she has done before. He saves the trouble of explaining this by responding to casual questions about her whereabouts: ‘She’s gone to Bourges’.

From then on he has to sustain the lie, tangling himself in the deceitful web he has spun. Which bus did she catch? Has she gone to see her old school friend La Toute? Did she take her coat? Was it planned? He feels he must give an answer to all these, and once the first lie is told there is no going back.

Jonas Milk owns a secondhand book and stamp shop in the market place of a small French town. He is forty, and he is married to Gina, twenty-four, who has had a reputation for sexual promiscuity since adolescence. The quiet shop owner, who wonders why everyone refers to him formally as Monsieur, when to each other they use the familiar ‘tu’, and whose prosaic life and immigrant background make him a natural outsider, was a strange choice of husband for the young Gina. He is apparently sincere in his love for her, and she apparently sincere in her guilt when she cheats on him again.

As well as a portrait of a relationship, this is a portrait of a small French market town. The buzzing marketplace has traders who have been there for years, men who drink coffee or wine together in the same cafe each day, and families who know one another’s business. Although the setting is specific, it’s also an exploration of general human behavior. Distrust, gossip, and betrayal can happen anywhere, and so can a miscarriage of justice. The acceptance of an outsider into the tight market community turns out to be less authentic than it first appears.

Simenon’s prose is spare; the way he reveals a character’s thought or behaviour is swift and accurate. He never wastes words. He will always tell you too little, never too much. There is little description, of either people or places, but there is often a well chosen detail. We are given no detailed description of the priest, but we are given a description of his red tablecloth which Jonas sat in front of each week. Details matter in the plot too. Jonas buys five croissants each day from the bakery – three for himself, two for Gina – and everyone notices when he starts buying just three.

As in many other translated books, one always wonders what might have been lost in translation. Perhaps not as much as I feared. In the first page I read the sentence ‘The market was in full swing’, and I wondered whether this really was the same in the French. I looked it up and found that it is: ‘le marché battait son plein’. Of course, not all such phrases translate from one language to another, but I’m ignorant of which are just rough English approximations of uniquely French phrases.

One of the pleasures I find in reading Simenon books is that they are short. For others, this would put them off. His economy is powerful, and his characters never outstay their welcome.

The Mystery of Robert Goddard

Long Time ComingWhen I was younger, there were always a few Robert Goddard books around the house. I probably only started reading them when my father was about to throw them out, and sent them my way first in case I was interested. I took two of them to university, and discovered the stories for myself. As stories, they are wonderful. They have all the qualities the quotes on the book cover say they’ll have: “Gripping”, “Unputdownable”, “Addictive”. They have the thrills you want from a thriller, but without some of the stupidity and dire prose of some other, hugely popular thriller writers (insert one of several names here).

Goddard describes his books as “Mystery thrillers”. It’s the perfect description for them, because they are thrillers in true sense. The pace is relentless, and every chapter pushes the story along with thrills and perils of various kinds. And the novels are also full of mystery, unanswered questions, unknown figures with unknown motives, deeply hidden secrets.

On his website, Goddard is proclaimed as “Master of the clever twist”. It’s not unfounded, given that half the media reviews of his books praise his plot management, and the unexpected twists his stories take. I’ve read around five of his novels, and I’ve never felt his plot twists have been absurd, or have betrayed the fundamental premise of the story. They seem to fit, albeit in the context of the world of thrillers, a place where part of the illusion is to take something incredible and make it appear credible to the reader.

Long Time Coming, the last book of his I read, is in many ways typical of the sort of books he Sea Changewrites. A male narrator who finds himself out of his depth – and in great danger – when some secret is revealed to him. In this case, Stephen Swan is surprised when an uncle he thought was dead turns up and asks for his help in finding evidence which would prove some Picasso paintings were stolen from a Jewish family during the Second World War. The book goes between events in 1940 and events in 1976, gradually giving the reader the full story of the mysterious Eldritch Swan and the stolen artwork.

But here’s the strange thing. Goddard has written more than twenty books, but none has been filmed. The only evidence of adaptations you will find is the 1997 television movie ‘Into the Blue’, starring John Thaw. But his stories – breathless thrillers, with international locations, clever plot twists, and engaging characters – are great material for the movies. In fact, look at the last few Liam Neeson thrillers, and some of their paler imitations. Hollywood is desperately turning the meat grinder and providing far-from-lean results. Robert Goddard’s books would offer solid material for adaptation.

To Catch a ThiefI have an unprovable theory that if Hitchcock were alive and making films, he would use several of Goddard’s books. They often have a hint of the innocent man on the run. Also, Goddard is not that famous. Hitchcock frequently used source material by writers who weren’t household names. He could take the popular, imperfect literary efforts of working writers, and make them into screen gold. Robert Bloch’s ‘Psycho’ was far from well known. The same goes for Cornell Woolrich’s short story which became ‘Rear Window’. ‘Vertigo’, ‘Marnie’, and ‘To Catch a Thief’ are further examples. Relatively unknown books, now mostly out of print. But they made great films.

It’s a mystery why Goddard’s thrillers haven’t been used for film adaptations. Is it because he’s British, and the studios would prefer a James Patterson, a John Grisham, or a Dennis Lehane? Lehane is an excellent writer, and his books have made excellent films, but does anyone really have to resort to James Patterson? Perhaps Goddard been under-served by the British film industry, or television industry. When was the last time a top-notch British thriller hit the cinemas? And when was the last time three or four hit the cinemas in a row?

Goddard’s stories are full of intrigues and deeply hidden secrets from the past. It would be entirely appropriate if his exclusion from adaptation was due to some grudge from the past, or was due to a secret which must be hidden lest some unsuspecting down-and-out middle-aged man gets thrown into a dangerous criminal world. If the world were a Goddard thriller, this would be exactly the reason…Or have I said too much?

Review: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

You Only Live TwicePicking an Ian Fleming novel from the bookshelf is a bit like walking straight past the organic vegetable section of the supermarket and picking up a huge bar of Galaxy chocolate. It’s not going to do you any good, but you’ve probably just had a bad day at work. Some days you don’t want to read about a complex character in challenging and innovative prose. Sometimes you want to read a story about a man who runs around with a gun, trying to defeat another man who cultivates deadly plants.

In You Only Live Twice, Bond travels to Japan for reasons I can’t quite remember, and while he’s there he is given the opportunity to infiltrate a castle off the coast, where a mad scientist is collecting and cultivating deadly plants. The plants have killed several intruders, and people are now using the castle grounds as a means to kill themselves. The Japanese government want it stopped, and James Bond is the man to help. By a staggering coincidence, the mad scientist and his assistant are Bond’s most hated enemies, the people who killed his wife in the previous book.

Some books use plants as a symbol for something else, to reinforce the novel’s theme (think about the Deadly Nightshade in The Go-Between, or the great Groby tree in Parade’s End). This book uses the deadly plants to kill people. Full stop. The closest it gets to a theme is the James Bond theme music occasionally popping into my head.

All the classic literary Bond ingredients are here: the beautiful woman enchanted by Bond, the exotic setting, the details about food, copious quantities of alcohol, the impossible mission. And yet it all feels very tired. This is the last full length Bond novel (The Man with the Golden Gun is the final, much shorter book). You sense as you read it that even Fleming was beginning to get bored. Not that I blame him much for carrying on. He used to write the Bond books during his trips to the Caribbean, spending six weeks on each book, writing quickly. And then, presumably, he just enjoyed himself for the other 46 weeks of the year. Fleming wasn’t like James Joyce, agonizing over every sentence. I suspect Fleming spent more time agonizing over which cocktail to have when his working day was over.

Not only are the ingredients stale, but Fleming is almost retelling one of his own stories. The earlier novel Dr No is about Bond’s mission to a mysterious island where an eccentric environmentalist lives. Or is it all a cover for something else? The difference is that Dr No has some punch. The story flows, the pacing is good, it is a well crafted adventure story.

I’ve written before about spy fiction, and I’ll repeat here that some of the best of it was pre-Second World War. The novels of Eric Ambler are exciting and complex, presenting us not only with a good story, but with a creeping sense of dread and paranoia. If you were going to be cruel, you might say that the line of serious espionage fiction in the twentieth century runs from Ambler to Le Carre, and actually bypasses Fleming altogether. Fleming was a different animal. He was writing whimsical fantasies. There are hints of grit and serious intent at the beginning of the Bond series, but this has dissipated by the end.

It seems like a very long time ago that I picked up Casino Royale and found to my surprise that Bond was more than a raised eyebrow, a one liner, and a novelty car. Leaving to one side the culturally and morally questionable elements of the books, the stories just stopped working at the end.

 

The Challenge of the Dying Detective

The Dying DetectiveCrime fiction is a genre which delights in sub-genres. And if you want to get technical, even the sub-genres have sub-genres. Boring for the outsider, perhaps, but exciting for the fan. Many of these sub-genres are well known. You have Hard Boiled books, like Chandler and Hammet; Country House mysteries, which Agatha Christie perfected; Legal Thrillers, which John Grisham has made a career from; Police Procedural – think Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Michael Conelly’s Bosch.

Some of the sub-genres are more unusual. For example, there is the Locked Room mystery. A crime takes place in a locked room, with no apparent way for the criminal to enter or escape. The crime appears impossible.  A couple of Holmes stories fit this pattern, but it was started by Edgar Allen Poe in his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue. (some people might argue there are earlier examples, but this is because book lovers enjoy having very pointless and yet very enjoyable arguments on points which don’t matter.) Then the Locked Room sub-genre was used by The Hollow Mana lot of crime writers, in particular John Dickson Carr, who revisited it constantly. If his prose style wasn’t so clunky, he might still be famous now. His book The Hollow Man is probably his best known novel. It contains a scene where a man appears to a group of friends in a pub, and they later learn his appearance was impossible because he had already been murdered when it happened. Another great book in this genre is The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. A man enters a toyshop late at night, finds a dead body, but returns later to find the toyshop isn’t there anymore.

But I would argue there is an overlooked sub-genre, and one which has existed since the beginning of crime fiction as we know it. It’s the sub-genre of the Dying Detective. The name comes from a Holmes short story, in which the detective remains in bed, stricken by a tropical disease, on the point of death. And yet he is still able to solve the mystery.

The Daughter of TimeAnother famous example of this is a novel by Josephine Tey called The Daughter of Time. Inspector Grant is in hospital with a broken leg, and chooses to spend his time reading about Richard III, attempting to solve the mystery of who he was and whether he really did murder his nephews. The book should be boring, because it’s about a man lying in bed reading books. But it’s actually very engaging.

This leads to one of the problems with the Dying Detective sub-genre. It is almost unfilmable. When ITV adapted the Holmes story The Dying Detective, the adapter had to add all sort of scenes and sub-plots to make it suitable for television. Viewers don’t want to watch an actor sitting in bed for one hour. And yet on the page it can work. I know the famous television series The Singing Detective is about a man lying in bed, but it’s not only about a man lying in bed. It has backflashes and sub-plots.

Because I think Georges Simenon is a wonderful writer, I’m going to squeeze a Maigret novel into this sub-genre. It’s called Maigret Takes the Waters (Or, in some translations, Maigret in Vichy), in which Maigret goes to Vichy on advice from The Wench is Deadhis doctor. Faced with having nothing to do but eat healthy meals and abstaining from alcohol, he finds a crime to solve. You could also look at the final Poirot novel Curtain, in which Poirot is barely healthy enough to leave his room, and yet he manages to solve the mystery. Perhaps one of the best of the Dying Detective stories might be the Inspector Morse novel The Wench is Dead. From his hospital bed (surely a nod to Inspector Grant) he uses local history books to prove that the men hanged for murdering a woman on the Victorian canals was in fact innocent.

The idea of the Dying Detective is one which will undoubtedly recur, not least because most crime writers write a lot of stories, and always need new scenarios. Also, from a literary perspective, this form of story is a challenge in itself. It generally involves a cold case, and an investigation into the past. If a crime writer is contracted to write a book a year, inevitably that writer will look for interesting ideas to avoid relying on formula.

Another reason why stories of ‘dying detectives’ will continue is because writers are like vultures, feeding on what they can get. If a writer has a stint in hospital, you can bet he or she will try to write about it. That’s the thing with writers. Sometimes they’re fully engaged in the moment, and other times they have a voice in their heads saying ‘How can I make this into a book?’

Review: Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Howerds End is on the LandingThis book is a volume of autobiography in disguise. The premise is that Susan Hill will read all the books in her house over the course of a year, not buying, borrowing, or receiving anything new. Only her own books which she already owns, and which apparently fill her house from top to bottom. This is a book about reading and about books, but many of the books Hill owns come with a memory attached, memories she explores and recounts. Memories of childhood, parenthood, and the people who come in and out of one’s life through the years.

It ought to be said that if you’re not a book lover, or a fan of Susan Hill, this book may drag. Personally I love every detail about books, and Susan Hill happens to be one of my favourite living authors. Her ghost stories are the best by any contemporary writer. Her prose is beautifully evocative of time and place; she captures moments in her fiction with their smells and sights and sounds.

What I didn’t know is that Susan Hill published her first novel at eighteen, and spent her undergraduate years on the edges of the London literary scene, meeting many famous authors at parties. She has met T.S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, Ian Fleming, Patrick Leigh Femor, Bruce Chatwin, Iris Murdoch, V.S. Naipaul, Roald Dahl, Dirk Bogarde, and countless other writers.

I especially enjoyed being introduced to authors I’ve never appreciated before. Hill writes very affectionately about Charles Causely, an acclaimed poet who occasionally asked her to collect prizes on his behalf. She writes about the regrets he had at the end of his life, and his decline into ill health. She champions her favourite writers, from Virginia Woolf to Barbara Pym to Enid Blyton. She writes about the very act of reading, the escape of it, the magic of it.

Above all this is a book lovers’ book. If you’ve never read a Susan Hill book before, this isn’t the place to start. She has a successful series of detective novels, several ghost stories, and other more literary novels on the market. She’s prolific, but never at the expense of quality.

You could say the book is self-indulgent. A writer writing about her favourite books. Yes, I suppose it is. And from that point of view, it’s good that it’s such a short book. Even someone who was enjoying the book 150 pages in probably wouldn’t be enjoying it 150 pages later. At just over 200 pages, it’s about right.

Susan Hill has another book coming out in 2015 called Virginia Woolf is in the Kitchen. If it’s anything like this, then I look forward to it.

A New Life Abroad, and Other Ghost Stories

A Year in ProvenceThe book which started a spate of ‘my-new-life-in-hot-European-country-with-funny-and-charming-consequences’ was 1989′s A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. When I worked in a bookshop in Loughborough in 2003, we sold a lot of these books. Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons and Carol Drinkwater’s The Olive Farm were also popular with readers in Loughborough, who sat in their terraced houses during rainy autumns, and dreamed of swapping the East Midlands for the Southern Hemisphere; swapping a back garden with a broken swing for a landscape of vines, melons, and figs.

It took me ten years to actually read one of these books, and I decided to start with A Year in Provence. It records life in the south of France, the local characters and customs, the adjustments to a new climate, cleaning the outdoor pool, planting a new vineyard, ordering a stone table for the terrace, learning to play boules, having long lunches. It paints a sanguine picture of the new life Peter Mayle embarked on with his wife.

This is a book I was ready to sneer at. It all seems very 80s, the idea that France is exotic. But actually the book began to win me over. It’s a humorous portrait. It’s well written and perceptive. But something is missing.

It took me about fifty pages to realise that the author never writes about his wife. Her name is not there, she is given only one or two lines in the whole book, she is barely described except in the most brief asides. As I kept reading, this became more than odd, it became very mysterious and slightly eerie. Who is this woman, included in the pronoun ‘we’, but never revealed? She is an almost entirely silent and anonymous woman.

And that leads to another question – who on earth is Peter Mayle anyway? His style is very engaging and easy, but he’s telling us everything about the French and nothing about himself. This, of course, is what the writer does. Gives you a version of things. Makes you think you know what’s real. Presents (or re-presents) life in a certain way. To clarify – I don’t have anything personal against Peter Mayle. And even if I did I wouldn’t tell you.

For me, the gold standard of informal travel writing is Eric Newby. And it happens that he wrote a A Small Place in Italywonderful book called A Small Place in Italy, in which he and his wife Wanda buy and renovate an Italian farm house. They bought the house in the 1960s. Newby met his wife during the Second World War, when he was an escaped prisoner hiding in the Italian countryside. Their connection to Italy was strong, and Newby’s affection for its customs and people, especially in the countryside, is evident.

Curiously, Newby wrote the book after Peter Mayle’s Provence was already published. This makes me wonder whether Newby received a call from an editor somewhere, who sensed the growing demand for these perect-life-abroad books, and wanted Newby to write about his house in Italy.

There are some similarities between the books. Preoccupations include harvesting vines and olives, eating large quantities of food prepared by locals who have been using the same recipes for generations. But the biggest difference is the inclusion of Wanda, Newby’s wife. He always writes about her affectionately, even her foibles. He recounts times when she loses her temper, the way that when she says the word ‘row’ she pronounces it ‘rowl’. In other words, she is a part of the story.

The problem with autobiography is that it is a conjuring trick in which the subject allows you to see exactly what he wants you to see, and conceals the things he doesn’t. And for some reason Mayle didn’t want us to see his wife. Perhaps he didn’t really have one. I was at college with someone who pretended he had a girlfriend.

This particular type of travel book persists now, still capturing the imagination of the reading public, who hasn’t been on holiday somewhere hot and wondered ‘What if we actually lived here?’ In the case of A Year in Provence, there is something a little dated in the idea. It was, after all, written 25 years ago, and since then many people have tried to start a new life abroad, attracted by sun and lush food, but the dream has been soured by loneliness, or it has been nothing but a disrespectful attempt to buy part of a foreign village, with no desire to engage with the inhabitants.

So there we are. Twenty-five years after a book has been published, I’ve only just reviewed it. People of Loughborough, get in touch. I’ve finally caught up with you.