Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham ~ 1953. This North American edition: Ballantine, 1969. Originally published in Great Britain as The Kraken Wakes. Paperback. 182 pages.

Fellow British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss once sneered at John Wyndam for the lack of desperate drama in his plots – I believe “cozy catastrophes” was the term he used. And I have to say I get what he was saying, and that the snub has some basis.

Wyndham’s “What if?” sci-fi concoctions are disaster novels with the same relation to real life as, say, Agatha Christie’s decorous murder mysteries. Everybody is very, very civilized about everything, even when in situations of utter horror, and while in the throes of deepest emotion.

Restful, in a way, reading these. Subject matter having nothing to do with the overlying tone. Everything’s under control here, move along there, don’t panic.

At the start of this story, 1950-something, post-war England is getting back to its new normal. Social order is as peaceful as it can be, rationing is a thing of a not-so-distant past, conditions in general are not too dreadful on the home front. The Cold War is looming, of course, Russia and the United States are busy trading insults and placing spies and building up their arsenals, but England has her head down and things are plugging along.

In Wyndham’s slightly modified Great Britain, a new radio and television broadcaster has established itself, the E.B.C. – English Broadcasting Corporation – in direct well-behaving competition with the fusty B.B.C. – and Mike and Phyllis Watson, newly married – are both employed there as journalists and story researcher-writers.

They’ve had some interesting experiences working for the E.B.C., the most recent being their witnessing – along with a whole shipful of other people – the strange phenomenon of large red “fireballs” raining down from the sky and landing in the ocean.

Reports of these are coming in from all around the globe, and the odd fighter plane gets a shot off, but no one can identify what these objects are. Scientists get going and do their stuff. A deep-diving “bathyscope” (based on the real-life undersea-exploring Bathysphere manned by William Beebe in the 1920s and 30s) is sent down to the site where some of the fireballs were seen to enter the ocean. Transmission is cut off suddenly – the cable is pulled up melted off (!) – the bathyscope and its two crew members have vanished! (Mike and Phyllis are there for the whole thing.)

And then the fireballs stop coming. And things go quiet for a year or so.

Cue foreboding music…

One day people – and yes, by “people” I mean Mike and Phyllis, and a few percipient others – start noticing an unusual pattern in ships going down with very little notice in various parts of the world’s oceans. And always above the deepest marine trenches, in places where those fireballs were seen splashing down. Trans-oceanic cable-laying ships, fishing boats, a Japanese passenger liner, the Queen Anne, pride of Great Britain’s transatlantic fleet!…and a warship…an American luxury liner… What is going on!?!

Could it be The Russians?

Or something more sinister? Something from…drumroll…OUTER SPACE?

Cutting right through all the drama, I’ll be a big old plot spoiler and tell you that yes, yes it is.

Space Aliens.

Those fireballs were actually transport pods, from one of the gas giant planets, or so the theory goes, hence their attraction to the highest pressure bits of the world’s oceans. They’re absolutely not friendly. They spit back atomic bombs aimed in their general direction, they start sending up very icky “sea tanks” to harvest things (people!) living along the sea shores. But, when the humans figure out how to destroy these, things again go silent.

Another year or two passes. And then, one day someone notices…hey, isn’t that the sea level rising? And there are sure a lot of icebergs about. What is happening to the polar ice caps?!

Yup. The sub-marine aliens are melting the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, and things are about to get very rough for the land-dwellers of Earth.

But good old Mike and Phyllis rock right along taking everything in stride. Needless to say, they come through everything – a close call by sea tank attack, the inundation of much of Great Britain, the breakdown of civilization as they know it – with flying colours, thanks to their level-headed pre-planning-for-disaster and a few handy connections among the scientist community who slip them the occasional bit of insider info.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s looking sort of like humankind might survive after all, thanks to the work of Japanese scientists: “A very ingenious people, the Japs; and in their more sociable moments, a credit to science.”

Uh huh.

Sheer period piece science fiction, and despite my frivolous tone above, it’s actually pretty darned good for its time and genre. Wyndham can write, and though he slides over the trickier bits – no sense slowing down the story with pesky details – he spins a (sometimes) genuinely chilling tale.

Final score: 7/10 for Mike and Phyllis, and the plucky band of true-blue Brits who’ve kept the radio channels running all this time. Not to mention those science-minded “Japs”.

Here’s a little bonus I must share. The original British title of this book is The Kraken Wakes, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem. Enjoy!

The Kraken Wakes

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

 

 

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart ~ 1971. This edition: Brockhampton Press, 1971. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes. Hardcover. ISBN: -340-15203-6. 127 pages.

In the interests of keeping caught up with my ACOB self-imposed committment, I’m going to try to zip off three quick book posts tonight, of absolutely dissimilar novels, so hold on to your hats.

All three books (this one, Out of the Deeps/The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, Saint Jack by Paul Theroux) deserve the full scholarly treatment, but they’re not going to get it today – at least not from me.

Starting with the “easiest”, then. Here we go!

This juvenile adventure story from the romantic thriller writer Mary Stewart was her first published work for younger readers, and it is an absolute charmer.

The whole time I read this one (and it’s a quick read, maybe 2 hours, tops) all I could think of is what a fantastic read-aloud book it would be. It only needed a warm little body or two snuggled close to make it absolute heaven. This one is going on the extra-special save-for-eventual-grandkids shelf. If you don’t have a handy one that belongs to you around, it’s almost worth borrowing a small child for!

Poor Mary, indeed! Parents gone off to America for a month, older twin siblings happily off visiting friends, and Mary’s own much-anticipated stay with cousins-by-the-sea cancelled unexpectedly, our young protagonist is landed with an elderly aunt in the deepest depths of the country.

Great-Aunt Charlotte is kind as kind can be, but she’s mostly deaf and spends a lot of time napping, and her flustery lady-companion isn’t much of a kindred spirit to a 10-year-old girl either. The few local children of a similar age are away, so Mary is reduced to following the brusque (though kindly) gardener around, hindering him in his work as she tries to help. Nothing is going right; what a dismal summer this is turning into…

We all know what happens next, right?

Yes, Mary meets an unexpected friend. In this case, the friend turns out to be a small black cat with emerald-green eyes, who chums up in the most satisfactory fashion, finding his way into Mary’s room at night, purring his way into her heart.

Tib, as the gardener christens the cat, is a feline of purpose and initiative, and he promptly and firmly leads Mary into the woods, to a secluded copse of oak trees, where she finds the most wonderful thing she has ever seen. It’s a mysterious flower:

The leaves, set in stiff rosettes, were of a curious bluish-green, mottled like frogs, and above them on slender stems hung the flowers, clusters of graceful purple bells, whose throats were streaked with silver, and whose pistils, like long tongues, thrust out of the freaked throats in stabs of bright gold.

Mary knelt down on the fallen branch and gazed at the flowers, while beside her sat the little black cat waving his black tail, and watching her out of his green, green eyes.

Turns out that the flower has some interesting properties, related to the requirements of witches, and before she knows it Mary finds herself mounted on a disturbingly lively broomstick, whooshing through the clouds, Tib hanging on for dear life. Down they eventually come, to the gates of a large country house, all turrets and battlements and such. A large sign informs Mary that she has come to ENDOR COLLEGE, All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches…

Swept up by Headmistress Mumblechook, Mary tries and tries to explain that she really shouldn’t be there, but her explanation falls on deaf ears (or are they?) and she gets the grand tour befits a newly enrolled student.

Things turn forbodingly grimmer the deeper and deeper Mary gets into the situation, and, well, let’s leave it right there.

Let me just say that these witches aren’t of the benevolent white magic type, they are well and truly up to mischief, and Mary will need all the luck that comes her way in order to extricate herself from their grasp.

The grand finale chase scene is worthy of Mary Stewart at her action sequence best (which is very good indeed), and the ending is quite lovely, in that everyone gets what they deserve.

Though I had to dock a full point in my personal ratings system for an utter lack of discussion as to why the Endor College witches and wizards are up to the awful thing it is that they are up to – and my adult brain really wanted to know what that motivation was, though likely a young reader/listener wouldn’t care a jot – this one gets a happy 9/10.

I was inspired to bring this book down from the shelf where it has been sitting ever since its lucky acquisition a year or so ago at a library book sale by this post at There Will Be Books.

Grateful thanks to Karyn for the nudge. I had been waiting for the right time to read The Little Broomstick; it was on my radar for sure because I’d heard about the anime based on it just a few months ago, and I was startled and quite pleased to see one of Mary Stewart’s works in the spotlight – I have a deep fondness for her vintage for-adults thrillers – and I remember telling myself, “You’d better read that children’s book. Soon!”

Yes, indeed, it has indeed happened that this slight but engrossing tale has been picked up by Japanese anime Studio Ponoc, the new home of a number of ex-Studio Ghibli animators, and reworked into an action-adventure film titled Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

Three rousing cheers for Japanese readers of old English-language children’s books, for in recent years we have seen a number of these reimagined with respectful and clever transformation into a whole different art form, namely Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, The Secret World of Arriety (based on Mary Norton’s The Borrowers), and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There.

If you are in the B.C. lower mainland and are even the slightest bit tuned in to anime culture, I envy you greatly, as you will have a chance to watch Mary and the Witch’s Flower at the Vancouver International Film Festival in the coming week. (Subtitled trailer here, and English-dubbed trailer here.) And a treat it will no doubt be, whether or not you bring a child with you as your cover ploy!

 

 

 

 

 

The Victorian Album by Evelyn Berckman ~ 1973. This edition: Doubleday, 1973. Hardcover. 222 pages.

Rather a good gothic-suspense-supernaturalish-thriller, set in the time of its writing, the early 1970s.

Lorna Teasdale, sixtyish, never married, shares her accommodations and her life with her twenty-something niece, Christabel, who was orphaned at a young age and became Lorna’s adored ward.

The two coexist in perfect harmony, with Christabel doing very well in her calling as an assistant antique dealer/interior decorator – to become a museum curator is her long-term goal – and Lorna working as a much-in-demand private seamstress.

They are getting by nicely, until they are evicted from their London apartment due to its upcoming demolition; new flats are planned for its location. Scrambling to find an affordable place to live in the red-hot housing market – does this sound familiar to anyone? – some things never change! – the two end up leasing the entire first floor of a rundown pre-Victorian house, owned by the dour and sour Mrs Rumbold and her hard-as-nails social-climbing daughter.

Unemployed due to the relocation, Lorna, once the flat renovations are complete, finds herself bored and at loose ends. Giving in to an impulse, she takes advantage of her landlady’s morning shopping routine to snoop about in the attic of the house, and on her first foray returns to her flat with a dusty Victorian-era photograph album, with which she becomes obsessed. Who are the people portrayed, and what are their relationships to each other? To the house itself? And which one  – or ones – of them were involved in the murder-in-this-very-house which Mrs Rumbold has referred to with salacious glee but not much detail?

Channeling the past in a very up close and personal way, Lorna finds herself drawn into a situation in which she feels that other (other-worldly!) forces are at work…

All in the very best, very chilling, gorgeously sardonic Norah Lofts tradition.

Why haven’t I heard of Evelyn Berckman before? She’s good at this genre, if this novel is a fair sample of her style.

And good at other things, too. Check this out, from the dust jacket flyleaf of The Victorian Album:

Very curious now, I looked for more information regarding Evelyn Berckman, and a very few minutes of internet research took me to this, a cheerfully fulsome review at The Passing Tramp blog, in which Berckman is favourably compared to Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine.

This book was in a batch of odds and ends I’d picked up some years ago when I was keeping my bedridden elderly mother supplied with titles to please her in her book-a-day reading habit. I’m not sure if she got to this one, but if she did I’ll bet she liked it, as she was a Rendell/Vine aficionado, and was always up for a well-written but not taking-itself-too-seriously thriller.

I don’t know if I’ll be actively searching out more of Berckman’s titles, but if I see another in my travels I’ll certainly snap it up with anticipation of another diverting read.

An approving 6/10 for this one. Better than I expected it to be is my final verdict.

 

The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. There  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…

Brrr.

Okay, then.

7/10.

 

 

 

Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1995-ish. Paperback. ISBN: 0-140-01986-3. 204 pages.

Okay, let me say this right up front, so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of love in the critique which follows.

  1. I am a John Wyndham fan.
  2. I like science fiction as a genre and at one time read an awful lot of it.
  3. I like science fiction because (a.) it can be a whole lot of fun because it allows for creative world building or alternate histories, and (b.) it has some reliable general rules, first and foremost being that the “science” must be logical in relation to whatever the fantastical world is it is taking place in.

This book drops the ball on that last one. So much so that I have to break down and call this a Very Silly Book, even taking into account its pro-feminist theme, which, as a female reader, I find is always a nice thing to bask in.

Trouble With Lichen begins with a funeral, one attended by vast crowds of mourning women, sobbing out their sorrow at the loss of one of their own. “Our beloved Diana…her unfinished work which she now can never finish…irony of fate…will of the Lord…” intones the presiding bishop, as the choir croons and the distaff masses nod and sigh.

Fourteen years earlier, young Diana Brackley is graduating from high school. Both beautiful and brilliant, she breaks the heart of her mother by deciding to go on to university, following the calling of the biochemistry lab rather than the domestic kitchen.

Newly employed at the prestigious research labs at Darr House, presided over by Francis Saxover, a personable middle-aged scientist with a terminally ill wife and two adolescent children, Diana flourishes in her chosen field.

One day, while working with samples of lichen collected in Manchuria, Diana stumbles upon an intriguing discovery, and divulges it to her boss. His interest takes a nosedive when his wife dies, and Diana continues her investigations after hours, as it were, not wanting to involve Francis in what might be pointless investigation when he is still in the throes of grief.

But Francis is not so devastated as all that. He is also tinkering with the lichen, and he and Diana independently come up with the same conclusion: they may have discovered a natural anti-aging compound – “antigerone”.

The implications are astounding, and require some serious consideration, in particular because the lichen in question exists only in a small geographical area, in a Chinese-held territory close to the Russian frontier. Which means that the production of the antigerone will always have to be extremely limited, unless someone can crack the biological code and replicate the active ingredients in the lichen. In the meantime, the antigerone remains a closely held secret, with only Diana and Francis privy to its effects.

Stuff happens. The years roll by. Diana inherits a small fortune, and quits her employment at Darr House in order to set herself up as the head of a an exclusive beauty salon catering to the female connections of wealthy and powerful British gentlemen.

“Nefertiti” is a posh salon indeed, and as the years go by, its longtime clients look better and better in comparison to their peers. Almost like they are, well, younger. Like time has slowed down for them. Very interesting.

Yup. Diana is dosing herself and her best customers with antigerone. But – get this – without their knowledge. Kind of like the way Francis Saxover has been dosing himself and – secretly, without their knowledge – his two children. But that story is about to break.

Francis confesses all to his now-adult children, who are not as shocked as you would think, merely insisting that their respective partners be given the potion as well. Which gives us one of the most delicious episodes of this goofy novel when Francis’s money-hungry daughter-in-law Jane, bitterly disappointed to find out that she may have to wait a very long time indeed for Francis to die and leave his son a lavish inheritance, pulls a very sneaky trick to gain the secret of the antigerone for her own nefarious and profitable purposes.

Diana then divulges her own plot, which is that she has intended her regiment of life-extended rich ladies to be the leading force of a new world for women, in which they will be able to either defer having children until after they have a career, or to have a full life after their offspring are safely raised. Yes, they can now do everything! Antigerone will buy them the one thing that has stood in the way of female empowerment all these centuries: TIME. (Okay, I can kind of buy into that myself. Wouldn’t it be loverly, to have a twice-as-long lifetime to get it all done in?!)

The sticky point for me was that these particular women are all under-employed already. They fritter their days away, la la la la. Diana insists that once the boredom of a century or so of this really sets in these ladies will set themselves afire with enthusiasm for doing world-changing stuff. Me, I don’t think so. Why aren’t they already hopping to it, seeing as their offspring are well off their hands with nannies and all? Negating that little theory about women wasting their best years in child rearing being what’s stopping them from taking part in real world-changing work.

We then proceed to have press conferences, a riot or two, kidnappings, torture, death threats, and, finally, an assassination of sorts. China finally wakes up and takes notice of the lichen situation and proceeds to slam the door shut for any further harvest. End of story? Well, not quite.

What an utter snob Wyndham comes across as with this concoction. Wives, daughters and mistresses of the elite are worthy of the antigerone; all others in the lower strata, so sorry, but you get to maintain the status quo. Because, well, just because. But that’s okay, because it would be wasted on you anyway, and your menfolk would never stand for it.

This tale is so ridiculously illogical. The science is never adequately explained; Wyndham takes the ring road round the core of that particular city. There are great gaps in the narrative. No one reacts as they would in real life. Everybody’s very, very restrained, so über-British stiff-upper-lip, refusing to get too excited, except for the odd well-behaved mob, easily controlled by a handful of stern bobbies. The men are all very cool with the women getting the good stuff; it takes chapters and chapters before someone says, “Hey! Men might benefit from this thing, too!” You think?! The Chinese caught on right away, once they twigged to what they had on their territory. The Brits – well – took them a while.

Whole thing is silly. Silly, silly, silly.

Points off for absolute failure to think the plot through in all of its potentially intriguing ways, and for failure to apply logic where most needed.

Points back on because it is pretty funny in places, and yeah, it is pretty cool to have the women getting all the perks, and because Diana offhandedly dismisses marriage as something she might do later when she gets around to it. (Though that might be up for debate; her anti-marriage stance might not be as absolutely disinterested as she makes out.)

Point in favour for letting our lady-scientist also be deeply interested in beautiful clothes and cosmetics.

Another point in favour, for a fairly decent “surprise” ending. Which I must say I saw coming with flags flying from quite some way away. (Wyndham likes to tidy things up.)

Still silly.

6/10.

 

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen ~ 1935. This edition: Knopf, 1936. Hardcover. 270 pages.

This novel is stiff with secrets. Everyone is hiding something, and the frequent silences are screaming with unspoken words.

What a tense novel, and what a compelling one, too. Such beautiful writing by Elizabeth Bowen. Though I found I was always being kept an arm’s-length away; the reader is very much the spectator here, privy to all of the secrets, but never sure quite what the next moment will bring.

A commenter on my recent post on Bowen’s The Little Girls mentioned the Henry James-like qualities of The House in Paris. Bang on, that comparison is. And, though I am a dedicated Jamesian at heart, I do find he can be a challenge to really get one’s head around. As is this novel. I had to pay attention, no room at all for straying thoughts.

The novel is set in three acts, as it were. Present-Past-Present. We are thrown into the middle of a certain situation, given a long flashback episode to explain how we got there, and then returned to the situation in time to see it come to its climax and continue on its way.

In brief:

Two British children meet in a small house in Paris. One, 11-year-old Henrietta, is breaking her journey from England to her grandmother’s home in Mentone. She is there for a few hours only, in between train connections. The other child is 9-year-old Leopold. He has travelled from Italy where he lives with his adoptive American family to meet with his real mother – whom he has never known since his birth – at her request.

There is a vast mystery surrounding Leopold and his origins; Henrietta is provided with the barest of explanations as to who he is and what he is there for, but she is warned not to speak of such things to him, or to anyone else.

The rest of the novel is involved with Leopold’s back story, and that of his mother, culminating with a sudden change in Leopold’s circumstances, which may or may not go well for him. Henrietta fades in to the distance, mute witness to what has gone on.

That’s all I am going to say, because otherwise I’d be here all the night! There’s a lot going on in here; Bowen puts her characters through the works.

One could open this book to any page and find a passage worthy of reading over and over and turning about in your mind like a sharply faceted gem, all a-glint with captured light. I will treat you to several which stood out for me, to give you a sense of the quality of the writing here.

It is a wary business, walking about a strange house you know you are to know well. Only cats and dogs with their more expressive bodies enact the tension we share with them at such times. The you inside you gathers up defensively; something is stealing upon you every moment; you will never be quite the same again. These new unsmiling lights, reflections and objects are to become your memories, riveted to you closer than friends or lovers, going with you, even, into the grave: worse, they may become dear and fasten like so many leeches on your heart. By having come, you already begin to store up the pains of going away.

and

She thought, young girls like the excess of any quality. Without knowing, they want to suffer, to suffer they must exaggerate; they like to have loud chords struck upon them. Loving art better than life they need men to be actors; only an actor moves them, with his telling smile, undomestic, out of touch with the everyday which they dread. They love to enjoy love as a system of doubts and shocks. They are right: not seeking husbands yet, they have no reason to see love socially. This natural fleshly protest against good taste is broken down soon enough; their natural love of the cad is outwitted by their mothers. Vulgarity, inborn like original sin, unfolds with the woman nature, unfolds with it quickly and has a flamboyant flowering in the young girl. Wise mothers do not nip it immediately; that makes for trouble later, they watch it out.

and

On the platform before their long journey, to speak of a next meeting would have been out of place… Good-byes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If to-day good-bye is not final, some day it will be; doorsteps, docks and platforms make you clairvoyant…

So there we have it.

Elizabeth Bowen.

Each word carefully, deliberately, elegantly placed where it will have the most impact.

I feel the tiniest bit out of my own humble place in boldly assigning a numerical rating to my reading of the book, but here it is: 9/10.

And then there’s this, from the back jacket of my edition. I remember comparing Bowen’s work to that of Rose Macaulay, before I knew of their connection. Called that one right, didn’t I?! I am beyond pleased with myself, as I’d already shelved these two together. Score one for the reader. Now, do I move Henry James, too? 😉

The Camomile by Catherine Carswell ~ 1922. This edition: Virago, 1987. Introduction by Ianthe Carswell. Paperback. ISBN: 0-86068-873-9. 305 pages.

I had already told him about my being an orphan, about my music teaching, and about my writing and Mother’s. Of my writing he said, ‘I see. It is like the camomile – the more it is trodden on the faster it grows.’

This rewarding short novel is written in epistolary form, being made up of two long letters, fore and aft, and journal entries made to be shared with a distant friend.

It starts out as the amusing and somewhat self-absorbed account of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, of finding her place in the world, and goes on to discuss some of the larger questions which are still pertinent to young people today: Who am I, really? Why am I here? Do I change to meet the desires of others, or stay true to myself?

Our young correspondent is Ellen Carstairs, just back in Glasgow after spending two years studying music in Frankfurt, writing to her London friend Ruby, whom she had met in her first days at the Frankfurt Conservatory of Music.

Ellen has found Ruby to be a kindred soul, for both soon realize that music is not their true métier, though they have some adequate talents in that area to perhaps serve as teachers of novices. They nevertheless do their best to take in their lessons and improve their musical craft, all the while yearning for a truly satisfying occupation, an “art” which will be their one true life’s pursuit, one which they are suited for and which they will excel at.

After their two years of relative freedom in Europe, the friends return home, and get on with the business of earning their livings while at the same time opening themselves up to finding and developing their true callings. For Ruby the true art – the one which chooses the artist – is that of illustration – drawing and painting. And for Ellen, it is writing. Which is a problem, at least as far as her family and friends are concerned.

For Ellen’s mother was a writer. Not a successful one – far from it! She appears to have been (from the clues we are given) a woman obsessed by the need to write without necessarily having enough mastery of the craft to make her scribblings saleable. She has pursued her interest to the exclusion of all else, spending the housekeeping money on self-publishing of pamphlets of sub-par poetry and the like.

This mother inadvertently neglects her two children, to the extent that her young son Ronald is permanently crippled through her heedless actions. Interestingly enough, when she dies when the children are still young, they and their father sincerely mourn her, harking back at her better qualities, and forgiving her (for the most part) her obsession.

Ellen’s missionary father has been absent for much of her childhood and he too is now dead, leaving Ellen and Ronald in the care of his sister Harriet, an Evangelical Presbyterian of unwavering faith. Neither Ellen nor Ronald share the narrow religious beliefs of their father and aunt, but they go along with Aunt Harriet’s wishes in church attendance and such, not wanting to hurt her feelings, for they love her deeply despite their increasing differences.

On her return from Germany, Ellen begins to teach music at her old school and to private students; she earns enough to be able to rent a room and a piano in a neighbour’s house, ostensibly so she can practice undisturbed and undisturbing. Soon she finds that she is using her retreat for writing more than for piano playing; her true art has chosen her and she gives in with secret relief, though she is wary of admitting it to her brother and aunt, and questions herself on the ethical implications of misleading them as to what she is doing.

Ellen fortuitously finds a mentor in an ex-priest, John Barnaby, a brilliant intellectual engaged in quietly, slowly killing himself by drink and near-starvation. John reads Ellen’s manuscripts and encourages her to seek publication, using his past connections in the literary world to push forward her novice submissions.

Just when things seem set for Ellen to commit fully to becoming a professional writer, she falls in love with Duncan, a friend’s brother who is a young doctor on leave from his practice in India. The two become engaged, but though Duncan gives lip service to his wish for Ellen to not give up her own interests, it becomes increasingly obvious that he is oblivious to the importance of her craft to her very identity.

Added to this building dilemma is the fundamental difference in Ellen’s and Duncan’s views towards sex. Ellen believes that people seriously considering marriage should engage in the ultimate intimacy, in order to make sure that they are compatible for a lifetime of marital companionship. Duncan is shocked by this notion, and condescendingly tells Ellen that she is merely a foolish virgin with outlandish ideas; much better to let Duncan guide her in her sexual initiation once they are safely married.

Can you see where this might be going?

Yes, indeed, second thoughts are in order all round…

No surprise that this novel was chosen by feminist press Virago for republication in the 1980s, for it is all about female self-determination in the face of almost universal societal disapproval.

Ellen documents her personal journey with passion and lucidity and not a little humour. This is not in any way a dreary saga of crushed and downtrodden womanhood. No indeed! For like the camomile referenced in the title, the heavy-footed treading here merely makes the flower find another place and way to thrive.

More on Catherine Carswell here.

The Camomile scores a good strong 8/10 from me.

Carswell’s one other novel, Open the Door! (1920) is now firmly on my wish list, as is her partial autobiography Lying Awake.