Monthly Archives: March 2014

From a Distance by Raffaella Barker

My hardback review copy of Raffaella Barker’s latest novel From a Distance (released May 2014) came courtesy of a Goodreads giveaway. And what a beautifully packaged book it is too. David Mann’s jacket designs are gorgeous and this one is no exception.

From a Distance has two parallel stories. The first starts in 1946 when returning soldier Michael gets off his ship in Southampton and instead of turning right to go home to Norfolk, where his parents and unexciting girlfriend Janey are waiting, decides he can’t face life with them yet and turns left to Cornwall.

The contemporary story is told from two different points of view – the first is Luisa’s and the second is Kit’s. A mother of three, Luisa is consumed by her busy domestic life at Green Farm House. She worries about her eldest daughter who has flown the nest on a gap year. A gap year? On a teacher’s salary when a three year degree now costs £27,000?

Luisa is half Italian and descended from a family whose business was ice-cream. Since her eldest left home she’s been busy working on a food start-up, resurrecting the family ice-cream business. And it is the foodie descriptions of making ice-cream which I enjoyed the most about this book, and where I felt that the writer really lets rip describing these pleasures. Food, it seems, is Luisa’s substitute for a satisfying love life.

Her teacher husband, Tom seems distant and busy with work. His pet name for Luisa is Tod and he pats her on the shoulder and says stuff like, ‘good effort, Tod,’ No wonder she’s interested when Kit from Cornwall walks into her life.

Kit runs a successful textile business and has been so busy with work that he’s had no time for love since his wife died. His mother left him a lighthouse in Norfolk, tenanted and taken care of by a lawyer. He’s been too busy (and presumably wealthy enough) until now to bother to even go look at his new holiday home. Lucky old Kit.

This book is beautifully written with lovely descriptions and details yet is let down by characters who don’t seem to have any flaws and there are occasional weaknesses in some of the dialogue too. The pace of the two stories is too slow and I skipped some of the more introspective parts of the historical story in the first half. It was either that, or give up and it isn’t until the last third that there is any real momentum to the story.

When Luisa and Kit meet at the lighthouse the meeting seems forced. Luisa catches Kit talking to the trespassing sheep and for some strange reason, ‘he decided to call them all Virginia.’ And then he starts to talk to one and introduces himself with a ‘do you like it here, Virginia?’ Most women would have beaten a hasty retreat by now, but Luisa isn’t so easily put off. There is a lot of banter in this scene with dialogue that is both clumsy and awkward. There are only so many gags you can make about trespassing sheep and there is little here that drives the story or reveals character, which I found irritating.

There are a number of references to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Kit’s mother had an inscribed copy, the inscription which reads: ‘I still dream of you.’ Kit has never read the book ‘and probably wouldn’t do now, he’d never been keen on those novels about nothing much.’ And of course there’s the lighthouse on the book cover, with its potent sexual imagery. And for some odd reason Luisa too has a sudden thought about Virginia Woolf when trying to balance a toy lighthouse on one of her showstopper desserts at Kit’s housewarming.

While I bought into Luisa’s life I found it harder to be convinced by some of Michael’s introspection in the post-war story. Some of his concerns seem to be rather too 21st century for a returning soldier. Michael’s love interest in Cornwall is fabric designer Felicity. Michael frets that he doesn’t belong in that world of the artists’ community but the trouble is I am none the wiser what that world was from this novel. Michael is happy with his life with Felicity and when his son is born his life should be complete. Yet it is at this point he decides it’s now time to go back to his old life in Norfolk, a motivation, which I don’t really comprehend. So he abandons his son, which his girlfriend accepts without so much as a murmur, yet alone a demand for financial support and Michael returns to Janey and has two children with her. Janey too is the forgiving sort and lets Michael off the hook by telling him he doesn’t need to tell her what he’s been up to in Cornwall.

In the contemporary story, Luisa and Kit continue to flirt by text message as Luisa by now has the hots for her new neighbour and him with her. Luisa frocks up in her most revealing dress and they dance together at Kit’s housewarming party while Tom, Luisa’s husband barely notices.

But the big reveal of the story means it’s impossible for these two to be together, which is a big let down. This is, after all, Middle England. Luisa has to put her sexuality away and button up her cardigan and go back to making different flavours of ice-cream. Yet it was Luisa herself who tells us, ‘today, Luisa found she was suffused with a gnawing regret for the things she had never done. She hadn’t ridden a motorbike, she hadn’t lived in another country, and she hadn’t kissed the wrong man.’ You just wish she had.

 

Beside the Seaside – Review of Dear Mr Bigelow

A provincial British seaside town in 1952. No, not the Brighton of Graham Greene, but Bournemouth. Doesn’t sound promising, does it?  Yet Frances Woodsford’s Dear Mr Bigelow, a collection of her letters about her life reminds us how much the world has changed since then yet so much remains the same.

On a trip up to London, she describes the ten days of ‘long drawn out agony’ of public mourning for the death of King George.  A family numb with grief on public display, where in this case the Queen Mother appearing lonely and lost, reminded me of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. 

This is but one sombre note amongst a set of mostly resolutely cheerful and delightful letters describing her life. Her purpose in writing to pen friend Paul Bigelow, (who she always addressed as ‘Mr Bigelow’ as they had never met) was to brighten up the lonely elderly man’s life. His daughter Rosalind had been very kind to Frances after the Second World War, sending her food and clothes parcels from America as it was not until 1954, fourteen years after the end of the war that rationing finally ceased in Britain. Wine, chocolate and biscuits were treats, brought out on very special occasions, not everyday indulgences as they are now.

The author comes across as immensely likeable, who hardly ever moaned or thought of herself – so refreshing compared with modern life. And Frances had every reason to moan – but she never gives in to self-pity. After her wealthy father’s death, his business collapsed leaving the family with nothing. Frances, a bright student had to abandon her education and leave school to put food on the table. She took a job far below her capabilities – as a secretary working in the Public Baths Department of the local town council. 

Frances, her mother and brother lived in a rented flat, but despite having to count every penny, Frances filled her life with cultural riches, making the most of every precious moment of free time. She is engaged, interested, and oh so alive. Whether Frances is describing adventurous outings, the fickle British weather, or her trips to the theatre, her enthusiasm is infectious. 

When she lets down her guard and reveals the real Frances is where Dear Mr Bigelow is at its most engaging.  Frances confesses how much she has come to enjoy writing what she refers to her as her ‘Saturday Specials.’  She has a wicked sense of humour and describes the best and the worst of the people in her life, so much so that they become characters in the book.

The reason that I didn’t give this a five star rating is that the structure of the book doesn’t allow for a proper conclusion, but this is an editing problem, rather than a fault of the writing.  When Paul Bigelow dies we never get to find out what impact that had on the author’s life when she no longer had those Saturday Specials to write, nor do we find out what happened to the other ‘characters’ in the book.  It wouldn’t have needed much, just an endnote to tie up a few of those loose ends. But this isn’t Hollywood, and real life doesn’t always tie up so neatly, does it?

 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

 

‘Plato says the purpose of philosophy is to teach us how to die.  There’s nothing to learn unless we’re living. In death we’re equal. It has that advantage over life,’  so says philosophy student Gauri who falls for idealistic, rebel Udayan. Udayan is the brother of Subhash, and as children in 1960s Calcutta, they are inseparable. But as the children grow, Udayan is drawn into a Maoist political movement, the Naxalite that tries (and ultimately fails) to take on India’s post-independence government.

Like so many of those who are drawn to political causes, all Udayan can do is be in the moment and fight for his beliefs.  He is too young and self-righteous to see how his actions will impact on those around him and puts his politics before his family – as so many radicalised young men do. The Lowland examines the long term impact on one ordinary family, left behind to pick up the pieces when the freedom fight is stopped in its tracks.

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies and The Lowland is only her second novel.  The Lowland was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and once again revisits a familiar theme, of the sense of disconnection and alienation felt by those, in this case Bengalis, who make a new life in the West.

The story is set in Tollygunge Calcutta and Rhode Island (described in loving detail that it comes as no surprise that Lahiri grew up there).  It is told from three different points of view – Subhash, Udayan’s brother who chooses to leave his homeland behind and travels to America to further his career; from Gauri, the quiet, bookish girl who married Udayan, and finally from the point of view of Udayan himself.

The hardest character to fathom is Gauri as although she has moved to the West, like many migrants, she cherry picks the best of the new country, but her heart and soul remains firmly stuck in her old culture.  She seems incapable of addressing her emotional problems, preferring to transfer all her passive energy into an education and an academic career while at the same time being unable to parent her daughter Bela and to take care of her emotional needs. Then there is Subhash, who chose to take Gauri with him to America to offer her a new life abroad, but whom Gauri also rejects because he is no substitute for Udayan.  

At times, the story is as grey as the pebbles on those Rhode Island beaches Lahiri describes so well.  And Lahiri does at least give us some hope for these characters, allowing Subhash happiness in later life and for Gauri there is a glimmer of hope that there may be some sort of redemption. It’s just a shame that Gauri’s philosophical beliefs were, for too long skewed towards the dying and not the living. But despite my slight irritation with Gauri, The Lowland is so beautifully written and ultimately gripping that it was hard to put down.

Lambert Nagle Cooks Rhubarb Pie

ImageI’d be lying to you if I told you I grew this rhubarb.  Nor did I cycle down to the farmers’ market to buy it either because it’s not on until next weekend. I’d forgotten this, of course while I was in Sainsbury’s, impulse buying these glossy pink stalks. But when I realised, it was a relief – one less thing to feel guilty about.  There’s enough guilt-ridden angst in the world without that….

One example of which is that while I was trying to get to Somerset from Hampshire for a 10.30am start yesterday, my GPS decided it would be a really good idea to take a scenic shortcut via Glastonbury.  Only it hasn’t been watching the news, has it? The Somerset Levels, an area of around 20 square miles, usually all green fields and countryside has been underwater for weeks. And all I could think about – as I hurtled down the umpteenth country road only to come to yet another road block was, Woe is Me. When I should have been thinking about what it must be like for the locals after all these weeks. It hasn’t been possible to drive in or out of some of these places since before Christmas.

So I abandoned the GPS, pulled myself together and got out my Google Map and found my way and even managed to get to Taunton barely five minutes late.  So I hope you’ll forgive me today for feeling a little tired today after my 200 mile drive and just this once forgetting to check where the ingredients for Sunday lunch came from. It’s only rhubarb, innit?  Why would anyone go to the trouble of importing a vegetable (yes, it’s not even a fruit) that will remain forever unfashionable? Because unlike kale you can’t whizz rhubarb into a smoothie –  in its raw state it gives you terrible belly ache…

So I suppose I should be including a recipe for Humble Pie rather than Rhubarb Pie, when it turns out I was wrong and it wasn’t grown in the UK at all but in The Netherlands. Who knew rhubarb was even worth cultivating under glass, being put on a lorry and then sailing across the North Sea to where we grow loads of the stuff ourselves….

But I’d got it home by then and was hankering for old-fashioned rhubarb pie – like the one my grandmother used to make.  But that one was really more like a rhubarb sandwich – layered between buttery shortcrust pastry.  You could get away with pudding like that in the 1960s because you’d probably dug the rhubarb up yourself, walked to the shops for the rest of the ingredients or taken the bus and then lugged the shopping home, like she used to do.  But this is the 21st century and although I did happen to walk to the supermarket, I’m not going to rub that one in. Besides, you’ve probably been to the gym this morning.

And if you have. you aren’t going to thank me for a double whammy of pastry – even professional rugby players aren’t allowed pastry, it’s supposed to be that bad for you… But if you fancy rhubarb pie for Sunday lunch my solution is to have just one layer of pastry and put it on top and cut down on the sugar in the filling.  But then again, you might have had it up to here with parsimony and plan to eat it with custard or clotted cream or ice-cream.

RHUBARB PIE

Preheat the fan-assisted oven to 180C.

PASTRY

2oz ice cold butter or vegetable shortening

2oz fine wholemeal

2oz plain flour (or use all plain flour if you want it to look less rustic)

milk for brushing over the uncooked pastry

caster sugar for sprinkling on top before baking

Up to 1 tbs water added a drop at a time

METHOD

Cube butter, add flour and combine in a food processor and pulse until the consistency of fine breadcrumbs

Add the water one drop at a time and pulse until the pastry combines in a ball and leaves the sides of the bowl clean

Rest the pastry in the fridge for half an hour while you make the filling

FRUIT

600gm Rhubarb chopped into batons about half an inch wide

150g Sugar or the equivalent of xylitol

2tsp Arrowroot

1tsp dried ginger

METHOD

Roll the rhubarb in the sugar and arrowroot and then put in a 22cm shallow pie dish

Bake the rhubarb for 15 minutes or until it’s beginning to soften.  Check the consistency. If the fruit is too juicy you will need to drain some liquid off – as the last thing we want is the pastry lid to collapse into the fruit.

Roll out the pastry to a thickness that you can roll over a rolling pin. Place on top of the pie carefully. You can crimp the pastry at the sides if you can be arsed or want to be fancy. Brush lightly with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar. Bake for 30 minutes or until the pastry is crisp. Serves 6 city slickers or 4 in the West Country, as I was reminded yesterday.