all among the barleyIt is 1934 and Edith is a 14-year-old girl living on her family’s farm somewhere in East Anglia. She has just left school and now helps her parents in the house and on the farm, while escaping into her obsessions with books and daydreams. Awkward, shy and clever, Edith didn’t quite fit in at school and has become increasingly lonely ever since her older sister Mary left home to get married. She feels as if she is waiting for something but she doesn’t know what.

One day a woman named Connie arrives from London to research rural life and traditions. The independent Connie seems very glamorous and sophisticated to Edith and even wins over some of the more reluctant villagers, persuading them to share their farming and household techniques, along with the old stories, songs and superstitions, so she can write them up for her magazine articles. But it gradually emerges that there is more to Connie than appears at first sight…

There are hints right from the start that Connie’s interest in the villagers is based on an ignorant and idealised preconception of country life, that she is patronising and seeing them as rural archetypes rather than as individual human beings. The novel cleverly shows how Edith is made uneasy by Connie’s approach but is not able to articulate why. She is young, vulnerable and bewitched by the promise of a different kind of life (urban, exciting, educated) that Connie brings with her. It is possible to sense from early on in the novel that Connie’s nostalgic views of the land and Britain’s rural heritage may be darker and more political than she first reveals, but it is still intriguing to see her true opinions being revealed and the reactions by the farmers as she tries to recruit them to her cause.

All Among The Barley is also a very compelling portrait of a young woman. Melissa Harrison writes very evocatively about Edith’s feeling of being an outsider and the incidents of sexual violence that she feels unable to speak about, about a teenage girl’s anger and what happens to it when it is unexpressed and cannot find an outlet. The way in which the reader can see Edith grow in independence and power only makes what happens towards the end of the novel all the more tragic.

What I particularly like about this novel is the way it portrays cultural appropriation, the relationship between researcher and subject, and how a way of life or group of people can be misrepresented by an outsider’s view. This is all written about in an understated way but it had a strong emotional impact on me and adds a self-reflective layer to the novel, deepening its exploration of these ideas and making the lives of John, Doble and Edith’s family seem even more precious and threatened.

There is also some vivid writing about the natural world and the countryside. As Edith becomes more disturbed, the descriptions become more intense, creating an almost supernatural quality to the landscape that stayed in my mind after I’d finished the book.

All Among the Barley brings to light historical events that I knew very little about (the growth of fascism in Britain in the 1930s and the treatment of some patients in mental hospitals throughout the 20th century) and is a deeply political book. Its strength lies also in the character of Edith and her struggles to work out her own opinions, express her feelings and find a place for herself in the world. The fact that this is prevented from happening makes the end of the book very unsettling and moving.

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I’m dropping in to this neglected blog as I wanted to look back on the past year’s reading and choose my favourites of the books I read in 2017. So, without further ado, here is my top ten…

1. Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley. A wonderful collection of short stories by one of my favourite contemporary authors. Each story is different in setting, characters and time period, but all have a strong atmosphere and emotional power.

2. The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman. I am really glad that Philip Pullman has returned to the world of Lyra – and to his fantastical imagined Oxford. The first volume of the new trilogy is vivid and magical, and continues to explore the absorbing philosophical ideas and world of His Dark Materials. It was fascinating to find out more about Lyra’s history and I also loved the fact that Pullman created a main character like Alice, who is much more than she appears at first.

3. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. Intense, complex and almost surreal, this novel explores psychological darkness and troubled characters but in a way that’s so full of life and spirit that you can’t help feeling hopeful. I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Deborah Levy at a local bookshop and it was very stimulating, with lots of ideas about psychology, writing, mythology and much more. She was a compelling speaker and responded to people’s questions in a generous, thoughtful way, which resulted in a very interesting discussion. I would definitely recommend going to one of her talks if you can.

4. A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. I discovered a new author with this brilliant, original collection of short stories.

5. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Set in nineteenth-century Scotland, this novel disguises itself as genuine historical documents describing a gruesome murder. The writing style sounds very authentic and is also witty, playful and surprisingly funny at times. I liked how the book collected a variety of documents so the reader has to try to piece together the truth. The novel very cleverly makes you change your mind and doubt your earlier theories and feelings.  I also felt sympathetic towards the main character and his family, and the oppression they suffered. The novel is very passionate about the lives of the crofters and their little-known world. An absorbing and entertaining read.

6. Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. This inventive and moving post-apocalyptic fantasy really captured my imagination.

7. The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. A very poignant story of a friendship between two men, which lasted for decades. With a narrative that moves through twentieth-century Europe, this is my favourite book by Rose Tremain so far.

8. Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak. This novel is set partly in modern-day Istanbul and partly in Oxford around the turn of the millennium. A thirty-something Turkish woman looks back on her university days and the charismatic tutor who taught her in an unconventional theology class. I really enjoyed the way the book explored religion, philosophy, the experience of university, friendships and growing up.

9. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. A compelling page-turner about a young nurse in nineteenth-century Ireland who is employed to look after a child who can apparently live without eating, I found The Wonder very enjoyable and absorbing.

10. A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer. I’d been put off Georgette Heyer’s novels as I knew she was mainly an author of romantic fiction and thought they would be too sentimental and not my cup of tea! However I was looking for something Christmassy to read so thought I’d try this detective novel. Well, I’d definitely got the wrong idea about her as A Christmas Party made me laugh out loud. I loved the wittiness of the dialogue and the characterisation. And it did have a side-plot of romance, but it was done with wit and style and wasn’t at all reminiscent of Mills-and-Boon.

My favourite new author of the year: Elif Shafak. I’ve now read a few books by Elif Shafak, having discovered her on Desert Island Discs, where she chose an intriguing mix of metal and Leonard Cohen and spoke in an interesting way about her life, religion, family and writing. I’ve particularly enjoyed reading her non-fiction essays and autobiographical writing, as I like her voice and the way she writes about her life as a woman and writer.

My favourite re-reads of the year: Philip Pullman (I’m currently re-reading the His Dark Materials trilogy after a gap of at least ten years and finding it even better the second time) and Jane Austen. When I went to Lyme Regis over the summer, I re-read Persuasion, which sets several dramatic scenes along the sea-front and the Cobb, followed by Pride and Prejudice, just because it’s my favourite Austen novel. I enjoyed seeing the displays about her at the museum in Lyme Regis (it is a lovely museum, which has lots of literary exhibits along with the geological and fossil collections for which Lyme Regis is known) and later in the year I went to an exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford, Which Jane Austen?, which showed how, contrary to some images of Austen, she was very engaged in the world around her.

Reading resolutions: My new year’s reading resolution is to make more effort to search for books that I am really interested in, instead of just reading what’s lying around or happens to be in the library. I want both to be more adventurous and to follow my own tastes more. 

Hot Milk coverI started reading Deborah Levy’s latest novel, Hot Milk, as I’d liked two of her previous books, Swimming Home and Things I Don’t Want To Know. Swimming Home is an unusual, dream-like novel about what happens when a strange young woman arrives and disrupts a family holiday in France. For me, it explored the different forms depression can take and the impact historical trauma can have on someone’s life. I probably enjoyed Things I Don’t Want To Know more. It is a collection of autobiographical essays based on the four motivations George Orwell ascribes to a writer in Why I Write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. These are the titles of the four essays in Levy’s book but the chapters relate to the titles in a subtle, tangential way, looking back at different periods of her life, including her childhood in South Africa. I found some of the book really moving, especially the parts about her growing up and finding her voice. What I like is how she writes about women’s experience in a stimulating, analytical way.

Her new novel Hot Milk focuses on a 20-something woman, Sophie, who comes to Almeria in Southern Spain with her mother, Rose, who is suffering from an unexplained illness which means she cannot walk and is dependent on Sophie for help with everyday life. The women have come to Spain to consult a well-known doctor whom they hope will be able to cure her. Chance encounters lead Sophie to Ingrid, a German seamstress who is in Spain with her boyfriend, and Juan, a student who works on the beach treating tourists who have been stung by the ‘medusa’, the translucent but deadly jellyfish which lurk in the sea. The novel has a few things in common with Swimming Home: the sense of overwhelming heat and vivid evocation of southern Europe, the strangeness of being in another country, a mysterious atmosphere. The plot however is very different and I found it a unique and captivating read.

The novel has a mythical feeling as it hints at hidden and fundamental emotions and passions. Its characters sometimes appear like Greek gods, while sometimes they are described as monsters. At the same time it’s a very contemporary novel, set in a recognisably modern world with 20-something characters, which makes it all the more intriguing. The novel explores fascinating subjects like psychosomatic illness and parent-child relationships, through writing that weaves a spell. It is poetic and elliptical but never heavy-going and has a sense of urgency and intensity to it that kept me engrossed.

Sophie has abandoned a PhD in anthropology because of her mother’s illness and is working in a cafe. It feels as if in many ways she is unable to start her life properly. As an anthropologist, she observes everything as an outsider and sometimes sees events through an anthropological lens, which I found interesting. She is an unpredictable, troubled character and you feel that she doesn’t understand herself well. In Spain she starts to follow her own impulses more and become bolder. Although an unconventional novel, Hot Milk is also a classic coming-of-age tale about a drive towards independence. There is an interlude where Sophie goes to Athens to visit her father, whom she never usually sees, and his new wife and child. In many ways this episode made me feel angry for Sophie because of the way she is treated, but in the end she rejects their way of life and actively chooses her own path. Sophie has no boundaries and is completely unaware of her own power, but all of this starts to change towards the end of the book.

There is a lot more to this novel than I have described here; I haven’t even talked about Sophie’s relationship with Ingrid, which is unsettling, possibly damaging and definitely ambiguous. Levy is clearly interested in exploring psychology, unconscious drives and the dynamics between people. Because of the scorching setting and dream-like atmosphere, this is an ideal summer read.

The WonderThe Wonder is an exciting and utterly absorbing novel that kept me hooked and turning pages to find out what happened next. Set in nineteenth-century Ireland, the story begins when a young English nurse, Lib Wright, arrives in a remote village. Lib has been hired for an unusual task: to keep watch over an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who appears to have survived for four months without food. Anna’s case has mystified even the village doctor and priest, and has attracted visitors from far and wide to marvel at this miraculous child. Lib’s task is simply to discover the truth, but her initial detached scepticism becomes more complicated as she spends time with Anna and it becomes clear the story is more mysterious than she thought.

It is best to read this novel knowing as little as possible about the story. While I will try to avoid giving away the main plot twists, there may be some spoilers in what follows…

First of all, I really appreciated the fact that Lib was a complex character, as this kept me intrigued and made her more likeable. She feels uncomfortable in the rural, superstitious environment she has suddenly been dropped into, and is very aware of her superior education and training, and the differences in religious beliefs between herself and the Irish Catholics. She isn’t particularly keen to ingratiate herself and comes across as rather brusque and haughty but I liked the fact she is opinionated and sticks to her principles. As we learn more about Lib’s background, it emerges that she experienced a loss which led her to sign up as a nurse in the Crimea under Florence Nightingale. I enjoyed following her irreverent observations and intelligent questioning of the events around her, while it slowly becomes clear that she is more emotional and passionate than she imagines.

I also found it interesting to learn about how anorexia was viewed in the nineteenth century, as either a sign of sainthood or as a possible medical advance; the deluded village doctor imagines that Anna is a more evolved type of human being and that if humans can survive without food, it will lead to an end to war and starvation. The connections with religion, especially in such a devout country, and with the potato famine in Ireland a few years previously make this a complicated and fascinating subject. Even when the shocking cause of Anna’s anorexia is revealed, a psychological reason based in her experience and family background, it remains intertwined with her obsessive religious rituals. I found it interesting that in the end only an appeal to spiritual notions of rebirth has a chance of saving her, when logic and science have failed.

The atmosphere of the novel was unsettling at times, a combination of the isolated rural setting among damp fields and peat bogs, the villagers’ beliefs in fairies and magical rituals, and some macabre details of nineteenth-century attitudes to death. The author vividly describes the effects of starvation on Anna’s body, the physical reality of anorexia as seen by the nurse contrasting with the idealised view embraced by the priest and doctor who fail to see the real girl behind their theories. The novel cleverly shows how Lib, although intelligent and an experienced nurse, is patronised and dismissed by the doctors as emotional and lacking in medical expertise. The novel builds up suspense and tension, especially towards the end, as Lib is determined to discover the truth and bring it to light.

The Wonder coverAnother aspect of the novel I really liked was Lib’s relationship with William Byrne, a young Irish newspaper reporter. Their dialogue was a pleasure to read and I enjoyed the skilful way that the author built up their relationship and showed how Lib behaved differently with William than with the other characters, showing more of her true self. I felt at certain points that their relationship was very modern and I wondered if it was completely true to the nineteenth century, but then maybe my view is coloured by reading certain Victorian novels and their portrayal of women as angelic and innocent. I’m not sure how possible or unusual it would have been to defy convention. In any case, I was so pleased to discover such a vivid and intriguing relationship in fiction and liked the characters of both William and Lib so much, that this didn’t detract much from my enjoyment.

I also found the last part of the novel to be less plausible than the earlier sections, which perhaps I noticed because the rest of the novel felt very convincing and I was completely caught up in the storytelling. However the conclusion felt emotionally satisfying to me and maybe The Wonder, as its title suggests, is not intended to be the most realistic novel ever. I certainly found the book gripping, passionate and vivid, exploring a fascinating subject with imagination.

Bad DreamsI was looking forward to reading Tessa Hadley’s new volume of short stories, Bad Dreams, but it was even better than I expected. I feel a strong connection to her writing, her contemporary settings and characters, and I couldn’t stop thinking about some of these stories afterwards. The stories in Bad Dreams range across different times and places but always focus on relationships and families, memories and women’s experiences, and the defining incidents in people’s lives: a moment of realisation, an event that set someone’s life on a different path or a childhood experience that they always remember.

There are many reasons that I like Tessa Hadley’s work so much: her characterisation and psychological insight, the way her characters seem alive, without any cliche whatsoever. The way she can describe and strongly evoke places, whether it’s suburbia in the 60s or modern-day Leeds and London. I especially notice the vivid way she describes houses and the secret life going on inside a home. Some of her stories miraculously capture a child’s point of view and the sense of viewing the adult world from an outsider’s perspective, with a child’s curiosity and anxiety and gradual understanding.

One of the most striking stories was the first, An Abduction, which is set in the 1960s and describes how a teenage girl ended up getting in a car with a group of older boys, students on holiday from university. Jane, the main character, is portrayed as ordinary, conventional, from a conservative background and lacking in confidence, while Daniel, the leader of the boys is charismatic, intellectual and self-destructive. The events of the story are surprising and show that Jane has more of a rebellious streak than first appears. The setting is rather dreamlike and nostalgic and to me it seemed to capture the youth culture of the 1960s and a sense of different worlds being thrown together. A sort of coda at the end of the story, which describes what happened to the characters later on, is very powerful, as it shows the different ways people can view the same event, how what is important and life-defining to one person can mean nothing to another, and how a successful person can have a buried past that not even they themselves really know about. There is a sort of understated anger and intensity to the ending.

Probably my favourite story however was Flight, the story of Claire, a 40-something woman with a successful career in America, returning to visit her childhood home and sister’s family in Leeds. I loved the way the family relationships were described and the sense of distance Claire felt from the others, which was something she had deliberately chosen and welcomed but also grieved over. I really liked how Hadley gradually revealed more about the family background and hinted that Claire was more troubled than she first seemed. The ending was perfectly written and I felt there was something heartbreaking about it.

Another story I enjoyed was The Stain, a story about a young woman working as a carer for a wealthy and elderly man. It’s a very realistic, contemporary story and it is really refreshing to see working-class characters who are complex and real and not cliched at all. A few stories move earlier into the 20th century; Deeds Not Words is set at the time of the first world war and women’s suffrage movement, while Silk Brocade is about two young seamstresses in the 1960s. Most of my favourites are the contemporary stories, however; apart from the ones I’ve mentioned, I really liked Experience, about a 20-something woman house-sitting for an older, more glamorous woman and what happens when she starts to reads her diaries. I felt this story had an emotional impact because of the contrast between the narrator, who feels she hasn’t really lived properly, and Hana with her destructive love affairs and unapologetic way of living. I really liked the way the narrator’s and Hana’s roles were reversed at the end of the story.

To sum up: in case it isn’t obvious, I thought this book was wonderful and I’m sure I will think about these stories for a long time to come.

Another Mothers SonSet in contemporary London, Another Mother’s Son is an intriguing and unusual novel which follows events in the lives of the narrator, Lorna, and her three sons as they struggle with adolescence and moving into adulthood.

Lorna, an archivist, is divorced from the boys’ father, Randal, who left her to start a new relationship and family. Oliver has left for university and hardly ever sees his mother, while Ross, the youngest son, has recently started going out with Jude, a girl from school, whose own parents are having difficulties in their marriage. Ewan, the eldest, is the most troubled, as he dropped out of university after a term and now lives in the attic room of Lorna’s house, barely speaking to her, not studying or working, and only occasionally leaving the house on solitary expeditions. The main focus of the novel, however, is an incident at Ross’s school involving his English teacher, Mr Child, and the consequences for the students and parents.

One thing I really liked about this book is the realistic way it describes modern urban life. Everyday details are narrated in a detached, emotionless tone, which distances the reader from them and makes them appear fresh and even slightly surreal at times. The deadpan narration brings out the humour or strangeness in minor events and encounters. It reflects Lorna’s alienation from most of the people around her: the parents at Ross’s school, her ex-husband, a disturbing visitor to her archive who wants to write a novel abut a historical transport disaster, and the irritating Jane, who appears to have set her sights on marrying Lorna’s elderly father.

The novel explores motherhood and more generally the relationships between the generations. Lorna sees her sons’ generation as under pressure and at risk from modern technology and social media in a way she wasn’t when growing up. Ross’s school, Lloyd-Barron Academy, is portrayed as a terribly unsympathetic, humourless and over-regulated environment. The headmaster is obsessed with management-speak and only concerned with marketing and creating a perfect image for the school. Meanwhile, the group of middle-class parents and their attempts to interfere with issues at school is described precisely and wittily.

The dialogue between Lorna and her sons seemed very believable to me. I could feel Lorna’s anxiety and attempts to build relationships with her sons, as well as their irritation with her. The relationship between Lorna and Jude was interesting because they seemed to grow to like each other, despite their initial awkwardness and distance. Lorna sees everything from the outside as no one really confides in her and so she has to piece events together, always discovering the truth later than others.

Although I liked the book, I found its events at times almost too mundane and disconnected from each other, lacking in any meaning. I was most interested in the events at Ross’s school, the interactions between the parents and teachers. The novel left me wanting more; for example I found Ewan’s situation intriguing and wanted to explore that. I wondered why he seemed to have given up on life and spent his time in bed or sitting at his desk for hours on end. I liked the description of his intricate artwork, elaborately drawn but executed in the most throw-away materials possible, cheap biro and lined A4 paper. Perhaps the mystery and lack of explanation reflected the way Lorna felt, as if she had no idea how Ewan had reached this point and had already exhausted all possible ways of helping him. The whole novel is written in a muted, melancholic tone, as if Lorna is just watching events unfold and is unable to help her sons or have any impact on the world around her.

I have now read and enjoyed all Janet Davey’s novels. Another Mother’s Son seemed a more personal book than the others, with its introspective first-person narration. If you enjoy fiction by Anita Brookner and Tessa Hadley, I would recommend picking up Davey’s books.

Certain Women

Recently I went to see Certain Women, the new film by American director Kelly Reichardt, which tells three separate but very loosely connected stories about women living in the US state of Montana. It is the kind of film which divides opinion. In the group I went with, most people found it slow, boring or pointless, and I noticed a few audience members left the cinema before the end of the film. So I feel the need to write about it and explain why I liked this film so much.

The stories in Certain Women are told slowly but so realistically that I became absorbed in the women’s lives. The film shows people going about everyday life in the same way that the French director Eric Rohmer’s films do, revealing how it feels to live that particular life in those circumstances and environment. While Rohmer’s films are usually about groups of middle-class characters and the relationships between them, Certain Women focuses on both middle and working-class characters, the experiences of solitude, loneliness and self-sufficiency, and the difficulties in connecting with other people. It’s not true to say that nothing happens; quite a lot happens but it’s presented in a low-key, realist style and partly happens internally, within the characters’ emotions. The film gives you time and space to immerse yourself in the characters and the beautiful, remote, sometimes desolate setting, a place of vast mountains, small towns, diners and empty highways.

The first story follows a lawyer, Laura, played by Laura Dern, who is representing William (Jared Harris), a middle-aged man who wants to bring a court case against his previous employer. It emerges that there was some sort of incident at work and William suffered injuries and ongoing health problems and no longer works. It becomes clear that he is spending a lot of time at the lawyer’s office, turning up uninvited, and carries a lot of anger towards his former employer. It turns out that it is impossible for him to bring the court case because he has already agreed to take the small compensation initially offered to him by his employer. Laura has been attempting to explain this to him for months, but it takes a male lawyer to tell him before he can accept the truth. Laura’s relationship with William is complicated, as she sympathises with his situation and endeavours to be kind to him but also feels uncomfortable with his erratic behaviour and threats of destruction. At one point he insists on getting in the car to drive home with her and then says he wants to shoot his employers with a machine-gun. In this unnerving situation Laura tries hard to maintain boundaries and a professional distance. Somehow Kelly Reichardt manages to capture on film the way in which a woman can feel unsafe in very mundane, undramatic circumstances. I don’t know how the film achieves this; maybe it’s through the cinematography, which I remember in those scenes as being cramped and oppressive, or the excellent, emotionally convincing acting by Laura Dern and Jared Harris.

The story progresses when William takes a security guard hostage at his former employer and Laura is called in to help speak to him and persuade him to give himself up to the police. I found this section absorbing because it was so realistic, capturing the way it might feel to be caught up in this situation and all the small decisions Laura needs to make to achieve her aim, while obviously feeling fear and anxiety. William makes a bargain with Laura but she fails to keep her side of it. The scene ends with a shot of Laura, with an expression perhaps of doubt over whether she had made the right decision or of pain that she had betrayed William, even though she did what she needed to do as a lawyer and to prevent a crime taking place.

The second story follows Gina (Michelle Williams), who is married with a daughter. In contrast to Laura, she is less solitary and more involved in family life. She seems harassed and impatient with her husband and moody teenage daughter. I found Gina’s character the least appealing of all the women portrayed, as she seemed quite hard and even slightly ruthless, and I found her story rather disconcerting. We find out that Gina and her husband Ryan (James LeGros) are building a new house. They decide to stop at the home of Albert (Rene Auberjonois), an elderly man they know, to persuade him to give them some sandstone that is on his property. Those few words summarise the plot of this section of the film. For me, the film focuses on the sense of unease surrounding this decision, as Albert is confused and it is unclear if he understands what they are suggesting. They initially offer him money but in the end he is not paid. Although he did agree to give them the stones, it is debatable whether they should have tried harder to pay him. The scenes between the characters also felt awkward as it is clear that Albert is very lonely and vulnerable but Gina and Ryan are only really visiting him to try and obtain the sandstone. Both Ryan and Gina do have some doubts about whether to proceed, but the last time we see Gina she is looking at the stones contentedly, maybe envisaging the house they will build. Maybe, as Gina suggests, they will make something wonderful from the stones to make up for the way they came into their possession.

The final section is probably the most emotionally powerful of all three. Kristen Stewart plays a young lawyer, Beth, who is teaching an evening class on school law to a group of bored teachers in a small town called Belfry. The grumpiness and apparent reluctance of the teachers to be there results in some amusing moments. Jamie (Lily Gladstone), a young woman who works on a ranch nearby, also attends the class and the film depicts the relationship developing between the two. Beth tells Jamie that she is driving four hours each way from the city of Livingston to teach the class, in need of extra money and experience as she is just starting out in her career, and she is obviously exhausted. Jamie lives an isolated life on the ranch. It is clear she loves horses and other animals and the work suits her very well, but her life seems very lonely and lacking in human connection. The film evokes strongly, both through the way the scenes are cut and filmed and through Lily Gladstone’s wonderful acting, how the law class is the highlight of Jamie’s week and the focus for all her hopes. She tells Beth she wasn’t enrolled but just walked into class when she saw other people go in, this detail showing her desire for human contact and company. This story mostly takes place at night, and the dark, quiet settings, from the ranch to the diner to the schoolroom in the evening, conjure up a mood of mystery and isolation. We can see how Jamie is falling in love with Beth, while Beth is friendly but concerned with her own problems and mainly sees Jamie as someone to unload to. She sees her time in Belfry as transitory and peripheral to her real life.

When it is announced that Beth will not be teaching the class any longer, Jamie on impulse drives the four hours to Livingston to find Beth. Her early morning wanderings round Livingston reveal the contrast between rural and city life. She looks curiously through softly-lit windows at people talking in late-night cafes or bars, as if seeing a life she didn’t know existed. Meanwhile, a shop window displays cowboy hats and check shirts, the ranch lifestyle being sold to wealthier city dwellers. The film perfectly captures the sense of dislocation experienced in the small hours of the morning. Eventually Jamie finds Beth and in a sad scene understands that Beth is not interested in a relationship with her. It is all the more poignant because Jamie doesn’t express her disappointment to anyone; all she can do is get in the car and drive away again. The film leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Although I very much empathised with Jamie and felt she was a very likeable character, I could understand Beth’s reaction, as she perhaps found it disturbing to realise the feelings Jamie had built up for her without her knowledge. I felt there was a link to the first story, with Laura and William, in that a greater connection between the characters was prevented by the need for self-protection.

When I watched the film, I felt it was like reading short stories and it reminded me a little of the writing of Alice Munro. I discovered afterwards that it is based on short stories by an American writer called Maile Meloy. The sense of short stories remains in the interiority and introspective nature of the film, the feeling that it is exploring the significance of these events to the characters, giving glimpses of their histories and emotional lives. The three sections are very loosely related to one another (for example, one character appears in both the first two) but there are no real connections between the stories. Maybe the real connection is the mood or atmosphere of the film, which weaves a spell around all the characters. It depicts self-contained episodes in these characters’ lives but the film ends by returning to each of them in turn, without a clear resolution, with a sense that there is more to be imagined and known about these four women.