Monthly Archives: May 2011

Picture: Baigneuse (1910) by Leon Spilliaert

The main character of this novel is a dog. Not just any old pet, he is something of a celebrity: the Black Dog of depression. In her debut novel, Rebecca Hunt takes the often-used metaphor and transforms it into a very physical character who alternately charms, irritates, menaces and seduces his victims.

Set in 1964, the novel tells two interlocking stories, initally only connected by the presence of Mr Chartwell. The first is the story of Winston Churchill, who suffered from episodes of depression throughout his life and in fact was the person who popularised the image of the ‘black dog’ to describe this illness. At the age of 89, Churchill is facing his retirement from parliament. One morning he wakes to find a familiar but unwelcome canine guest lurking in his room. Meanwhile, a young librarian called Esther has advertised for a lodger to live in her spare room, and is surprised to find that the Mr Chartwell who turns up on her doorstep is a monstrous 6ft 7 labrador. She has never seen him before, but as the story progresses, it emerges that Mr Chartwell is not a complete stranger to her… The book takes place over a few days, following Esther and Churchill’s conversations and struggles with Mr Chartwell (or Black Pat as he is less formally known).

I found this book a very intense and interesting exploration of depression. I think making the illness into a character meant the author could really examine and analyse depression and draw out its many facets. I liked the way Black Pat constantly appeared at very plausible moments for both characters, when they are talking to friends or relatives, looking in a mirror, taking a bath. They attempt to ignore and outwit him by pretending to scribble notes or to read but are always aware of his looming presence. Black Pat is a constant distraction, which seems to reflect the way depression removes people from the present, makes it difficult to concentrate and interferes with relationships. So when Churchill is talking to his wife, or Esther with her friends, Black Pat is constantly interjecting and threatening to sabotage their relationships. He is like the critical voice inside your head that just won’t shut up. I have to say that I couldn’t see the charm in Mr Chartwell at all, I found him very annoying and was always hoping he would (as Churchill puts it) bugger off. However, as becomes increasingly clear throughout the book, he is a complex character, with mixed motivations and the capacity for sympathy as well as a compelling hunger, and it’s suggested he is forced to do what he does because of the unusual contract between him and his victims. In the book, Churchill refers to it as a ‘vile alliance’, or, in a beautiful image, depression is  ‘a dark star in the constellation that forms me’.

The book raised some interesting questions about the attractions of depression, since on some level Esther does like and welcome Black Pat. She invites Black Pat to become her lodger and sometimes feels forlorn and bereft when he is away. I don’t really agree with the (possible) implication that it is a choice to be depressed because I think of clinical depression as an illness, although I can see that it is possible to surrender to melancholy, just as it is possible to fight against it. Mr Chartwell can be a comfortingly familiar companion. He is a ‘gothic seducer’, portrayed in a very physical way in the book. I liked the way the author describes the dog very vividly so that the reader can really imagine his huge bulk, the way he eats, his expressions, the way he can lie heavily in a corner of the room or on top of Churchill’s chest to prevent him from moving. Esther feels a weird physical attraction: ‘She imagined putting her arms around that neck…feeling it react with shimmering strength. His blackness was radiant in the rising dusk. A handsome spectre, he let her look.’ At other times, the physical nature of Mr Chartwell can be utterly repulsive and disturbing, which I think reflects the more serious side of depression.

Despite the parallels between the stories of Esther and Churchill, their encounters with Mr Chartwell are fairly different. Esther is young and it’s her first entanglement with the black dog, while he has been a constant visitor to Churchill, which in a way makes him easier to deal with and in another way a greater burden. Although I don’t know much about the details of his real life, I liked the way Rebecca Hunt fictionalised Churchill, as his voice came across as both poetic and witty, and it left me with an admiration for the way he coped bravely with the depression that afflicted him and several members of his family. The relationship between Churchill and his wife Clementine, who obviously love eachother very much, was quite moving. As the plot develops, the lives of Esther and Churchill are drawn closer together, and I was interested to see where the connection between the former prime minister of Britain and this young unknown woman working at Westminster would lead.

I probably haven’t given much idea of the humour of this book, which makes it really enjoyable to read. Some people might find Mr Chartwell amusing (although I think I mainly just disliked him), but I found the most entertaining characters were Esther’s friends, Beth and Big Oliver, and especially her awful boss, Dennis-John, who gives her amusingly insulting advice about her work, such as ‘do everything right, do it silently, paste on some rouge, wear something coherent with other women your age…’ Overall, I’d very much recommend this funny and moving novel, and look forward to seeing what Rebecca Hunt writes next.



As well as being a wonderful writer, Penelope Fitzgerald had quite an inspiring literary career; she was sixty years old when her first novel was published but she went on to write eight others, plus several biographies, receive great critical acclaim, and win the Booker prize. Before beginning to write, she had various jobs that later inspired some of her novels, including editing a literary journal, running a bookshop, working for the BBC, and teaching at a theatrical school. The novel I like best is The Blue Flower, but The Bookshop comes a close second. The Means of Escape is a volume of her short stories, and I found this small collection of eight stories just as interesting and beautifully written as her novels.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s fiction covers a wide variety of subjects, and she writes elegantly and apparently effortlessly about people living in many different times and places. The characters in The Means of Escape range from a small boy who loses a locket in seventeenth-century England, to a rector’s daughter in nineteenth-century Tasmania, and a group of Victorian painters in Brittany. For some reason, I always feel her writing seems very authentic and each story is like spying down a telescope for a few moments into a completely different world. Some of the stories in the book are very brief, only little snapshots, but they all leave a strong and usually quite odd impression. Beehernz, the story of a visit to an ancient and eccentric musician on a remote Scottish island, was one of this kind, leaving me both wondering what it all means, and wishing for more about these unusual characters.

I liked the title story, about a young woman who helps an escaped convict she meets in church, and At Hiruharama, a moving story about a young couple expecting a child in New Zealand. Both of these stories reminded me of The Blue Flower, as they perform a similar trick of creating a very vivid image of the past and then returning to the present where all we have are old letters or keepsakes, admitting that there are some things, intangible things like thoughts and motivations, that we will never know, and that the reader has to imagine for him or herself. The story that has just been read is lost in the distant past, and its secrets will never be truly revealed.

The blurb on my copy points out the theme of ‘misunderstandings and missed opportunities’ in these stories. Some of the stories did leave me with a rather bittersweet feeling that the characters had missed some chance of happiness in their lives, that another person had entered their world for a moment but hadn’t been properly understood, and had disappeared before anything could really change. The Red-Haired Girl, about an artist and the servant girl who models for him, had this melancholy air about it. However, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, as the stories aren’t at all depressing; they are full of wit and absurdity, and make me laugh just as often as they make me feel a little sad! And Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing varies so much that there are many different themes and emotions in her work. The Axe, one of my favourites in this book, is a brilliantly creepy story about redundancies in an office, written in a very clever way as a report from an office worker to his manager.

I would love to know if other people enjoy Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing, and if anyone has read any of her non-fiction books.


Being a fan of Haruki Murakami has made me become interested in learning more about Japan and reading more Japanese literature. The only other Japanese author I had read until now was Banana Yoshimoto, whose books I’ve also enjoyed a lot, but I would definitely like to discover more contemporary authors. So I am taking part in the Hello Japan! challenge for May at In Spring it is the Dawn, which is on the subject of ‘Mystery and Mayhem’ and has given me a good reason to read a Japanese mystery story! I decided to read Out by Natsuo Kirino, which won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1998, and is a crime thriller about how four women who work together in a packed lunch factory are drawn into a murder.

This novel isn’t a mystery or detective novel in the usual sense, as we know who the criminals are from the start; it is more of a psychological thriller exploring motivation, which is what makes it interesting. The plot is initially about how the women were driven to crime to escape their unhappy and dreary lives, and then follows the aftermath of the murder and the women’s desperate attempts to escape suspicion as their crime gradually comes to light. At the opening of the novel, the four women at the factory already have a strange bond between them, despite the differences in their circumstances and personalities. They are drawn together even more closely when Yayoi, a young mother, impulsively kills her unfaithful, gambling-addict husband, and asks her friend Masako for help in covering up her crime. When Masako confides in the other two women, Kuniko and Yoshi, they also become involved in dismembering and hiding the body. Soon they are all in danger, not only from the police but also from a local nightclub owner, Satake, the police’s top suspect, who has lost everything and wants revenge on the real killer.

What I found interesting about this book was the relationships between the women, their day-to-day experiences and different characters, and what drew each of them away from their mundane and uneventful lives to become involved with such a violent crime. Their motives vary from the urgent need for money to pay off debts, to loyalty and friendship, and a darker, less definable desire for excitement and an escape from everyday reality. Masako is probably the most intriguing character, as she is intelligent, independent and enigmatic. She is somehow able to detach her emotions and cope with covering up the murder, treating it at the start almost as a puzzle she has to solve. Although Masako is quite damaged, I felt the author gets inside her head so that she is also the most sympathetic of the four.

I don’t usually read much crime fiction, and at times I found this book difficult to read because of the explicit violence. The exploration of very dark thoughts was also disturbing (although that must be the point…), especially in the character of Satake, whose psychopathic tendencies and twisted emotional life are quite chilling. What stood out for me in this novel was the very believable depiction of how an apparently ordinary person could become involved with murder, and the juxtaposition of everyday life with the crime, which at times results in black humour. The way in which the women co-operate is also interesting and is a kind of parody of the way they work together on the assembly line at the factory. I felt as if the book was written from a feminist angle, focusing on the way women in particular are worn down by the hard lives they might lead, and the many instances of misogyny they encounter from day to day.


I usually like books about unexpected relationships, about why apparently unlikely people are attracted to eachother. So as soon as I picked up this book and read the blurb, I immediately thought I would enjoy it and I wasn’t disappointed; in fact, I loved it! It is a novel of the 1950s about an unusual love affair that disrupts a very traditional marriage. Imogen is attractive, graceful, gentle, self-sacrificing, a kind of feminine ideal of the time, and thus seems to be the perfect wife for Evelyn, a successful and handsome barrister. However, she gradually notices, to her astonishment, that a mutual attraction is developing between her husband and their frumpy, brusque neighbour, Blanche. The Tortoise and the Hare is about this relationship and its effect on Imogen and Evelyn’s marriage, played out amongst a host of intriguing minor characters.

Evelyn has a demanding career in London, while Imogen waits for him at home in their Berkshire village, attempting rather unsuccessfully to cater to his every need. As they have help in the home from Miss Malpas, the housekeeper, Imogen in fact has very little to occupy her time and this idleness is heightened by her naturally impractical and dreamy temperament. Although she has a lot of leisure time, she does not seem to have much freedom. She feels herself to be the most powerless member of the household, being apparently subordinate to her husband, Miss Malpas and even her eleven-year-old son Gavin, who all seem to consider her rather incompetent and unintelligent, and treat her with varying degrees of contempt.

The title of the book shows immediately that this will be something of a fable, and although there’s not really an obvious ‘moral’, it does set up two diametrically opposed characters, Imogen and Blanche, and plays out the race between them. The title also suggests from the start the idea of competition and rivalry as an aspect of relationships and marriage. For example, Imogen remembers socialising with the friends of her youth, before she married Evelyn:

In those days they had practised among themselves and on everyone they knew a kind of sexual rating. When they spoke of a match they could decide immediately, to their own satisfaction at least, which of the parties had had the luck, which should consider themselves as only too fortunate and be prepared to conduct themselves accordingly. Money and social standing modified the sexual rating a little, and it was considered, too, that the woman in order to equal the man in this calculation must have a higher level of charm and desirableness than his, because there were too many women, and because often the man was going to become steadily more eligible long beyond the point at which the woman would begin to be less so.

One reason why The Tortoise and the Hare is so engrossing is that Blanche’s romantic ‘success’ turns upside down Imogen’s ideas about attractiveness. Attraction in this novel is mysterious and outside the control of society’s wisdom, ‘a chemical sexual affinity which can exist without any of the outward attractions or graces’. In addition, although Blanche doesn’t have any of the qualities that the ideal 1950s wife should have, Evelyn is attracted to her competence and more conventionally masculine qualities; she is very knowledgeable about the countryside, sits on many local committees, can drive, ride and fish, has money, and can create a comfortable and enjoyable life for him. He also shares his work and interests with her so that she becomes a genuine companion to him in a way that Imogen is not. The roles that Imogen and Evelyn play in their marriage seem to shut out the possibility of intimacy; the only time Imogen realises just what an exhausting effect Evelyn’s work has on him is when she spies on him one day as he leaves the court. Imogen has to find out about Evelyn’s success in a legal case from his office clerk, and everyone else seems to know before her. Despite Imogen’s adoring worship of Evelyn, there is little sympathy between them, as Evelyn seems to be irritated by the way Imogen’s tastes in literature and art, and her more imaginative, self-doubting way of thinking, differ from his own. In fact, he doesn’t appear to like anything that is traditionally feminine, and only really relaxes in masculine company. I found it interesting that Evelyn was so attracted to someone who was very similar to himself, and despite being portrayed as almost a masculine archetype, was not really looking for someone very feminine like Imogen.

I spent parts of the book feeling disbelief at the extent that Imogen allowed herself to be treated so badly by Evelyn and Blanche. Evelyn is generally dismissive of her opinions, is angry with her for expressing any negative emotions whatsoever, constantly praises Blanche (including her ability to form a better relationship with their son, Gavin, than Imogen herself has), and even has the audacity to blame Imogen for not ‘appreciating’ Blanche. Blanche is mostly a repellent and selfish character, exhibiting a horrible smugness after she has ‘won’ Evelyn from Imogen. She shares with Evelyn an assumption that the female is inferior, talking over other women when they attempt to argue with her, and referring disparagingly to ‘the ladies’ as if she is not a member of this group herself. Imogen takes the most inconsiderate treatment from her husband and Blanche with hardly any complaint, and is inclined to blame herself for everything, even in the most unlikely situations. This makes the book simultaneously fascinating and infuriating.

One of my favourite characters was Imogen’s closest female friend, Cecil, who resembles a Siamese cat in appearance and plays the stock market. Cecil is seen by many as coldly cautious and efficient, but we find out that her silence and self-control have developed as a response to her ‘lonely and somewhat arduous existence’. She has an acute perceptiveness about other people, is very loyal to Imogen, and (with her suitably androgynous name) seems somehow free from the ideas about gender that all the other characters possess. There are also many other interesting characters, such as Gavin’s best friend, Tim, a watchful and neglected eleven-year-old, and Zenobia, a very beautiful neighbour of Imogen and Evelyn’s, who lives in a world of permanent drama and imagines that no man can help falling in love with her.

An unexpected aspect of the novel for me was the attention paid to the setting, which was brought to life with only a few words. The novel acknowledges the beauty of the semi-suburban, semi-rural village where Evelyn and Imogen live, while suggesting an underlying intensity and sinister undercurrent to the natural world that is somehow connected with Blanche’s threatening presence. The London of the 1950s is also beautifully re-created, as a city full of history and poetry, especially when Imogen and Cecil climb the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, I think the things I really liked most about this book were its characterisation and insights into social interactions. I think it would appeal to fans of Barbara Pym and Rosamund Lehmann, and, although set in England rather than America, reminded me in a few ways of a TV programme I really like, Mad Men.


After my great love of The Post-Office Girl, I found myself reading another book about people who have, with great difficulty, survived a war and now must adapt to post-war life. This book is very different from Stefan Zweig’s novel for many reasons, not only that it’s a modern novel (published last year) and that it takes place in Russia under Stalin’s rule, in the aftermath of the second world war. However, I did notice the same themes, the weariness that the war has left behind and the difficulties in creating a life now that the immediate threat to survival has disappeared.

I had already read and enjoyed a few books by Helen Dunmore, A Spell of Winter (a gothic story about incest between a brother and sister), Zennor in Darkness (set in a village in Cornwall during the first world war), and The Siege, which is about a family attempting to survive the war in Leningrad during a terrible winter. This book really managed to convey the endless cold and hunger, and the way in which the family’s world shrank within the walls of their apartment. The Betrayal is the sequel to The Siege and follows Anna and Andrei, the young couple from the earlier novel, as they face a dilemma: Andrei, a respected doctor, is asked to treat the seriously ill child of a senior party official. This could be extremely dangerous for Andrei and he is faced with the question of whether to attempt to escape, to flee Leningrad, or to agree to become involved in treating the child.

I have to say that I didn’t like The Betrayal quite as much as The Siege, but there were still things I enjoyed about it and during the second half of the book I became completely involved in the plot and finished the book very quickly. The novel definitely created suspense and tension, and a sense of how it would have been to live in a world of paranoia and persecution, how the characters felt spied upon and could not speak their mind freely, even to friends. I think one problem I had with the novel was that the way people thought and spoke seemed a little too modern; it’s difficult to express why I felt this but I didn’t feel as if I was being taken into a new world. I suppose this modern feeling could be a way of drawing the reader in, making us care about the characters and even showing some parallels between Soviet Russia and the UK! (for example, the way bureaucracy, official language and the setting of targets have affected people’s lives). But I found this actually distanced me from the novel somewhat, and I also felt that the characters were a little too similar to eachother and often seemed to speak with the same voice, one which I just didn’t feel particularly drawn to. Anna and Andrei were sympathetic but somehow seemed too ordinary. It was as if the story could have been about anybody – and maybe that was the point, but I felt this made me like the book, rather than love it.

I think what I do like about Helen Dunmore’s writing is her lyricism and the way in which she can express strong emotion. I preferred the sections of the novel that concentrated on Anna’s thoughts, her feelings towards her family, and the way that the past, and her experiences in the siege, kept breaking through into her new life. I liked Anna’s memories of her relationship with her father, a writer who had fallen out of favour under Lenin’s regime, and his lover Marina. One idea that was expressed repeatedly was that the past (our personal past and the more historical past) is as real as the present and still has a great deal of power over our lives. ‘Anna believes that it’s not a question of remembering or forgetting. The past is alive. It claims what is its own.’ I like the way the novel gives the sensation of time passing, the seasons flowing on and spring coming again, despite what happens in human life. The city of Leningrad is also indifferent to the characters, ‘a beautiful, preoccupied mother’, beloved by them but with its own life that continues despite their individual problems. I like the way Helen Dunmore places individual lives within a strong feeling of the wide scope of history and the natural world. The end of the book merges fact and fiction, and the novel’s story of individual lives with the official recorded version of history, in a way I found really moving.


The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world. You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.

The Name of the Rose is a mystery story set in an Italian abbey in 1327. It follows a young novice monk, Adso, and his master, William, who have been sent to the abbey on a mission concerning suspected heresy. When they arrive at the abbey, however, seven of the monks die, one after the other, in mysterious circumstances, and Adso and William become detectives in the murder investigation. That is as far as I will summarise the plot, because if there is one word with which I can describe this book, it’s ‘complex’! The reader is plunged into the medieval world of scholarly philosophy, apocalyptic prophesies, political drama and heretical sects, and I found it all quite difficult to understand, but I think it’s like arriving in a foreign country without a guide; no one explains everything to you and you need to absorb the local culture for yourself as time goes on. Sometimes while reading I felt that I’d only taken in half the book and I’d need to re-read it to try to understand the rest, and even then there would probably still be a lot that I had completely missed! I think this is due to the density of the book; it’s completely loaded with detail, and I think the author must have an incredible obsession with the medieval period. He certainly succeeded in creating a complete and unique world (and I think it must be significant that the book takes place over seven days), and entering a new world has to include some effort and just plain old confusion.

It’s not completely true that the reader has no guide through this strange world, because the tale is all told quite engagingly by Adso, the young novice, who now in his old age is recalling the events of his youth. Adso is a loveable and innocent character, although intelligent and able to assist his master in his detective work, and I liked the way that the narrative enabled the reader to see beyond Adso’s thoughts and interpret the plot with a modern eye. In fact, it is quite a witty and amusing book for that reason. Adso is therefore something of an ‘unreliable narrator’ because clearly the modern reader won’t agree with all his medieval ideas, but the book doesn’t allow us to look back on the Middle Ages from a position of superiority; I think it shows what a rich and complicated world it was, if very alien to us now. I also felt drawn to William, because he is quite a modern character, and tends to be more sceptical and less devout than the other characters, opposing the bloodthirsty inquisitions and torture of heretics. I think the book is showing how secular ideas began to break through into medieval times, and these ideas are embodied in the character of William.

The characters are nearly all male, as you might expect from a novel set in a monastery, and a female reader can only really imagine herself into this world as an outsider, since women are described by the monks as being sinful and the cause of vice in men. There is the curious sense that women have a great amount of power over men through their sexuality, although it’s described as being something evil. The one female character who actually appears in the story, as opposed to simply being mentioned by others, is a girl hanging around one night in the abbey kitchen with whom Adso breaks his monastic vows of chastity. It is quite sad (for us in modern times) that Adso is completely lovelorn but feels he has done something sinful which he can never repeat (even though he can’t help feeling that there was something good in the whole affair as well). The way the girl is unnamed is also somehow quite moving. ‘That was the only earthly love of my life, and I could not, then or ever after, call that love by name.’

I think that women were not completely invisible and unremembered in medieval times, however, and one of the ways they could exert power was through being seen as visionaries or saints. Even though I wasn’t particularly interested in medieval literature at university and preferred studying the modern periods, I remember really liking writing an essay about medieval women mystics, and it was interesting to discover that this was a way (the only way?) that women could write and be acceptable to the male world, perhaps because their writings were presented as being divinely inspired rather than the works of their own minds. Various characters in the novel tell stories of their involvement in extreme religious sects, and women seem to have played a prominent role, even becoming leaders, in some of these groups. I found it interesting to learn about how radical as well as violent these sects were, and how many of them encouraged polygamy and denied the existence of hell and promoted other ideas that were not at all welcome to the church.

In general, intellectual pride is seen by characters in the novel as a sin; in fact many traits that we see now as just human, maybe even positive, were (it seems at least in this book) viewed as sinful in the Middle Ages. The novel is about curiosity and the love of knowledge, which is obviously punished in the Bible, and also leads to all kinds of intrigue and drama in the abbey, in that the monks’ curiosity is denied and must be pursued in secret. One of my favourite passages in the book is when William and Adso dare to enter and explore the library, a wonderful and very mysterious place that is forbidden to nearly all the monks. The Name of the Rose is a novel in which ideas and learning are highly important, and more emotion is felt over books and libraries than over almost anything else; the only time (I think) in the novel that William sheds a tear is over a book.

The Name of the Rose was quite different from what I usually read. Although it’s not a conscious decision, I realise that I usually choose books that are based more around atmosphere, place and (most of all) character, and although all those things are important in this novel, it’s mainly a very intellectual and plot-driven book, which lures the reader into attempting to understand both the murder mystery and the elaborate and unfamiliar world that the author has created.