Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean tr. Adriana Hunter

CIMG7184From the 2015 theme Chance Encounters: Meeting the Other comes another novella from Peirene Press, translated from French, Reader for Hire (La Lectrice) by Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter.

The first book in the series was Finnish author Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger, a chilling tale of the necessity of abandonment to survive, when leaving behind what seems like certain death is replaced by a journey towards what is a less certain but equally probable demise, trying to escape the famine of 1867 Finland, heading for St Petersburg on foot through the snow.

This second book Reader for Hire tells the story of thirty-four year old Marie-Constance who is married, childless and unoccupied. She still regularly visits one of her literature professors at the university where she failed to complete her studies, but otherwise appears to possess little motivation to change her life or find a job.

One day a friend makes a suggestion that she at first considers outlandish, however with nothing better to do, the idea sticks and despite her general lethargy for being proactive, acts on it.

“You have a wonderful voice, it’s silly not to do something with it. A woman really needs an occupation these days…When we were at the Conservatoire you showed such talent… Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”

The man at the newspaper agency tries to discourage her, attempting to enlighten her as to what she may be exposing herself to, without being so direct to describe his exact misgivings, wishing to warn her of the kind of response she might attract, suggesting she remove the words ‘young woman’ and replace them with ‘person‘, a recommendation she rejects vociferously and thus proceeds with the advert offering her services as a reader.

Miou-Miou in the film, La Lectrice

Miou-Miou in the film, La Lectrice

It’s a social satire that attempts to celebrate the joy of reading aloud, willing it to be the life changing experience it could be, that clearly is not. Instead, it reveals just how much loneliness, desperation and depravity exists in our society and how many are looking for something that might quell the symptoms, even if that means corrupting something else offered. Despite the obvious need to use her to fulfil their empty lives, Marie-Constance is determined to turn her fantasy into a viable profession and talks of it as if it already is.

“…I mustn’t lose the few ‘regulars’ I’ve managed to hook. In fact I’m on my way to my managing director today. He’s more hooked than anyone else, we’ve all grasped that, but by something other than reading. I’ve made my decision and I’m ready. But I might still try and bring him around to literature.”

A wheelchair bound adolescent, a six-year-old girl who wants to go to the fair, not stay at home and be read to, the aging, demented communist wife of an ex General, the depressed Managing Director and the elderly magistrate, they come in all forms and guises and like a Doctor choosing the right medicine, Marie-Constance will select Maupassant, Marx, Claude Simon, de Perec and others in her quest for the best bookish match. She thinks only in terms of literary solutions, seeking out the company of her old professor for guidance, though he too appears to have other intentions.

I enjoyed most of the book, particularly while there was still some mystery and intrigue around the characters and their motivations, however I wanted the fantasy to endure, for Marie-Constance to  find more of the genuine kind and less of the erotic, sadly the fictional reality, as depicted by Raymond Jean seems to illustrate that depravity is more in abundance and women will continue to allow it.

The book was originally published in French in 1986 and was made into a film two years later starring the French actress affectionately known as Miou-Miou, a name given to her on her acting debut by French comedian Coluche, a reference to her ‘petite voix douce miaulante’ soft voice.

Contemporary European Fiction via Peirene Press

Contemporary European Fiction via Peirene Press

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

I had always intended to read Mary Shelley’s classic in 2015, however I hadn’t expected to come across it in so many forms before I picked it up in its traditional one, the book.

Captain R Walton and the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Arctic  Source: BBC Learning English

Captain R Walton and the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Arctic
Source: BBC Learning English

With the advanced English conversation class I teach, we began to listen to weekly episodes of Frankenstein via a BBC adapted audio drama, written for learners of the English language. Condensed to 10 episodes of about 7 minutes each, it introduces new vocabulary and a classic of English literature to learners, while keeping them entertained.

Midway through the audio drama, I heard that there was to be a relayed broadcast of the London National Theatre production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, cast as the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle.

Throughout the season, the actors switched roles on alternate nights, Creature and Creator, inhabiting each others skin, developing each others mannerisms and tendencies, drawn together and repelled simultaneously. The version I saw showed Cumberbatch as the Creature, a stunning and visceral performance beginning with the birth-like slump onto the stage, the first stages of development and observation of the enigma of man.


A Creature is Born, National Theatre London

After these two modern-day introductions, I was even more intrigued to read the original text and learn about the origin of a book that was itself born via 18-year-old Mary Godwin (later Shelley) telling ghost stories one cool June summer evening in 1816 at Lake Geneva with companions Lord Byron, the physician John Polidari, Percy Shelley and her stepsister Jane.

FrankensteinThe book starts out with letters written by a Captain R Walton, who is in St Petersburg preparing to leave for an excursion of discovery to the North Pole, to his sister Margaret in London.

Like Victor Frankenstein, the young scientist he will rescue from an ice floe in the Arctic and whose story he will listen to day after day while trapped in the ice, Walton has a thirst for knowledge and an agitated spirit that pushes him forward in his quest. He wishes to make his mark on the world and make a difference. Like Frankenstein he has immersed himself in studies of logic and now desires to achieve something of magnitude, having already failed to become a significant poet.

His prose is now dedicated only to his sister Margaret, through whose letters we will learn of Walton’s failed voyage and the story Victor Frankenstein will narrate to him, as he too gives up his pursuit of the Creature that was to be his mark upon the world, one that had already made a difference, though in ways he never dreamed of and lived to regret.

Upon hearing the voyager’s naive hopes, Victor Frankenstein shares his own story in an effort to try to thwart Walton from following his ideals  into what may become yet another foolhardy madness.

“Unhappy man! Do you share my madness? Have you drunk also of the intoxicating draught? Hear me; let me reveal my tale, and you will dash the cup from your lips!”

The story he tells is of his own youthful thirst for knowledge, his fascination with science, alchemy and existence itself. His obsession with creating life above all else, with no forethought of the consequence of such an act, his fear and neglect of that which he created and the terrible consequences wreaked upon him, his family and those closest to him as a result.

“You may easily perceive Captain Walton, that I have suffered great and unparalleled misfortunes. I had determined at one time that the memory of these evils should die with me, but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been. I do not know that the relation of my disasters will be useful to you; yet, when I reflect that you are pursuing the same course, exposing yourself to the same dangers which have rendered me what I am, I imagine you may deduce an apt moral from my tale, one that may direct you if you succeed in your undertaking and console you in case of failure.”

Victor Frankenstein grew up in the countryside of Switzerland, in a kind of reverie, with his adopted sister Elizabeth whom he always viewed as a gift, initially from his mother who brought her into the family and eventually as his future bride. But first he wished to fulfil his destiny, that alchemy of existence, he wanted to create a sustainable life-form.

He pursued it with zeal, neglecting all else, only to run in fear of what he had done, until it pursued him, confronting him. The Creature forced him to listen and hear of the curse he had inflicted on him, by making him in such a way that all humanity would abhor him, sentencing him to a life without love, without friends, unknown.

“I expected this reception,” said the daemon. ” All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

Victor Frankenstein listens to the Creature and is moved from the desire to kill his creation to consider creating another, a companion, the only chance he may have to live in harmony in this world, for to be alone has driven him to madness, murder and mayhem.

The book, while framed at both ends by the letters from the explorer to his sister, the middle part is split into three, the first and latter parts as told by and from the perspective of Victor Frankenstein, while the middle part recounts the Creature’s tale of exile and in doing so gives voice to the creature.


Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller

It is in this section we have the most honest view of his creation and it is in this part that the theatre screenplay written by Nick Dear really excels.  It takes as the starting point, the metaphor of birth and Cumberbatch’s Creature slips from an embryonic web to the floor, resembling something more amphibian like than human, flaying its limbs about spasmodically as it tries to master them, this body with no instruction, no parent, a man with the gestures of a newborn.

Throughout his years of exile, his interactions with others teach him to survive, to communicate and slowly to understand the capacity and flaws of humanity. With understanding comes grief, he knows what is possible, that which will always be unreachable for him, a creature that thinks and is capable of acting as one of humankind but who will always be hated, rejected and worse, hunted to extinction.

“I cannot describe to you the agony that these reflections inflicted upon me; I tried to dispel them, but sorrow only increased with knowledge. Oh, that I had forever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensations of hunger, thirst, and heat!”

An astounding read and such a pleasure after the introduction I had via the theatre and audio play. It’s true I’m not a great reader of the classics, but when they are given an alternate context and serve as inspiration in the way this creation has, I can’t help but read in awe the achievement that continues to inspire such great works in themselves.

A five star read for me!

For a glimpse of that theatre sensation, watch this one minute trailer, with extracts from the live production in London.

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch

The Man Booker International Prize 2015 Winner #MBI2015

Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis

Man Booker IntlToday the winner of The Man Booker International Prize was announced.

This prize recognises one writer for his or her achievement in fiction. It is awarded every two years to a writer whose work has been published in English or is generally available having been translated into English.

Unlike the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, there are no submissions from publishers, it is a decision left solely to the judging panel, who must consider a writer’s body of work and not just their latest novel.

The 2013 winner was short story writer and translator Lydia Davis (America).

The finalists for 2015, alongside a quote made by one of the judges were:

Alain Mabanckou (Republic of Congo) ‘His voice is vividly colloquial, mischievous and … outrageous’

Amitav Ghosh (India) ‘In Ghosh’s hands the contemporary historical novel is transformed’

César Aira (Argentina) ‘A performance on page’

Fanny Howe (US) ‘[her] care for words matches her care for characters’

Hoda Barakat (Lebanon) ‘The unrivalled bride of the Mediterranean

László Krasznahorkai (Hungary) ‘What strikes the reader above all are extraordinary sentences’

Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa) ‘The author of two immense masterpieces

Mia Couto (Mozambique) ‘His pages are studded with startling images’

Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) ‘A monumental body of work that acts against forgetting’

Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya) ‘Reading al-Khoni is a transcendental experience’


The Guardian interviewed all 10 finalists in this excellent article, asking each of them:

  • to describe their work to someone unfamiliar with it
  • which of their books they’d recommend to a first time reader
  • whether as a writer,  they felt a distinction between local and international readers
  • who their literary heroes were
  • whether it was the duty of a novelist to engage with the political issues of the day
  • to share something new about themself

After reading this article, I could tell immediately that I would love to read the work of Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé. I have ordered a few of her books already. I recommend reading it if you are interested in knowing which of these authors might appeal to you.

One of the judges, New York Review Classics editorial director Edwin Frank had this to say:

“It would be pretentious to say we wanted to survey the world, but we wanted to be mindful of the wider world of literature. For me, I’ve learned all sorts of things about authors I’d never read especially in Arabic literature, which is still woefully underrepresented in English. And we have various writers from Africa, writing in very different languages and literary traditions.”

And so the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2015 is…..

Winner 2015

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain tr. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain Paris Light Translated FicitonAntoine Laurain is the French author of five novels, including The President’s Hat, a novel that has found a popular and loyal following in the US and UK since being translated into English by Gallic Books.

Not serious literature, they’re the kind of books you reach for when you need something uplifting and entertaining. I reached for this one at the end of winter when in the grip of a terrible flu and found it the best medicine of all!

My Review Notebooks The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain

A Selection of Word by Word notebooks.

Intrigued and incensed in equal measure, as a notebook toting woman myself, I wanted to know more of this story centred around a character whose red notebook, containing handwritten thoughts and random PRIVATE jottings, has fallen into the hands of the curious bookseller, Monsieur Laurent Letellier.

Recognising it as a handbag of quality and not something intended to be thrown out, when Monsieur Letellier comes across the abandoned handbag on a Parisian street early one morning, he picks it up intending to hand it in at the police station, which he almost succeeds in doing, except, you know, French bureaucracy, it will require a one hour wait and he has a shop to open up, so plans to return later. Only later becomes much, much later and the police station is not where he will return it to.

mauve handbag The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain ParisThe bag belongs to Laure, a woman we meet in the opening pages as she clutches her handbag to her detriment, metres from her apartment, only to be shoved against a metal door frame, losing the bag anyway. Without keys, and despite it being 2am, she manages to check into the hotel opposite, promising to pay in the morning, by which time she will have fallen into a coma.

Once the bag comes home with the bookseller, it becomes a major temptation and much of the book is spent on various dilemmas arising as a consequence of his inaction, which in turn provoke memories of past events. The longer it stays with him, the more trouble it causes and the more intrigued he becomes by its owner, despite recognising his chances at redemption grow slimmer as each day passes.

Jardin du Luxembourg Antoine Laurain The Red Notebook

Early morning in the Luxembourg gardens, Paris

One of the items the bookseller discovers is a signed copy of Accident Nocturne by Patrick Modiano which leads him to track down the reclusive author, known to frequent Luxembourg Gardens most mornings. As a bookseller, he knows how rare book signings by this author are, so hopes the author may lead him to the woman.

The Modiano cameo intrigued me, particularly as he’d just won The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, was that the reason to mention him, I wondered? And then I read Helen’s Mad About The Books review of Dora Bruder and found an even better reason for the reference to this esteemed author.

Paris Soir Dora BruderIn Dora Bruder, Modiano tells how in 1988 he stumbled across an ad in the personal columns of the 1941 New Year’s Eve edition of Paris Soir. The ad had been placed by the parents of 15-year-old Jewish girl Dora Bruder, who had run away from the Catholic boarding school where she’d been living.

It set the author off on an obsessive quest to find out everything he could about Dora Bruder and why during the most dangerous period of the German occupation of Paris, she had run away from those protecting her. But that’s another story and book, so see Helen’s review below for more on that extraordinary tale.

The Red Notebook has little of the hardship and tragedy of Dora Bruder, it reads more like a book that could be made into an entertaining romantic comedy, it has all the ingredients, the streets and bookshops of Paris, an artists’ workshop, handbags and their intriguing taboo contents, a jealous girlfriend and a lippy adolescent daughter. Watch this space I say!

Personally, I found it wonderful to discover an author who can do uplifting, feel good stories that push the right buttons for booklovers without becoming sentimental or too romantic. Though the ending may not be realistic, it was fun getting there.

If you like a glimpse of local life in Paris, characters who observe bookshelves and mention what other characters are reading, people who write in notebooks, the short form novella and an uplifting story, that could turn into a beautiful film, then pick up a copy of The Red Notebook here.

Further Reading:

Review by Susan of A Life in Books  – The President’s Hat, Antoine Laurain

Review by Helen of Mad About the BooksDora Bruder, Patrick Modiano – translated into English by Joanna Kilmartin as The Search Warrant

Article by Antoine Laurain – On Patrick Modiano winning the 2014 Nobel Prize

Dora Bruder Patrick Modiano The Red Notebook Antoine Laurain

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher, Gallic Books.


The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

GracekeepersThe Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a book I picked up at random purely based on the blurb. A light fantasy escape read for the upcoming holiday. I listened to an interview with the author just to be sure (linked below), liked what I heard and decided to read it. And it turned out to be the perfect holiday read just as predicted.

Set in an imagined world where the ocean has flooded most of the earth, most people now live permanently at sea. They are referred to as damplings and those that remain on land, who have an air of self-imposed superiority and suspicion of others are known as landlockers.

‘We shouldn’t welcome damplings like this,’ murmured Callanish’s mother. ‘And at night-time, too, when good people should be ticked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?’ She patted Callanish’s hands, making sure the gloves were on. ‘Some islands don’t even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they’re meant. Those people belong in the water. They’re dirtying the land.’

Most of the story takes place at sea, with the floating circus Excalibur and seen through the eyes of one of its performers, North, whose parents died when she was young. North performs a captivating dance act with her bear, her closest companion, though she is afraid for him, for though he would never harm her, his instinct to protect is strong and dangerous.

The circus moves from place to place, floating between the scattered archipelagoes that are all that remain of earth; they perform to survive, the only way they can eat, although their leader, the ringmaster Red Gold, has alternate plans for North and his son, to try to change that, to establish a presence on land, one that neither youth is particularly enthralled about and that his wife Avalon has become obsessed over.

‘North never felt comfortable with her feet touching land. She didn’t trust its steadiness, its refusal to move or change in the honest way of the sea.’

Callanish is the gracekeeper, graces are small, fragile birds kept by her and used in a grieving ritual as part of her job in the Graceyard, they serve as a reminder of the duration of the mourning period, they are starved and their death signals the end of that period.

gracekeeperShe is the sea equivalent of a funeral home, living isolated in her small house with only the birds and sea-life for company, tending graces and watery graves along the equator. People bring their dead to her for Resting, she performs the ritual and then lays them to rest at the bottom of the ocean in a shroud, tied to the birdcage containing the grace. We don’t know quite how or why she came to be doing this job, only that it was due to something she believes her mother might never forgive her for, penance for a mistake she made long ago.

‘For one adult Resting she was paid a mix of food, supplies and tradable goods: ten eggs, a thick wedge of bacon, a hank of fabric for letter-writing, a lump of copper the size of her thumbnail.’

When the Excalibur is forced to visit the gracekeeper, she meets North and is immediately drawn towards her, it causes a restlessness in her that sees her make some changes and seek resolution to the questions that plague her daily.

It is an interesting story about these two girls, the strange worlds they inhabit and the circumstances that are thrust upon them, forcing them to either accept or rebel. Accept what others want for them or rebel to lead a life that better represents who they really are and to follow their instinct.

There is a whole section about another group of sea-dwellers called the revivalists, which didn’t really fit into the story for me, they were a kind of evangelical group, where Callanish meets a former performer from the Excalibur, and tries to find out how to find the floating circus.

birdcageIt’s an intriguing read that reminded me of The Night Circus, in the same way that there is something magical we sense about this world that is left to the reader’s imagination, Kirsty Logan provides all the elements and introduces the characters but doesn’t inhabit them in such depth to create a solid picture, there remains an element of mystery and curiosity. For example, I didn’t know the meaning of the word coracle, but once I looked it up, that one word alone created a whole new exercise of imagination to understand how they might have fitted behind the circus ship Excalibur.

It would make an excellent picture story book, I found myself wanting to see exactly how the author visually imagined this world.

Further Reading

Review by Susan at A Life in Books – The Gracekeepers: A rattling good tale, beautifully told

Interview with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Festival

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the UK publisher via NetGalley.

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

molokaiBorn in Honolulu, Rachel’s Kalama’s memory of childhood with her mother, sister and two brothers is limited to her first six years, a time when life was full of simple joys and memorable returns, the homecomings of her father Henry, who was away at sea for months on end, his return always marked for Rachel by an anticipated gift, a doll he never failed to present to her, from one of the places he had recently visited.

The last doll she received from him was a nesting doll from Russia that he’d bought in Japan, the matryoshka.

Things started to change when her Uncle Pono fell sick and not only were they not allowed to see him, they weren’t to speak of him to anyone.

After a fight with her sister Sarah, which resulted in scratches on her legs, her mother notices a patch of pink skin with a nasty gash in the middle, one that doesn’t cause Rachel to flinch, something that worries her mother and causes her to become paranoid with fear, fear of leprosy, a disease that carries not only a terrible social stigma, but a life sentence if discovered by the authorities, and they will hunt you down at the first hint of suspicion.

It is the beginning of the end of childhood as Rachel has known it when the Health Inspector calls.

Brennert’s novel, largely based on historical fact, follows Rachel through the quarantine process of those suspected of carrying leprosy (Hansen’s disease) and on to life in Kalaupapa on the island of Moloka’i, allowing a glimpse into the community of sufferers and carers, of the pain of isolation and the irony of the freedom of this close-knit, albeit closed community.

“Love, marriage, divorce, infidelity… life was the same here as anywhere else, wasn’t? She realized now wrong she’d been; the pali wasn’t a headstone and Kalaupapa wasn’t a grave. It was a community like any other, bound by ties deeper than most, and people here went to their deaths as people did anywhere: with great reluctance, dragging the messy jumble of their lives behind them.”

It follows the life of a girl raised by Franciscan nuns, befriended by lepers, loved by her Uncle and an adopted Aunty, coming of age, finding one true love, deprived of maternal love and healing both physical and emotional wounds.

Brennert said of his novel:

“I wanted to tell the story of ordinary people who had to make such heartbreaking sacrifices…”

And one his main characters, Sister Catherine:

“I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death is the true measure of the Divine within us…I use to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe God doesn’t give anyone leprosy. He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death.”

Not just a tale of their suffering and coming to terms with life and death, it is a clash of cultures as a local population is forced to accept the beliefs and rituals of outsiders, a colonial and christian inheritance, where to stay true to one’s own traditions was seen as an act of rebellion or work of the devil even.

Recommended if you enjoy historical fiction based on real events and enjoy literature set in the islands of the Pacific.

End of an Island Era

A mere 16 leprosy patients remain today in this isolated community of Kalaupapa, a place through whom thousands of sufferers have passed since the 19th century. At present, the youngest member of the colony is 73-years-old. Although mandatory exile was lifted by the state in 1969, a number of patients voluntarily decided to stay. They were offered lifetime housing, amenities and healthcare and did not wish to open their community and environment to uninvited visitors. This may change however, when the colony’s last patient dies.

In an interesting article written by Philip Ross in the International Business Times on 5 May, 2015, he mentions:

Kalaupapa’s history is a tragic tale. In 1866, the Hawaiian government banished anyone diagnosed with leprosy, a chronic bacterial infection also known as Hansen’s disease, to Kalaupapa. More than 8,000 lepers were forced to relocate to the island at a time when there was no cure for the infection.

Men, women and children who had the disease were stigmatized and shunned as outcasts out of fear that their condition was highly contagious. The disease, however, cannot easily be passed from one person to another. Leprosy is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae that grows slowly and affects the skin and nerves. Symptoms of leprosy include skin sores, and lumps and bumps that disfigure the body and can last for several weeks or months.

Read the entire article and see some incredible pictures here:

Further Reading:

Philip Ross, International Business Times Article: Kalaupapa, Hawaii Leper Colony: A Look Inside The Remote Island Home For The State’s Few Surviving Leprosy Patients


Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka'i, circa 1870: Creative Commons

Kalaupapa leper colony, Moloka’i, circa 1870:
Creative Commons


Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler

Reading Anne Tyler’s 20th novel  A Spool of Blue Thread, reviewed here, first felt a little like turning to the back of the book before reading it through. This is how it ends, three generations upended, we found out how they came to be and what their origins were at the end.

ladder of yearsI wanted to try another Anne Tyler novel to have a better sense of her work and so I asked around for recommendations and eventually decided on Ladder of Years.

What a great book!

Still set in the same small town Baltimore, another family, this time we are inside the mind of Delia Grinstead, the youngest of three adult sisters, daughters of a local GP who has recently passed away. He had been living with Delia and her husband, who is also a GP, one who took over the practice from her father where Delia remained the administrator, first to her father, then to her husband, never leaving home.

A smooth transition from daughter of the Doctor to wife of the Doctor, the same home, raising three children, taking the same holiday year after year, viewing the same holiday neighbours over the fence year after year, speculating about their family members, having never spoken a word to them.

Delia doesn’t appear disgruntled, but one day while on holiday she walks off down the beach (a bit like our Harold Fry) in her husband’s beach robe and just keeps going.

What follows is something like the winding back of the clock, a version of what her life might have been, had her husband chosen sister number 1 or sister number 2 and not sister number 3, Delia.

It’s not dramatic, it’s almost sensible, if we can use that word about someone who just walks out on their life like that. She expresses no hatred, disappointment or loss, she thinks only about herself in the present and responds always to the requests of others – rather than see fault in her own actions, she interprets others confusion or hurt with, “if they had only asked”, she offers little proactively and yet will respond to anything if asked.

ladderShe is something of an enigma and at first I wondered how she could so easily leave behind her children without much thought, then I wondered if she was menopausal, because at that time women lose a lot of that hormone that makes them so fiercely protective and maternal towards their children, or were they just more grown up and less in need of her?

She doesn’t have a lot to say about her motives, it is as if she acted without understanding the deep need inside her to move. Another reader commented she reminds me of a spoiled youngest born who does just about everything without motivation

I don’t have much of an insight into youngest borns as a type, but Delia was certainly quietly mysterious, I found the novel compelling, without any clear or stated motivation, she was unpredictable and yet ever so conservative.

Brilliantly constructed, a compelling read, I really enjoyed Ladder of Years and was intrigued right up until the last page. And bizarrely, there is also a spool of blue thread in this book, a small detail written twenty years ago(published in 1995), that would one day grow up to become an entire novel of its own.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

Rachel Joyce’s debut novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry told of the spontaneous walk that became a pilgrimage, by the unassuming and little-loved ex brewery salesman Harold Fry. He went out one day to post a letter to his former colleague Queenie Hennessy whom he had learned was nearing the end of her life in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.

Harold decided to keep on walking, wearing a pair of inadequate boat shoes, no money or warning to anyone, he walked for weeks, hoping Queenie had received his message to wait for him. We knew little of Queenie’s story or history and even less of what she was going through and how she perceived Harold’s act of spontaneity, until now with this second book, which takes us back to the beginning of the story, interpreted now from Queenie’s point of view.

Rachel Joyce brings us inside the mind of Queenie, who upon hearing from Harold decides to write him an extremely long letter, going right back to when she first applied for a job at the brewery where they both worked, including her first memorable glimpse of him, her undying and denied, unconditional love for him and her never spoken of relationship with his troubled son David.

As well as revealing her relationship and hidden feelings for Harold, we meet her fellow patients in the hospice, diminshed physically yes, but with their characters fully prominent, intact and proudly on display, from The Pearly King, Finty, grumpy Mr Henderson to the nuns who take care of them.

Queenie receives Harold’s letter which reads:

I am very sorry.

Best Wishes.

P.S. Wait for me.

and learns from Sister Catherine that he has called from a telephone box, in Kingsbridge, South Devon, something about waiting and that he was walking.

Harolds Journey“I knew your writing. One glance and my pulse was flapping. Great, I thought. I don’t hear from the man in twenty years, and then he sends a letter and gives me a heart attack.”


“I held tight on to your envelope, along with my notebook. I saw the dancing of crimson light beyond my eyelids as we moved from the dayroom to the corridor and then past the windows. I kept my eyes shut all the way, even as I was lowered onto the bed, even as the curtains were drawn with a whoosh against the pole, even as I heard the click of the door, afraid that if I opened my eyes the wash of tears would never stop.

Harold Fry is coming, I thought. I have waited twenty years, and now he is coming.”

The next morning Queenie wakes to find a new volunteer in her room who has observed her crying in her sleep, the nun, who introduces herself as Sister Mary Inconnu, reads Queenie’s hand scribbled message that said it was too late to wait for Harold and suggests she write him a second letter, that she will help her by typing up her notes each day.

She said, “I have a plan. We’re going to write him a second letter. Don’t forget, you opened this can of worms when you sent your first one. So now you need to finish. Only this time, don’t give him the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.”

Harold’s walk is just one of the many journey’s represented, everything becomes a symbol of slow perseverance towards some kind of end; Sister Lucy and her jigsaw puzzle of England, the pieces placed progressively over the weeks of Harold’s walk revealing regions of England and Wales, racing towards the Midlands; Queenie’s own 20 year story of unconditional love, the evolution, growth and eventual destruction of her sea-garden; her friendship with David and the deathly progression of disease among the hospice patients, they who hold onto the very last threads of existence, their spirits given an additional and unexpected thrill in following the increasingly heard-of pilgrimage of this Harold Fry,  albeit alongside the less joyous symptoms of bodies in decline.

Despite the sad circumstances, it’s a fun book to read either alone or as a companion to Harold Fry, it is written as a second person narrative, using “you” just as she would have done in writing a letter, which has the effect of limiting the perspective, in a similar way that Colm Tóibín did in his 3rd person limited perspective of Nora Webster, reviewed here. Queenie’s narrative was less frustrating for me than Nora’s, possibly because she is reflecting on the past that can not be changed. I found it quietly compelling, tragic and humorous both, often surreal.


Note: This was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the US publisher via NetGalley.