Monthly Archives: October 2011

THE WINTER HOUSE by Nicci Gerrard

Marnie and Oliver have made their way to a remote Scottish cottage to be with Ralph as he dies of cancer. The three were incredibly close as teenagers, yet have not been all together for many years. As we gradually learn the reasons why, we also learn about the power of their love for one another. This is an incredibly complictaed love triangle made all the more so by a fourth person, Marnie’s best friend Lucy, whose love for Ralph is unrequited, even when they become a couple for a short time.  As Marnie and Oliver let go of Ralph and allow him to die in peace, they also let go of some of the guilt about their pasts, finding another chance to be together in the process.

Whilst it is the connection between Oliver, Marnie and Ralph that is the main focus of the book, what touched me most was actually the relationship between Marnie and her mother, Emma, who is also a mother in many ways to Ralph. Emma runs a B&B to supplement earnings from her pottery, burns the breakfast of those paying guests she dislikes, and carries around with her the pain and suffering of having lost a husband and a son in an accident at sea.  She works hard to make sure that Marnie’s life is not too blighted by these deaths but struggles with also needing to grieve. One of the saddest epsiodes in the book is when Emma gives the adult Marnie a photo album containing pictures of her father and brother – images she has not seen since they died and for which rapidly fading memories have been a poor substitute.  Tragedy seems to hover around Marnie as a child, from the past and the present, yet the over riding sense is of being loved unconditionally by her mother and of happy times. This is a feature of her other relationships too and I think is what makes this story ultimately so uplifting despite being so full of loss and hurt.


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This is not a book I would recommend reading if you are feeling especially weepy or sensitive. Like the best tear jerker films it might be a bit cheesy in parts but that works for me and it got me crying on cue. It centres around a series of letters that have been written by a mother to her four  daughters to read after she has died, and in which she shares secrets, wisdom and memories with each one, helping them to navigate through some of the challenges ahead. Each daughter reacts and comes to terms with her mother’s death very differently, but there is a strong sense too of how the sisters must collectively find new ways to be together without her presence. The men in the story are less well developed than the women, so although this book is primarily about love, it is the love between siblings, mothers and daughters that seems strongest. Above all though, despite the tears, it’s a very uplifting book – an affirmation of life and living it to the full.

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FEW EGGS AND NO ORANGES – The diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-1945

This book is published by Persephone Books, which I have only discovered recently but thoroughly recommend. As it says on the tin, it’s the diaries of one woman living during World War Two, originally a series of letters sent to her cousin, Lucy Hodgson, in Rhodesia and also circulated around other friends and family as a record of life in London at that time. Vere combines news of international events with a record of the streets and buildings that have suffered bomb damage and details of every day life. I was especially struck  by two things. First, by just how fearful people were of a German invasion.  Perhaps it takes someone living through the Blitz, documenting the ups and many more downs – rather than somone writing with the benefit of hindsight –  to convey the power and proximity of that possibility. Second, there is just one mention, in December 1942, of the Holocaust: ‘ The massacre of the Jews is awful to read of, and I don’t propose to bear anything but animosity to Germans as long as I live’. As the war draws to a close Vere writes  a little more  about the concentration camps but her diaries reveal just how little this aspect of the war registered for most of Britian.

The daily relentlessness of being under attack could be monotonous without all the little details provided by Vere. For example she tells us how one doctor’s secretary had the foresight to store patient records in the refrigerator to protect them in the event of the surgery being destroyed. She sends her photos of the Gulf of Spezia (Vere was a teacher in Italy in her early twenties) when the Admiralty request them to help with Commando raids.  We find out how the citizens of London had to contend with a lack of saucepans, kettles and sheets, as well as Hitler’s bombs. In April 1942 she tells us ‘Am now trying to run a kettle to earth, and then we may survey the war in peace on the Kitchen Front’. And we learn that London’s buses have no red paint so are maroon for a while.

Food – the lack of it, getting hold of it and sharing it – features heavily in the diaries. Vere is both economical and generous so feels rather indignant to be told off one day by the Kensington Salvage for throwing away a crust of bread that had gone mouldy in the heat of her room. She has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, thanks in part to her welfare work for the Greater World Association. All share information about where to get hold of the oranges and eggs of the book’s title, as well as cherries, sausages, sugar and butter, which Vere is sent from time to time by relations overseas. She also seems to accumulate animals that need feeding , especially cats and the sparrows that do not desert the city as the seagulls do. 

Middle class and well educated, Vere is a huge fan of Churchill and listens to every word of his speeches broadcast on the wireless. In fact she is an avid listener to all sorts of programmes, following the news, plays and debates, as well as standing to attention when various national anthems are played. The radio and time in bed with The Observer on a Sunday are lifelines in many ways – the cinema and theatre too allow her and her friends to  experience something resembling normality, albeit regularly disrupted by sirens and bombs. She also rejoices in the way the natural world continues to provide beauty, despite the destruction being wrought – be it the bluebells in a vase on her office table or the laburnum in the park.

Vere shares her views on pacifisim with us, reads and half believes the astrological predictions in the newspapers, regularly debates issues of the day with her friends and we get her take on the characteristics of each nation that joins the war. For example, she is terribly distressed at the prospect of Florence being bombed but curses the Italians for not doing more to fight for freedom. This in contrast to the French resistance who even passed around the Mona Lisa and other pictures from the Louvre and always sent news of their whereabouts to the RAF so they’d never be bombed.  Her curses are wonderfully tame though – I cannot remember the last time I came across someone using the word ‘drat’!

A Fire Warden, Vere is often called upon to do her duty and does so willingly and proudly. She is often thrilled by the ‘fireworks’ in the sky above her and is living proof of her own assertion that Londoners adapted to pretty much everything thrown at them during the war. Originally from Birmingham, Vere’s love of the Capital shines through every page of her diaries and she seems to feel every lost or damaged building. I did too.

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I was unable to resist a book with such a wonderfully evocative title and am pleased it lived up to its promise.  Rose, who tells the story discovers, aged 9, that she can taste the emotions of the cake baker – and indeed the emotions of anyone who has prepared the food she eats. This develops into an ability to tell if something comes from a factory, from happy cows grazing in a field, or even from which part of the world. The support and interest of her brother’s friend helps Rose cope with what turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing, whereas the adults in her world, when given a glimpse into Rose’s reality, jump incorrectly to conlusions about eating disorders or delusions. Rose’s abilities reveal all sorts of things about those around her, including, most powerfully, how unhappy her mother is and, later on, the start of an affair. As Rose grows up we learn that others in her family have equally unusual and potentially destructive gifts – and that each is managing and coping in their own special way. I really enjoyed this book. It didn’t hit me with the force of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, which has a similar food/emotions connection at its core, but it was incredibly touching, very gentle and, like the very best lemon cake, contains the perfect balance of sweet and sharp to keep you wanting more.

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