Mrs Engels – Gavin McCrea

Many of you will know that I have a very good friend in Eric of the marvellous book blog Lonesome Reader, which you should all be dropping in on regularly if you aren’t already. His is an opinion that I value highly, though don’t always agree with which makes for great bookish chatter when we catch up, bookish bickering some might say. Ha. One of Eric’s absolute books of the year last year from the moment he read it was Gavin McCrea’s Mrs Engels which, I was kindly left a signed copy of on one of my trips to London when I stayed in his book nook. So naturally I read it very soon after, pondering if it would be a book we agreed on or a book we would bicker over? Well…

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Scribe Publications, hardback, 2015, fiction, 352 pages, kindly put in my hands by someone whose book taste I (still) trust implicitly

No one understands men better than the women they don’t marry, and my own opinion – beknown only to God – is that the difference between one man and another doesn’t amount to much.

So opens Mrs Engels and instantly we are thrown into the world of Lizzie Burns as she leaves the workhouses of the north for a life of polar contrast in London as the mistress of social scientist and philosopher Frederick Engels just as his plans to form a revolution with his friend Karl Marx start to come into action. From the very start of the novel we are instantly asked to question why it is that Lizzie has ended up with Frederick is love a chemical thing or a practical one? Is it love from both parties, pity from one of them, a hope of some kind of security or future for the other or are the lines in love a blurry concoction of it all?

If you are worried this might sound a bit dry, or indeed you might need to have read everything about The Communist Manifesto fear not (funnily enough it has never been bedtime reading of mine either) because actually Engels and Marx are really supporting characters. This is the story about Lizzie and of the plight of many people, particularly women but also men as we see as we read on, who have become forgotten voices in history, Lizzie is a voice and a force to be reckoned with and indeed a vessel for McCrea to give an account of many who could not speak up or write about their experiences. It is a book looking unflinchingly at the classes of the times from a factual voice who got lucky in many ways, not so in others, rather than an idealistic one.

I go hard at it – my sleeves rolled, my face lathered – and I don’t let off till, out the side of my eye, I light on a crowd of four women coming up the road from the Hill side. They, in return, catch sight of me when they’re a few doors away. By my own deeper wisdom, I know they are headed in my direction. I put my attending back on my cleaning, but I’m aware of myself now and don’t feel inside the task.
They come to stand in a line over me. I twist my neck to look up at them.
‘Might we see the lady of the house?’ says the one in the high boned collar.
I stand. Brush the hair off my brow. Flatten my pinny. ‘Come on, Lizzie,’ I says to myself, ‘don’t be so easy to the blush.’
When it dawns on one, it passes through the others like electricity. ‘Oh!’ – they clutch their chests in the spot where the air has been knocked out – ‘How novel!’

For me the narrative of Lizzie Burns is the constant highlight of Mrs Engels and full credit needs to go to Gavin McCrea for this creation, as should the fact that all the research he clearly did into an unknown woman is never showy or forced. Huge round of applause from me. If this is ever to be adapted then I am sure there will be many actresses that will be vying for this role because Lizzie is not a woman or character that you are ever going to forget. Yet, for me, the strength of Lizzie in some ways became somewhat detrimental to the rest of the novel. She appears so completely and utterly that the rest of the characters and indeed some of the settings and atmospheres, though when we go back to the times working in the workhouse with her sister, often I felt paled by comparison. It seems quite a backward compliment that, but it is a compliment none the less in an odd way.

What I felt I was doing in the end was reading the novel for Lizzie’s voice and not for the actual story. This means of course we get the voice of the unheard through her, yet because I wasn’t really bothered about anything going on around her in London, much more interested in the Manchester parts of the book, I think it lessened the effect of their plight and for me was much more about how poor Lizzie got on as a mistress than where she had come from. From me it became an odd dichotomy rather than a powerful and moving sum of all its parts, if that makes sense?

The revolution has happened. In my parlour.
Chairs overturned. Empty bottles on the chimneypiece. Half full glasses among the plants in the pots. Fag-ends in the necks of the lamps. The clod from someone’s pipe stuck onto Jenny’s horse painting, right where its bit ought to be. And on the sofa, head to foot and snoring, their clothes screwed tight about them, morning wood standing up in their breeches: men I don’t recognise.
Another fancy evening for the comrades. Another night spent with cotton in my ears and a chair against the door. And now another day spent with yesterday’s smoke clogging up my lungs.

I have talked before about how whatever a reader has read before will of course affect and inform everything they read after, here is a prime example. and here was where a major issue for me lay with Mrs Engels, through no fault of its own. You see if I had not read that many historical novels of this ilk before I would probably think it was more than just a corking narrative. Because I have read the likes of Jane Harris, who if you haven’t read go and get both The Observations and Gillespie and I right now this instant, not only have I seen this sparky, saucy, snarky, northern charming and compelling voice before, I have seen it done with everything else done as vividly and strongly; all the secondary characters, the streets and houses, the atmospheres and smells in full technicolour, even if in smoggy tones.

I thought that Mrs Engels was a novel filled and brought to live with a passionate heart; it just lacked the full body for me personally. As I say though this is through no fault of its own much more mine for the books that I have read before it, it is a strong debut and I am sure will find a legion of loving readers as it deserves. I will be intrigued to see what Gavin McCrea writes next as I am sure it will have another narrative force to be reckoned with.

Head here to read Eric’s marvellous review. If you have read Mrs Engels I would love to know what you made of it. I would also love to hear of any other historical novels which have a real narrative propulsion as I sometimes find them a little too dry and research heavy and need ‘a voice’ to get me through them, that is why you don’t see the genre reviewed on here as much as I would like.

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Aphrodite’s Rock, Cyprus

I mentioned earlier in the week that almost everything in Cyprus tries to have some link, no matter how tenacious, with the Goddess Aphrodite. Amongst the many temples, restaurants, shops (so many Aphrodite’s Secrets, she must have been brimming with gossip) and hotels there are some with genuine links, like Aphrodite’s Baths which I told you all about the other day, well if a goddess can have genuine links. Though I think it is nice to believe in, or envisage. Anyway, the one with the greatest link to the goddess is Aphrodite’s Rock where it is said she was born from the foam of the sea leaving a great rock in her wake. We had to go there.

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When you arrive at Aphrodite’s Rock you are slightly spoilt for choice as to which rock it might be because the whole area is indeed very, well, rocky. So after you descend a secret staircase that then takes you through a tunnel (not ancient, but possibly called Aphrodite’s Tunnel or Aphrodite’s Walkway) under the main road you are greeted with the above and then when you turn to your right greeted with this…

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Isn’t it just incredible? We were told (by a man who would swim us out to it and help us get a picture on top of it for just fifty euros, hmmmm) that the big rock almost dead centre of the picture above is Aphrodite’s Rock. Fable has it that should you swim around it three times you will become a virgin again and become forever young which seems a small price to pay to contend with some possibly deadly currents. So The Beard went out to have a try…

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Alas despite his best impressions/efforts of Ariel from The Little Mermaid it wasn’t to be. And as we still weren’t sure that was the one I didn’t think potential death (which I also pointed out is how you might remain forever young, in people’s memories) was worth it. So we went to explore a little further along the beach, we found more rocks…

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Tricky. Whilst I had graced the sea with a paddle I wasn’t going to try any of those, so we just walked along the beach and waited for the spirit of Aphrodite to take over us. And she did. More on that in due course.

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Does anyone really know which one is hers? Have any of you swum around it three times and if so how is the reinstated virginity and eternal youth going? Jokes aside, I will never forget Aphrodite’s Rock, well rocks… Quite a magical place indeed.

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Mountains, Monasteries, Gold and Snow

After having a couple of splendid days in the Cyprus sun we were forewarned that the weather yesterday was going to probably be a little cloudier and overcast. With this in mind we decided that we would do our biggest day of driving and head up the Troodos Mountains to visit the Monastery of Kykkos and have a look at Mount Olympus from afar. I say from afar because I have been well traversed in Greek mountain ranges and the roads they house from trips with my mother, and I don’t like them. To put it mildly. We had been told to take the road to Limassol and then head up but looking on the map this seemed to take two hours and there seemed to be a much quicker route if we went up the hill from Paphos and then headed down (an admittedly winding and smaller) subsidiary road. Well who was the crazy person who thought that was a good idea? Oh me. And who was the person who spent the three (yes three, because that road really was lesser and really was windy) hours a complete bag of nerves and angst? Oh yes me. I thought I wouldn’t get up most of these roads…

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And this was only half way. I had to get out on a few occasions to have a walk and calm down, seriously. Anyway by the time we were at the top of what seemed the biggest mountain I saw that we still had another monster to go and might have said a slightly ruder version of ‘I am not really fussed about visiting that monastery thank you, I would rather go back’. The Beard however popped the child lock on and carried on regardless till we arrived at Kykkos.

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I have to say I was really unimpressed and might have muttered a slightly ruder version of ‘well this isn’t quite what I was expecting’. However once inside I was hushed, and not just because you have to stay very quiet so as not to disturb the monks. The walls are covered in some of the most stunning mosaics and they are covered in gold.

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This was just one of the entrances but from the moment you walk in there are these absolutely beautiful mosaics around every corner.

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We then went into the church and I nearly let out a small profanity because what greeted us in there was something quite unlike anything I have ever seen before. (Note. I have stolen this picture from the internet because we weren’t allowed to take any photos and I followed those orders.)

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To be fair no picture could actually do it justice as when you walk in it is very dark and your eyes adjust and you turn the corner and the gold and paintwork are almost blinding. I am not personally religious but the devotion, detail and downright splendour of it all left me feeling quite breathless and moved. The Beard was grumbling something along the lines of ‘imagine how many children that could feed’ but let’s not focus on that. I was just quite astounded by it all.

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After exiting via the shop, no really, where I got a tiny book on a keyring (which turned out to not be a book but a collection of mini photos) and some olive oil made by monks for The Beard’s mother, we headed home, or what we thought was home. We followed the signs to Paphos only seemed to go on a bigger road in another direction. I was fine with this, until we started going higher and then became surrounded by snow all of a sudden…

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Yes, remember that Mount Olympus I mentioned that I wanted to view from afar? Well suddenly we were on it and heading for the very top which is actually a ski resort because it is so high, so snowy and on this particular day was actually in the clouds. Imagine how much I loved that. I may have said a slightly ruder version of ‘oh dear’ a few times on the climb. Though when we got out it was quite something.

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From sunshine and the sea to snow in less than 24 hours. Quite unbelievable, but quite marvellous too. And well done to Bluebell the blue Nissan Note who became friend then foe and then saviour all over again several times. I think she needs a special mention.

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We were very grateful to be back at our hotel and by the safety of the pool, back in the sunshine again with a very strong cocktail for my poor nerves, later that afternoon with terrifying yet also incredible memories of quite an unusual day. Cyprus has really been spoiling us.

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Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff

I mentioned a week or so ago that I have decided to try and get involved, unofficially, with the Tournament of Books this year. The title, and indeed the author, that I have heard the most positive murmurs about both her in the UK and when I was in the US was Lauren Groff and Fates and Furies. I knew nothing other than the fact that lots of people I trust love her writing and this book and so I went into it completely blind with no idea of what to expect from the plot or the prose which can sometimes be the best way in. What unfolded was a book which I enjoyed very much indeed and has grown on me all the more since I read it.

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One of the things that has always bothered me most, and left me with some sleepless nights, is the fact that you can never really know exactly what someone else is thinking ever. Be it your family, friends or your partner. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies is a novel that looks at this conundrum thorough both sets of eyes in a marriage. Lotto and Mathilde seem like the perfect couple, in fact when they meet in their early twenties at a party everyone looks on as two of the most beautiful people first set eyes on each other and Lotto proposes on the spot. They soon become the envy of their friends, she the mysterious intellect who no one really knows and he the well known promising actor and loaded lothario who pretty much sleeps with whoever he wishes.

Despite many people, including their closest friends, thinking that this marriage will end before it has even started Lotto and Mathilde create a marriage that not only lasts after the initial honeymoon period but can weather any storm be it disinheritance, poverty, depression, unemployment you name it. Mathilde has tamed Lotto; Lotto has captured the mystery that is Mathilde. This is the version we are given in the first half of the book as we see the relationship through the eyes of Lotto, along with the history of his life up to the point he meet Mathilde. The question is will his perception be the same as Mathilde’s as we switch to her point of view in the second half, what secrets (good and bad) do they have from each other; do they really know each other?

He touched her hand. He bent down on one knee and shouted up, “Marry me!” And she didn’t know what to do; she laughed and looked down at him, and said “No!”
In the story he told of this – spun at so many parties, so many dinners, she listening with her smile, her head cocked, laughing slightly – she said, “Sure.” She never corrected him, not once. Why not let him live with his illusion? It made him happy. She loved making him happy. Sure! It wasn’t true, not for another two weeks when she would marry him, but it did no harm.

I thought Fates and Furies was a fascinating read for many reasons; the problem is how to tell you about them all without giving anything away. Often with a story told from two sides you feel that the author is with one character more than the other, or one character is the good one and the other will be the bad. Come on, it’s true. Not so with Fates and Furies as we discover both characters are flawed, both have faults and flaws as they do generosity and kindness, both come off the page fully formed, both are often oblivious to little things going on with the other, both are equals in the eye of the author and therefore the reader. Groff then treats us readers into hear both sides and so feeling a mixture of spectator/voyeur, confident and accomplice to everything that follows. You also feel at once clever, shocked and emotionally torn when you figure everything out just when Groff wants you to. All this I found particularly refreshing and rewarding reading.

I also think that whilst the tale of the secrets of a marriage is nothing new, the way that Groff deals with it all is from a new stance. At one point you very much feel that Groff gives you her thoughts on fiction and what she wants to do with it through Mathilde. She was so tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off. I won’t say it was quite like a bomb, however the way in which Groff delivers Fates and Furies is quite unusual, and you just have to work at it sometimes. This is no bad thing and actually I think this is why it has stayed with me and grown on me since.

Sometimes the perspective of the narrative will shift in Lotto or Mathilde’s narrative, not to the other person in the marriage but to an ominous third person or indeed one of their many ‘friends’ or relatives, it might only be for a sentence or a paragraph and it’s done with such a deft sleight of hand you don’t notice until a little while after. As Lotto becomes a famous playwright some of the sections are summed up with the title of the play, an excerpt of it, a review or glimpse of the writing process which mirrors or says something about the place the marriage is at. In one part of the book we jump from month to month or year to year from party to party to get a glimpse of where Lotto, Mathilde and those around them are at. Nothing is done randomly here, Groff always has a reason, and you just don’t instantly see it. You could string together the parties Lotto and Mathilde had been to like a necklace, and you would have their marriage in miniature.

Not only is Groff quite something stylistically, which makes the book a challenge but over all a joy to read, her prose is wonderful. In a sentence she can set the scene within a few words or lines. Sunset. House on the dunes like a sea-tossed conch. Pelicans thumbtacked in the wind. Gopher tortoise under the palmetto. She also has an incredible ability to make things so vivid so effortlessly that sometime you forget that the memories are of the characters rather than your own for the emotions they evoke. The place smelled of her, talcum and roses. Dust a soft gray skin over the chintz and Lladro. Also mildew, the sea’s armpit stink.

Another aspect that I thought was great was that fairytale and myth, in particular Greek tragedy, play a huge part in Fates and Furies resonating and rippling through the book. Mermaids, witches and goblins are often referenced or show up in some way, soon turning out to be nothing magical at all, linking into the whole idea of facades and the fantasies we build in our heads versus the reality, just as Lotto and Mathilde seem the perfect fairytale romance. The Greek tragedy elements (apt as I will be surrounded by Greek ruins when this goes live) appear both in the plays that Lotto chooses to adapt and then Mathilde’s storyline as it unfolds, hints of which lie in the title of the novel. I loved all this; some might even say I revelled in it.

There were a few niggles along the way that I should mention. I found the first half of the book overly long, whilst I understood why after finishing the novel I actually think Lotto’s story could have been a third of the book and Mathilde’s two thirds and remained just as visceral, intricate and poignant when all becomes clear. Two literary tropes which I am never keen on, even with writing as wonderful as Groff’s, touched a slight nerve; the writing about the cultural world and theatre and art was a tad overegged as was the poor rich boy who fails then becomes famous, but these get on my nerves as tropes in general and in the hands of other authors would have severely ticked me off rather than slightly bothering me. Also on occasion the switch in style would throw me, only to then reward me a little later on so I soon forgave it. Oh and I could have done with a little more fury towards the end, only a sprinkling more in the direction of one character who you will undoubtedly love to hate as much as I did. These were minor moments though within a fantastically large and larger than life (and all the better for being both) novel.

I would highly recommend Fates and Furies. It is a novel that intricately and intelligently looks at how you can only hazard a guess at what people are thinking or only hope that those closest to you are telling you what they really feel or are experiencing in their heads/lives and yet you’ll never really know. The story and characters are compelling, the style exciting, the prose second to none and the questions around secrets, when they are bad and when they work for the good, really thought provoking. It will also punch you in your emotional weak points, make you laugh and remind you to cherish what you have and be honest with those you love.

See, it just keeps on growing and growing on me the more I think about it. I have to hunt down Lauren Groff’s other books, any suggestions on where to start next? I would also love your thoughts on Fates and Furies if, or once, you have read it.

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The Tomb of the Kings, Paphos

I was a huge, huge fan of the Indiana Jones films as a kid (not so much the last one as an adult, it’s probably best if we all forget that it happened) and have always quite liked the ice of going off for an adventure into some old caves, ancient sites or tombs investigating and finding old relics. It was possibly this side of me, along with the gothic elements to, that lead me to take up a role as a tour guide at Highgate Cemetery. So when I discovered that there was a necropolis in Paphos that looked like an Indiana Jones film set I had to go.

 
It’s is quite surreal as you enter the park that within metres you realise that you are not surrounded by natural caves but by tombs. From the outside they look like a rocky natural cavern and then you go inside and discover there is much more than meets the eye. Who knows what might be lurking in them.

 
These are not actually tombs of kings but really a series of tombs built by the rich and aristocratic of the area. As you get towards the centre it all gets more and more showy. The more tombs you go in.

 
Until you get to the centre and possibly the grandest tomb I have ever seen, and believe me there are some corkers in Highgate, nothing quite on this scale though.

 

Quite something indeed and actually quite spooky when you get down there and there is just you and all that space…

 
The spookiness (and stillness and quiet) was part of what I loved about it all. As you descended or ascended each staircase you were never quite sure what you might find.

 

Bar a few small incidents of some Cyprus Lizards (which are pretty big) a pair of unsuspecting pigeons and a pair of fellow tourists popping their heads out when I least expected it I was very brave. (I did almost scream in the couples face when they suddenly appeared.) So maybe there is still time for me to become an intrepid explorer…

 
…Maybe! Or I could move here and become a cave/tomb guide. I do now really fancy some tales of adventure in the Indiana Jones style though. Know of any series or novels like that? I fancy getting lost in a few jungles, tombs and forgotten/hidden valleys, any recommendations?

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A Cove of Ones Own, A Perfect Reading Retreat

So on our adventures after visiting one of the archeological sites, which I will talk about later in the week in bulk so you aren’t overwhelmed by ancient stuff, we accidentally came across a place which may be the closest thing to my idea of seaside heaven. A cove with caves and a shipwreck and stunning blue waters. Best of all with no one there but us, a picnic and some books. So I thought I would share it with you.

 
  

It felt like a Famous Five adventure might take place at any point and was the perfect place to read in the sun in silence. Wonderful. If you’re ever in Cyprus head to the Edro shipwreck and the coves around it, perfect hidden reading retreats.

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The Baths of Aphrodite, Cyprus

I mentioned a while back that I wanted to do more things on whim so I decided that this should be the case on this holiday to Cyprus with the beard and so instead of joining the various day trips out supplied (note – at extra cost) on this trip I insisted that we hire a car and go off on our own whimsical adventures. The first of which was to the opposite side of the island to the Akamas National Park and mountain range to find the Baths of Aphrodite.

 Aphrodite is everywhere on this island, in fact it’s become something of a joke with me and The Beard that everything secretly has Aphrodite in front of it from chemists to public restrooms, however she was born from the foam at the seas edge here so you can’t blame them can you? But the idea of seeing the place she bathed (below a palace, we mere mortals cannot see, on the surrounding mountains) and where she and Adonis met was just too tempting. It seems the classicist roots from my mother are still in my blood. And so off we headed and found the grotto in question.

 

I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I expected to be (we’ve slightly more delectable grottos in my hometown of Matlock Bath) this still didn’t stop us both using the water on our skin for its magical youthful properties which are supposedly magical.

 

As the sun was out and the surrounding area was an abundance of flowers, butterflies, lizards (two massive ones), goats and stunning views of the sea we decided to follow the Aphrodite trail to a temple above and an oak tree where she would sit and contemplate the world both mortal and godly. And 7km isn’t far is it?

 

Well it turns out when it’s up a mountain over rocky terrain it is but wow were the views worth it. I actually said at one point that I felt like I was up the beanstalk in the land of the Giants.

The Beard was slightly sniffy that an oak tree would exist in these parts and indeed if one did there were bound to be loads. How wrong was he? After quite a walk we turned a corner and suddenly were faced by a single oak tree, there were no others, and the most silent and still point in the whole wood on the whole mountain. A mini valley cum glade that honestly felt quite other worldly even if you can’t tell from the picture. I will never forget it.

 
After a small bit of contemplation we realised we weren’t even half way on the walk and so headed up even higher and we’re just beginning to worry the mountain would never end when we reached the summit and were greeted by this…

 
I could completely understand why people felt that this could be the home of the gods. And then we turned a corner and it got even better…

 
Just amazing. We sat and just watched the world in all its quietness and stillness for quite a while just taking it all in. We then had to get back down which involved some interesting manoeuvring following mountain goat paths and looking like graceless goats, of which thankfully there is no photographic proof. We had to remember to watch our step and not just stare at the scenery till we fell off the precipice. A hairy scary but stunning decent down where bar four other walkers we saw no one. It felt like we were the last people on earth. And we quite liked it.

Quite the start to the holiday. Heartily recommend it if you are ever in Cyprus.

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