Category Archives: Bloomsbury Circus

At Hawthorn Time – Melissa Harrison

I am sure I have mentioned more than once or twice that I love books set in the British countryside. I mean I love books set all over the world; from India to Australia, Japan to Brazil and everywhere in between, as part of the joy of reading is that you can experience the entire world through the pages of a book. Yet for me there is also something really interesting about reading a world you already know (for I was brought up in many different parts of the British countryside) as seen through other peoples eyes be it the authors or the characters they populate their books with. It was this that made me so eager to read At Hawthorn Time when I first heard about it, from the cover alone it screams this is a book about nature and the countryside. Sold.

9781408859049

Bloomsbury Circus, 2015, hardback, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The end is the beginning is the end in the case of Melissa Harrison’s second novel At Hawthorn Time, as we witness the results of a car crash when the novel opens. What we are left wondering, and of course to find out, is who was in each of the cars and who the bystander is observing it all on the outskirts of the small village of Lodeshill somewhere in the wilds of the British Midlands. You might now be thinking ‘hang on is this some high octane mystery about a collision… you said it was about the countryside’ well I wasn’t fibbing, that is what we get as we read on.

I have mentioned before my issues with books that start with a bang and then settle down before sadly proceeding to peter out and become somewhat exhausted by themselves and the pressure the author put on them to start with. At Hawthorn Time is not one of these novels. What unfolds as we read on is a book that grips you not with bangs and whistles, instead grabbing you with its beautiful writing, its characters and its theme of human nature vs. the natural world itself, the latter which is struggling in part because we simply take for granted what we see before our eyes and almost become immune to, tending to forget and starting to forfeit. Whilst this is not the case with all but one of the four main characters, it is these characters integrations with nature that reminds us of what we are missing out on by not being as focused or grateful for the little things as we should be.

Howard and Kitty are recent incomers to Lodeshill, moving into the village for the start of their retiring years mainly because Kitty wants to head back out into the countryside despite the fact, much to Howards annoyance, that she isn’t originally from there. We soon realise that one of the couple hopes this will reignite their relationship and the other is there to reignite their creativity and to move further away from some of the secrets they hold. Jamie is a young man who has lived his whole life in Lodeshill, as have many generations of his family, and yet who yearns to get away from it as much as he feels completely tied to it. He knows the folk lore of the area, can tell you all the different types of trees and yet spends his days in a windowless distribution centre on the edge of the village day dreaming of upgrading the car he is remodelling and races down the quiet straight roads at night. Finally we have Jack, a nomad and a wanderer; who has dropped out of society for a simpler and more natural way of life, working when he needs to and sleeping the fields and forests as he goes.

Through all four of these characters Harrison looks at the different ways in which human nature and nature itself work together and against each other. For Howard and Kitty instead of lessening the divide between them it almost magnifies it. One it seems is much more cut out for the city than the countryside. While it reignites the creative spark in ones heart, it bores the other to death. One wants to go out to the forest and take all the nature in, the other wants to just go to the pub. This is a path well trodden in fiction, film and on the radio and I must say that Harrison both keeps you with them by writing their story in a way that is both filled with humour yet is also slowly more and more tragic as we read on, had this not been the case I might have been occasionally waiting for Jamie or Jack to stroll onto the page.

The swallows that nested in the eaves of Manor Lodge bore the same genes as the ones who had built the first mud cups there nearly 150 years before; the swallows at the rectory went back even further. Every April they arrived in the village from Africa, lining up like musical notes on the telephone wires and swooping for beakfuls of mud on the banks of the dew pond on Culverkeys Farm to repair their nests. When they first moved in Howard complained about them shitting on the Audi, but Kitty said they brought happiness to a home. Now they just parked the cars a little further from the side wall.

It is with Jaime and Jack that I found the themes more powerful and where the heart of At Hawthorn Time and strength of Harrison’s writing really lies. Both their sections had me completely lost within them. Jack is a man who is so much in love with nature he has gone back to the natural world without becoming feral. Yet considering his wants to be so at peace with the world society (on the whole) seems to either see this exclusion of all the trappings of modern life as something other, something weird or even something dangerous and sinister. You could understand why he would rather spend his time out with the trees and wildlife than with people who don’t understand him, judge him. or fear him. I found this fascinating. I also loved Jack and wanted to adopt him – even if he just wanted to live in my shed.

I found Jamie’s situation equally as intriguing and complex. Here is a young lad who loves everything about the place he grew up, the childhood he had and the people he spent it with. However as he grows older and discovers there is a world outside that is both petrifying and exciting, also tempting. How he deals with those two extremes and elements, the pressure from family and work whilst also wanting to be his own person and not be swayed rang so true to me. Do you dare to go out in the world and possibly change for good or for bad, or do you stay where you are and appreciate your lot or become embittered by it. This and the conflict of the old and the new is something that seems to be on the minds of some of the other characters in the book as we go forward and is what brings to the fore the whole theme of forgetting and forfeiting the wonders of the natural world all around us.

‘I mean , if you collected together all the mischievous fairies, black dogs and, I don’t know, haunted houses from all over the country, you’d soon see they’re all of a type – just ways of explaining what was unexplainable back then. Fortunately,’ he continued, turning to Chris with a grin, ‘we have science now.’
‘Oh, I don’t know, Dad. It must have been amazing growing up in those times: there’d be a story attached to every cave, every rock, every tree. It wouldn’t be, you know, there are some trees -’ Chris waved an arm at the general view – ‘and we know everything there is to know about them, though hardly anyone actually bothers to learn their names, It would be a case of, this tree, this oak tree, has a wicked witch in it, this willow tree is magic -’

I found At Hawthorn Time a really interesting, engaging and beautifully written novel. Harrison’s writing of the natural world is just gorgeous, making the divide between nature writing and fictional storytelling become wonderfully blurred. A scene can become a standout moment with just the addition of a bumble bee going about its daily life while all the human drama is unfolding in front of it without it even noticing. I have never seen this done in quite such a subtle and effective way before. I also think Jack is going to stay with me as one of my favourite characters of the year. I look forward to whatever Harrison chooses to write next and will certainly be heading to her debut Clay in the not too distant future.

Who else has read At Hawthorn Time and what did you make of it? Have you read Clay as I would love thoughts on that too. Also do let me know of any books you love which feature the English countryside heavily. You can see my thoughts on some great books featuring the British landscape I wrote for Fiction Uncovered here. Maybe it is time I did a top ten novels about the British countryside (if I haven’t already) or books featuring nature, what do you think?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Melissa Harrison, Review

Rook – Jane Rusbridge

One of the kinds of books I love to read the most (although I have only discovered in the last few years this is the case) are ones set in the British countryside. I am rather bored by books set in London, admittedly less so if they happen to be somewhere between 1850 and 1910. Whilst I know modern London is full of all walks of life, which is marvellous to read about, head out of the capital for a few hours and in the towns and villages some of the best stories can be found. This is one of the reasons I finally picked up Jane Rusbridge’s second novel Rook which I had heard would be right up my street for this very reason. In towns and villages secrets are much harder to keep buried.

Bloomsbury, paperback, 2013, fiction, 352 pages, borrowed from the library

Nora has fled from a love affair gone wrong and the international circuit of touring with her cello, back to her childhood home of Creek House in Bosham, Sussex to teach the locals. Whilst old childhood friends have welcomed her back the same cannot be said for her mother Ada. However things look set to change in Bosham as a TV documentary company, run by the suave Jonny, want to write about the possible body of King Cnut’s daughter buried below the church, along with the possibility of King Harold himself. Yet as a medieval secret of the town is about to be unburied after so long, so could be the secrets Nora and Ada have kept from each other.

Mother daughter relationships, along with all dysfunctional family set ups, are a prime subject for fiction. Nora and Ada’s estranged relationship puzzles and perplexes whilst it also intrigues; just what secrets have both women kept from each other, why did the death of Brian (Ada’s husband) along with Felicity (Nora’s sister) leaving the UK make them more estranged and not bring them together? How long can two women stay in the same place avoiding each other, one with her box of memories (and lots of cocktails, which seem a coping mechanism for getting older as well as keeping secrets locked away), the other with her cello and adopted Rook called, erm, Rook before the cracks finally fracture?

As we read on it is not only the secrets hidden under the floor boards of the local church that mirror Nora and Ada’s struggle with their own histories, the landscape also mirrors them too. It could actually be said that the main character in Rook is Sussex itself, its atmosphere comes out of every page and is often a metaphor for what is going on inside the characters heads.

The mud at low tide is alive with soft-lipped sucks and pops, the creek shrunk to a ribbon in the distance. Nora’s wellingtons slop around her calves as she steps from one hump of eel grass to another, arms spread to counterbalance any slip of the silt. Far off by the sluice gate twenty or thirty swans are clustered, startling white against the bladder-wrack and mud. Every limpid arch of neck and fan of wing displays an orchestrated grace, reminding Nora of her mother.

Occasionally though the sense of place and its relationship with the plot can cloud things. Dangers of flooding, the muddy coastline, the danger of private farmlands, etc are all wonderfully evoked – the prose in Rook is stunning – yet sometimes at the cost of explanations. I would sometimes be unsure if I was with Nora or with Ada, and occasionally we have gone into a flashback in the change of a paragraph which needs to be re-read before you realise what Rusbridge has done. I also on occasion found myself wishing that Rusbridge had written in the voice of Nora or Ada or alternated between the two of them. This may have lost some of the admirable subtleties Rusbridge allows the reader to expand upon themselves, but with all the mysteries Nora and Ada are harbouring themselves and from each other, they are prone to being slight enigma’s themselves. I interestingly found I knew Rook the most as a character and was fascinated learning all about how intelligent these birds are. I used to have a pet duck (super brainy birds) I now want a pet Rook, have I ever mentioned that before I was a book spotter I was a bird watcher? Anyway…

As I mentioned above, I love a book which has a real sense of place and in particular those which look at the British countryside. Therefore Rook couldn’t really be more ideal. Through Nora’s return to Bosham we have that sense we all know of nostalgia mixed with terror and edginess that going back to your hometown can bring. Through Jonny, who is a bit of a so and so, we see the attitudes to ‘the outsider’ which no matter how many times people say is a mentality that doesn’t exist in this forward thinking day and age, does. It is the sense of the atmosphere and nature of Sussex along with the definition of what makes a community (both the good and the bad) which seems to be at the very heart of Rook.

Around the polished table are people she has known since childhood. Miss Macleod is there, head down, reading something. Ted, who, now his son has taken over the day-to-day running of Manor Farm, has time on his hands so sits on many committees and is governor of the village primary school. George gives her a nod, jowls wobbling like wattles. Patricia, Ted’s wife and locally famous for her bridge suppers, flutters her fingers in a wave. Steve, the vicar, gives her a wink, and points to the empty chair beside him. A single father of three, Steve is not what most people expect in a vicar.

Using a ‘natural’ metaphor, which seems apt for this book particularly, I would compare Rook to a small brook (or a creek, all the more apt with Creek House) which slowly meanders to a larger stream which twists and turns into a river which builds up speed before it roars out to the sea. As we read on the pace, urgency and rawness become quicker and louder. I didn’t see the ending coming at all and it hits hard. In many ways Rook is a book about secrets and coping, or indeed not, with what life throws at us and how it changes our relationships with those around us. It is also a love letter to Sussex where Jane Rusbridge lives. It is beautifully written novel from an author I think more of us should be reading.

Who else has read Rook and what did you make of it? Have any of you read Jane’s debut The Devil’s Music as I am keen to give that a whirl. Oh and don’t forget you can find out more about Jane and have a nosey through her bookshelves on the latest Other People’s Bookshelves here.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Bloomsbury Publishing, Jane Rusbridge, Review

The Forrests – Emily Perkins

What I love about reading books you know nothing about is that they can occasionally make you learn something about the reader that you are. I have always thought I have rather eclectic reading tastes with a slight leaning towards ‘literary fiction’ (if I was forced to surmise it that is how I would put it) yet I have recently read a book that I think was too literary for me. It is the second release from new publishing imprint Bloomsbury Circus, who aim to be ‘unashamedly literary’, which is something which excited me, however I think ‘The Forrests’ by Emily Perkins might be one of those novels that is so literary that while its lovely to read in a way, it completely goes over your head. Well it did for me a little sadly.

Bloomsbury Circus, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 340 pages, sent by the We Love This Book for review

‘The Forrests’ is a clever mixture of family saga and the story of the life of Dorothy Forrest. It’s also a book which seems to celebrate the ordinary and everyday in life, there’s no major story arch, just the snap shot stories of a woman’s life.

As we follow her from her childhood, and the slightly dysfunctional family that she comes from, we are drawn into her life through snapshots. Yet interestingly Dorothy isn’t the omnipresent narrator or even the main protagonist that you might assume, that role often passes onto other characters. These are mainly her siblings like Eve, some who don’t really appear in the book themselves, or like Daniel a boy who her mother ‘took in’. We often learn more about Dorothy when she is described by others or appears in everyone else’s consciousness. It’s one of those books which rely on what is ‘unsaid’ about people and their actions leaving the reader to do a lot of the work.

I am not averse to making an effort with a novel at all, actually sometimes the books where the author allows the reader a freedom to move within the story and almost create some sort of collaboration between writer and reader can be my favourites. You feel trusted. However, my main issue with ‘The Forrests’ is that there was almost too much effort to work out just what the heck was going on. Paragraphs and sections of the novel can shift viewpoint without you realising who is then talking. You also have small situation set pieces which, as the book is so much ‘a celebration of a normal life’ if you will, seems to be in the book for no reason, they are just another event in Dorothy, Eve’s or Daniel’s life. Again some people will adore this, I found myself oddly frustrated and really trying to find out where the plot was, and I am often saying I can really enjoy a book that is has no plot but is simply observations of peoples/characters lives.

Here’s an example of where the writing it utterly beautiful, yet what is going on is rather confusing and, if I am honest, has no integral part to the story…

“The woman leaned down to examine his collar. ‘Where did you find him?’  
 ‘He’s my dad’s.’ She pointed down the road in the direction the woman came from. ‘I don’t know his name.’  
 ‘Blackie?’ The woman was speaking to the dog. ‘Blackie?’  
 The dog barked again, loud over the running car engine.  
 ‘It’s acting like it can talk,’ Evelyn said. ‘Like you’re having a conversation.’  
 The woman laughed.  
 ‘Is he yours? Evelyn asked. ‘Blackie?’
 ‘Yes. He’s grown a bit.’  
 Exhaust fumes coloured the air. The light of early morning had found its way onto everything now, on the dogs conker-coloured eyes and the woman’s sleep deprived face, in the spaces beneath the tree trunks and over the pile of grey stones Evelyn had gathered.  
 Evelyn dug at the stones with her foot, sending one skittering over to the woman. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘My dad’s really going to miss him.’”

The writing is utterly beautiful, yet sometimes Perkins so wants to fill the book with words – which some people will love – the sentences can become never-ending. The style of the novel and it’s drifting nature make it seem dreamlike, yet also, for me personally, meant I was sometimes unsure who in the Forrest family I was following and slightly unable to connect with any one character, especially Dot who the novel focuses on in particular from a midway point, yet she isn’t developed enough at the start. I felt like I knew everyone else and what they thought about her, rather than me actually having connected with her in any way.

I liked ‘The Forrests’ rather a lot in parts, I also felt equally frustrated by it. It’s left me feeling rather like I am sitting on the fence about a book, which doesn’t happen to me very often. I admired it greatly for its prose and style, even if I never quite fully connected with it.. Some people will love this book because the fact it is so dreamy and meandering, yet for the very same reason I can imagine some people might just loathe it. I guess it depends on how literary you like your novels. Odd analogy warning; but it reminds me of when I drank Cristal champagne, I knew it was special and refined and of exceptional quality, I just wasn’t sure it was for me. One thing is for certain though, Emily Perkins can certainly write and its good that Bloomsbury Circus are trying to find authors who have missed out on some of the success they most likely deserve. Plus I could be in the small minority with this book as there is already some buzz that this could win this year’s Booker prize. Who knows?

Has anyone else read this and if so what did you think? I have seen reviews from all extremes but would love to chat about it. Do you have any books that you have tried and found almost too literary for you? How did you combat that? Did you give up or persevere trying to appreciate how good the writing was?

A shortened version of this review appeared in We Love This Book.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Circus, Emily Perkins, Review