Saturdays especially are great days for discovering really-good-bordering-on-great books. Mind you, not every good Saturday book is a classic. But I recently read three superb novels that are right on the edge.
L. P. Hartley‘s The Go-Between and the Eustace and Hilda trilogy are masterpieces. In recent years, John Murray has reissued some of Hartley’s less well-known books. In My Fellow Devils, Margaret Pennefeather, a prim upper-class spinster, devotes herself to committee work and social work.
“But she was far from being discontented or shut up in herself. She had a great deal to give; and in the small town where they lived, within easy reach of London yet surprisingly not a dormitory town, she found outlets for it.”
Friends think she is too cloistered. When they learn she has never even seen the actor Colum MacInnes, they insist on a night out at the movies. It is a gangster film: she doesn’t care for his acting. But she becomes infatuated when she sees him in a sentimental play in London. She breaks off her engagement to a man who loves her and marries Colum.
Churches are important in their marriage from the beginning. Colum, who describes himself as a bad Catholic, is a charming deceiver. Margaret, who is not religious, refuses to convert to Catholicism, but they get married in a beautiful Catholic church in Italy by some special dispensation. And while they are in Italy, Margaret sightsees at all the famous cathedrals and churches.
The more she learns about Colum, the more comfort she takes in visiting churches. The marriage is miserable. He is barely on the right side of jail. He robs their apartment for the insurance money: it happens a few times before she figures it out. After she learns of Colum’s crimes, she talks to a priest who adamantly warns her about Colum. I am not a fan of Hollywoodish novels, whether they are set in Hollywood or London, but this one is unputdownable. It is a great Catholic novel, and yet Hartley was not Catholic!
The underrated writer Storm Jameson had brilliant ideas if a somewhat uneven style. Her powerful novella A Day Off is absolutely stunning. It has recently been reissued by Bloomsbury Reader as an e-book. It is also included in a Virago collection, Women Against Men.
The unnamed middle-aged heroine lives in a dingy room in London. The weekend client who has supported her financially for a few years has deserted her. She is almost penniless but decides to go out for a day on a spree: she wonders who buys all the books on Charing Cross Road, fantasizes about meeting a man who will take care of her, goes out to tea, and steals a purse from an old woman.
Jameson’s heroine is desperate, dishonest, and determined to survive. Here is her reaction to two women who stare at her.
Rude old ape. Actually pointing. She swung round to stare angrily after two elderly ladies. What if I was singing. There’s no law is there? She wanted to shout a word or two after them. Give them a few they won’t have heard. Tightening her lips, she stalked on, but now was all on edge and bothered. The disagreeable impression faded slowly.
This is fascinating, convincing, and horrifying. We can all imagine ourselves on the brink: what if we lost everything? Women’s lives are so often precarious.
David Mitchell, who has been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Price and recently won the World Fantasy Award for The Bone Clocks, is always in the news. He has written literary fiction and he has written science fiction. He has spoken up on behalf of genre fiction. In his new literary horror novel, Slade House, he skillfully manipulates the tropes of horror and fantasy. Imagine E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy, The Enchanted Castle, fused with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In Nesbitt’s classic, children find a magic ring in a seemingly enchanted garden, but the warped artefact twists all their wishes: in one terrifying scene, it brings the Ugly Wuglys ( life-size dolls made by the children of broomsticks, old clothes, and masks) to life. Add Jackson’s eerie haunted house and you crank up the nightmare.
In this genre-busting page-turner, a supernatural brother and sister prey on the dearest fantasies of gifted human beings. They lure them into Slade House. In the opening chapter, the narrator, Nathan, who is autistic with a touch of OCD, and his musician mother have been invited to a concert at Slade House. The problem is they cannot find the house on Slade Alley. Finally, they discover “a small black iron door, set into the brick wall.” It is so small they have to stoop. And then they are in a fantasy garden.
…and we’re looking into a garden; a buzzing, still summery garden. The garden’s got roses, toothy sunflowers, spatters of poppies, clumps of foxgloves, and lots of flowers I can’t name. There’s a rockery, a pond, bees grazing and butterflies. It’s epic. “Cop a load of that,” says Mum. Slade House is up at the top, old, blocky, stern and gray and half smothered by fiery ivy, not at all like the houses on Westwood Road and Cranbury Avenue.
Gorgeous, lyrical writing, no?
Nathan plays a terrifying game with a strange boy who disappears, and then Lady Grayer summons him into the house. Nathan discovers paintings of people with no eyes, and when he finds the painting of himself, we know he’s in a trap..
The novel consists of five linked stories between 1979 and 2015, each with a different narrator who is lured into Slade House. The ending is disappointing–it seems to prepare us for a sequel. But otherwise it’s a rocking good ghost story!
Anyway, three very good books!