Monday, 30 November 2015

We That Are Left by Clare Clark / The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton / The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell

We That Are Left by Clare Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I received a copy of We That Are Left from its publishers, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.

I had We That Are Left on my Kindle for several weeks before I actually got around to reading it, other books that looked as though they would be 'better' floating to the top of my TBR list first. What a mistake! From almost the first page I was gripped by the Edwardian world and lives of the Melville family.

Clark's novel is set during the First World War and the years immediately preceding and following it. This was a time of immense social upheaval in Britain, not just because of the horrific loss of male lives, but also because women began to assert themselves as they had not done before and strict class divides started to crumble. All this is captured here, interestingly, through a cast of mostly spoilt upper class characters who aren't particularly likeable but whom I found compelling. I did sympathise with Oskar for much of the book and, obviously, identified with bookworm Phyllis. The other Melvilles and friends I thoroughly enjoyed reading about and appreciated seeing their world view, but they were terrible people!

We That Are Left is permeated with a powerful sense of loss and change as characters die, choose travel and work, or are consumed by grief and obsession. There is a moving poignancy to the fragmenting family, but Clark also depicts the excitement and hope of potential new opportunities. I liked how 1920s crazes like Spiritualism and jazz nightclubs were interwoven together with historic events, both war-related and otherwise. Will Carter find anything in the Egyptian desert?! Great book!


The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I put off reading The Miniaturist because it was so wildly successful upon its release and I hate going into a book on a wave of hype - I am so often then underwhelmed! Set in 1680s Amsterdam, the novel explores the hidden secrets of a wealthy merchant family as they are uncovered through a series of unexpected parcels.

For me, The Miniaturist read as two parallel books which never quite came satisfactorily together. On one hand, the historical novel of the Brandt family is wonderfully researched and portrayed and I loved picturing the vibrant trading city. We have visited Amsterdam ourselves, in midwinter, so I could remember the pretty canals and the bitter, damp cold! Burton does a great job of describing the people, their clothing and food. Especially the food! I was reminded of my hunger while reading Julie Lawford's Singled Out and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec. The Brandt household's diverse characters sit well together although events do get rather over-melodramatic at the painting-ripping point.

The alternate storyline is that of the eponymous Miniaturist, a model maker employed by new Brandt wife Nella to furnish the lavish doll's house that was her wedding gift. As well as the ordered items, Nella receives others that confuse her. However, as she begins to understand what is really going on in her husband's house, the extra items become scarily prophetic. I liked the idea of the doll's house and the descriptions of its tiny rooms and furnishings. The possibly magical element didn't really fit for me though and I think the novel could have been just as intriguing without this plot device.

The repressive religious beliefs of 17th century Amsterdam compete with its inhabitants' greed for guilders showing everyone to be a hypocrite to some degree. I thought the female characters were more convincing than the male, especially Cornelia and Marin who are great creations. I enjoyed The Miniaturist while I was reading it, but the more I think back over the book now, the less satisfied I am.


The Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxThe Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Dave's daughter Carrie recommended The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox to us months ago and it is another book that has sat unread on my Kindle when I should have gotten to it far sooner! This is my tenth book for the Read Scotland 2015 Challenge.

The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox is a short, but powerful novel which examines definitions of madness and the terrible treatment meted out to socially embarrassing women not so many years ago. Euphemia Esme Lennox was born in India six years after her older sister Kitty. An 'odd' child, Esme doesn't conform to social norms which exasperates her mother. She displays such outrageous notions as using her imagination and sees nothing wrong with walking around barefoot! Unbelievable behaviour! When the family return to repressed Edinburgh Society after a disastrous experience in India (I won't say what happens!) Esme's strangeness appears even more pronounced, leading her family to believe that 'something' must be done. Sixty years later, great-niece Iris suddenly discovers Esme's existence when her asylum is due for closure. Iris is summoned to the rescue of this now-elderly woman who had been completely erased from family memory.

I loved the characters in this book. O'Farrell manages to convey so much emotion and understanding through relatively simple prose and I felt that I came to know everyone in this tragic tale well. I was horrified to realise that, while not a true story in itself, the situation portrayed in The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox was disturbingly common up to at least the middle of the last century, affecting hundreds of British women. Especially upsetting to me was the hospital staff calling for 'Euphemia'. Even something as basic as Esme's preferred name has been completely ignored for six decades! And the big question of whether she is, or was, insane is cleverly answered by contrasting scenes from Esme's point of view with insights into the thoughts of now-Alzheimer's ridden Kitty. Fabulous writing!

While not actually a depressing novel to read, I came away from it feeling shocked and saddened. Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will definitely be seeking out more of O'Farrell's writing.


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1 comment:

  1. Jessie Burton and Maggie O'Farrell will be at the Emerald Street Literary Festival on Sunday 11th June 2016 in London. Further details here: http://www.emeraldstreet.com/literaryfestival

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