Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary British Women Writers’

When I read Claire’s (from ‘Word by Word’) review of Diana Athill’s ‘Stet’, I made a mental note to look for that book and other books by Athill. Soon, I got a chance to stop by at a sale of secondhand books. Most of the books which were featured there were popular bestsellers. But as past experience has taught me that if I spend enough time at a sale like this, some treasures will pop out from unlikely places, I decided to look through the collection carefully. And, of course, the hidden treasures started popping out. One of them was Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. I was quite excited when I discovered it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

Somewhere Towards The End By Diana Athill

‘Somewhere Towards the End’ is Diana Athill’s meditation on old age. She starts the first chapter with these lines :


Near the park which my bedroom overlooks there came to stay a family which owned a pack of pugs, five or six of them, active little dogs, none of them overweight as pugs so often are. I saw them recently on their morning walk, and they caused me a pang. I have always wanted a pug and now I can’t have one, because buying a puppy when you are too old to take it for walks is unfair.


And she ends the book (this is not a spoiler, as this book is a memoir 🙂) with these lines :


I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern. It was worth buying.


In the in-between middle, Athill shares her thoughts on becoming old, on her past lovers and how her relationships with them changed with age, on taking care of old people, on having a family vs staying single, on how her writing picked up after she became old, on how she stopped reading fiction after getting old, on how old age has made her a stronger atheist, on the pleasures of gardening and driving cars, on having adopted daughters and grandchildren, on developing new interests and hobbies, on how some old people are lucky with their health (she includes herself in this) and on old age ailments and regrets. Each chapter is on a particular topic (though the chapters don’t have titles) and these are reasonably self-contained and so can be read independently.


Reading the book felt like sitting at the feet of my grandma and listen to her tell stories. The only difference is that though Athill was born in 1917 and at 96 years old (89 years old when she wrote this book) is an Ancient (she calls herself that – so don’t get angry at me 🙂), her voice is fresh and quite contemporary. Her life as she has described it is quite fascinating – graduating from Oxford in the 1930s (must have been comparatively rare for a woman at that time), staying single and never marrying for her whole life (though she had lovers at different times), being financially independent and working till she was seventy five, not being too attached to money and not trying to accumulate material possessions (she says that she didn’t own a house at the time she wrote this book a few years back). I know there are younger women (and men) today who defy the norm and live independent lives pursuing their careers and their interests (it is still rare to find them though – most people seem to be living similar lives, doing the same things, having the same interests, watching the same movies, even having remarkably similar opinions on social and political issues – nothing wrong in that though, it is part of the fun of being a human being), but for someone who lived through most of the twentieth century, when things were conservative for a significant part of the century, I think it must have required a lot of bravery and courage and a fiercely independent spirit to do what she did and live life the way she did. (It is fascinating to compare Athill with a few other great literary women of the 20th century – Virginia Woolf was still alive and writing novels when Athill graduated from Oxford and went to work; Irish Murdoch was two years younger (yes, younger!) than Athill. Simone de Beauvoir was just nine years elder to Athill, so practically they were from the same generation but it doesn’t feel that way when we think about it now).


There is only one place where where Athill betrays her great age and we feel that she was really born in a different era. It happens when she says this : “I depend so much on reading because I never developed the habit of watching television. I have never even bought a set.” It was absolutely unbelievable for me. It made me think of my father though – he never developed an interest in television other than watching the news. (My mother loved watching television, but mostly movies and movie-based programmes and not serials). I don’t think my grandparents ever watched television.


Athill says some interesting, quirky and sometimes contradictory things in her book. The contradictory things add to the charm of the book and make us like her more (we are all a bundle of contradictions, aren’t we?) In the early part of the book when she talks about her past lovers she says that at some point she started liking black men more than white men. When she talks about the time when she lost faith in romantic love and some men proposed to her, she says this : “During those years, if a man wanted to marry me, as three of them did, I felt what Groucho Marx felt about a club willing to accept him : disdain.” That line made me smile 🙂


When she compares popular books of today with those of her childhood, this is what she says : “even the run-of-the-mill novel of today is much more sophisticated and interesting than that of my early youth, not to mention those popular just before the First World War.” And she goes on to say this about the popular novels of her childhood : “The best of them seem ponderous and verbose, over-given to description, while as for the rest! Infantile tosh : that is what they so often are.” I have mixed feelings about what Athill says here. I think novels of an era are written for readers of that era and so the language and the story reflect the language and the value system of that era. If a novel is ponderous and verbose, it is probably because readers of that era liked that kind of prose. If I can mention a couple of examples here : Marie Corelli was a bestselling writer in the era that Athill is talking about (she outsold her contemporaries like Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells and Rudyard Kipling put together). Unfortunately, her books are out-of-print today. I have read some of her books and they are quite good – the central theme is powerful and the story is quite engaging. Another example I can think of is Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ which was published in 1902. It is quite gripping and fascinating and not at all ponderous. I find it strange that I am defending writers from the pre-First World War era whose works Athill calls ‘ponderous’, ‘verbose’ and ‘infantile tosh’. It makes me ask myself  the question, ‘Who’s the Ancient now?’ 🙂


Some of the things that Athill says make us want to have a debate with her. On her not wanting to have children, she says – “I have uncommonly little maternal instinct, a deficiency I think I was born with. As a child I was not just indifferent to dolls, I despised them.” It is, of course, a total contradiction to what she says in the first passage of the book – that she loves dogs and likes taking care of them and taking them for walks. I think at some level taking care of a puppy or a dog is as complex and as rewarding as taking care of a child. Also, having a dog is like having a child forever – it won’t grow up (it will grow up in a doggy sense, but not in a human sense), go to university, get a partner, find a job and move out of home. It is going to stay with one forever. And one has to take care of it forever. It is paradoxical that Athill loves that but doesn’t have a maternal instinct for children. Athill, of course, acknowledges what might be the real reason : “selfishness…which made me wary of anything to which one has to give one’s whole self, as a mother has to give herself to an infant and a toddler. It was that which prevented me from wanting a child for so long…” This and other honest, self-critical things that Athill says in the book made her more interesting and charming and made me like her even more.


Another thing which Athill says which might lead to debate is about loyalty, especially in marriage. She starts on the topic with this sentence – “Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine.” She then continues with – “Loyalty unearned is simply the husk of a notion developed to benefit the bosses in a feudal system. When spouses are concerned, it seems to me that kindness and consideration should be the key words, not loyalty…”  It is a point of view which will lead to some interesting conversation.


One of the interesting chapters in the book is where Athill talks about atheism. I always thought that people became spiritual as they became older and even if they were atheists when they were young, they became spiritual in a secular or even atheistic way (I realize that is a contradiction in terms) when they got older. But not with Athill. She says that when she got older, her atheism became more firmly established. To John Updike’s attack on atheism :


“Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ambiguity, the ingenuity, the humanity of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead?”


She responds :


“Perhaps it is uninteresting intellectually to believe that the nature of the universe is far, far beyond grasping, not only by oneself as an individual but by oneself as a member of our species; but emotionally, or poetically, it seems to me vastly more exciting and more beautiful than exercising any amount of ingenuity in making up fairy stories.”


And she goes on to add :


“Surely the part of life which is within our range, the mere fact of life, is mysterious and exciting enough in itself? And surely the urgent practical necessity of trying to order it so that its cruelties are minimized and its beauties are allowed their fullest possibly play is compelling enough without being seen as a duty laid on us by a god?”


This is a topic which will make for a fascinating conversation on a winter evening, in front of a warm fire, with a drink in hand.


My love for the small quirky things sprang into full attention when I noticed the word ‘pernickety’ in the line – ‘old age has made me pernickety’. It sounded very similar to ‘persnickety’ and after a little bit of research I discovered that they mean the same thing – the former is the British spelling while the latter is American. It made me wonder how that extra ‘s’ came into the word in the American version. Doesn’t American spelling always remove redundancies and make it easier for one to spell the word (like ‘color’ instead of ‘colour’)? What is the story behind that ‘s’? Would you know?


I totally loved Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’. It is beautiful, charming, heartwarming and a pleasure to read. I loved this description of the book on the cover – “Jean Rhys said that literature was a lake, and what mattered was to contribute to it, even if only a trickle. She contributed a narrow boiling river. Diana Athill contributed a cool clear burn.” I would love to read all of her books now. I hope she lives to a great age, continues to drive her car, and continues to share her wisdom to readers through her writing.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book :


Getting one’s hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable – it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.


How successful one manages to get through the present depends a good deal more on luck than it does on one’s own efforts. If one has no money, ill health, a mind never sharpened by an interesting education or absorbing work, a childhood warped by cruel or inept parents, a sex life that betrayed one into disastrous relationships…If one has any one, or some, or all of those disadvantages, or any one, or some, or all of others that I can’t bear to envisage, then whatever is said about old age by a luckier person such as I am is likely to be meaningless, or even offensive. I can speak only for, and to, the lucky. But there are more of them than one at first supposes…


If this is smugness, and I can’t help feeling that it is, then I have to report that I have learnt through experience that, though repulsive to witness, it is a far more comfortable state to be in than its opposite.


…most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them seem to come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.


What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch. They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person’s life. We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so. We are becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead…It’s not surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier. Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder – indeed it enables us actually to feel again – that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings, new beginnings – are still parts of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children’s being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste out time grizzling.


Have you read Diana Athill’s ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ or any other book by her? What do you think about them?

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I discovered Emma Brockes’ ‘She Left Me the Gun’ through Claire’s (from Word by Word) review of it. Something about the book pulled me in – probably a combination of the main theme of the book, the subtitle ‘My Mother’s life before me’ and what I read in Claire’s review. I read memoirs only once in a while, but I thought I should read this. I finished reading it yesterday and here is what I think.

She Left Me The Gun By Emma Brockes

‘She Left Me the Gun’ is Emma Brockes’ memoir about her mother. Emma Brockes’ mother had come from South Africa to work and live in London in the ‘60s, and Emma has heard some stories about that from her mother while growing up. But she doesn’t know why her mother moved so far away from her family to live in a different country. She also gets to know that her mother has a large family – many brothers and sisters, some of whom visit England – and Emma doesn’t know how her mother managed to live away and apart from them for decades. Her mother hints in passing about some kind of dark secret about her past, concerning her father and the case she filed against him in the South African court and promises to tell Emma more about it in the future. Unfortunately, that conversation never happens and Emma’s mother dies of cancer. Later, Emma decides to do some research into the case that her mother filed against her grandfather and she discovers some shocking things about her grandfather. Emma decides to travel to South Africa and meet her uncles and aunts and find out more. The rest of the book is about Emma’s journey to the past and what she discovers there about her mother’s life before she was born and the secrets that she uncovers about her mother’s family.


I found Emma Brockes’ memoir quite interesting and at times depressing. At the beginning of the book she says,


“Like most children, the life my parents led before I was born was a rumor I didn’t believe in.”


This is a sentence which most of us would probably relate to and agree with. When Emma starts her journey into her mother’s past, she discovers a totally different woman and facets of her mother’s personality that she didn’t even know existed. She also gets to know the shocking secrets of her mother’s life and the way her mother has survived the trauma to reinvent herself and rediscover happiness. And during her journey to South Africa she also gets to know the country and its people and discover her relatives and learn to like and understand them in different ways.


I don’t know what else to say about the main theme of the book, because they will all be spoilers. I was quite disappointed with the book description on the inside flap, which was a summary of the book, which revealed most of the surprises. I think book descriptions and book blurbs should inspire the reader to read the book and discover more, rather than giving a summary of the book and revealing surprises for the reader. Earlier, introductions written for books used to do that – reveal spoilers – but now book blurbs are doing that. It is sad. Emma Brockes herself hints at the dark secrets in her mother’s life and we more or less know what it is. I wish the revelations had come out gradually and naturally. After around three-fifths of the book is over, the book takes a bit of a roller coaster ride because Emma Brockes starts talking more about her South African experiences – her exploration into South African history, her trip to Soweto, her meeting of Nelson Mandela – which weakens the main focus of the book. Luckily, after a while, the book returns back to its main theme – her mother and her family history.


Having given the bad news, now I have to state the good news. ‘She Left Me the Gun’ is a beautiful book. It is depressing and haunting, because of the events it describes and the secrets it reveals. But it is beautiful too, because of the way Emma’s mother comes out of the traumatic events which affected her to build a life which is filled with beauty and happiness and brings joy and happiness and camaraderie to the people who touch her – her family, her friends, her colleagues, her boss. Though the secrets revealed are dark and depressing, the book is ultimately life affirming and I loved the book for that.


I also liked other aspects of the book – the cover was beautiful, soft to the touch with a matte finish. The font was beautiful and it was a pleasure to read.


While reading the book, I wondered about something. Emma Brockes is British but I read the American edition of her book. I wondered how the spellings of some of those ‘problem’ words would be – will the editors include the ‘u’ or leave it out, in words like ‘colour’ (‘color’) and ‘humour’ (‘humor’), and will they substitute ‘c’ for ‘s’ in words like ‘practise’ and ‘advise’. I like doing such quirky things – trying to catch the editor off guard – and it was interesting when I started looking for such words in this book. I spotted three words and discovered that the spelling was all inconsistent and that made me smile and I stopped there. The three words I noticed were ‘humour’ (the ‘u’ is intact – British spelling), ‘practicing’ (the ‘s’ has been replaced by the ‘c’ – American spelling) and ‘demeanor’ (the ‘u’ has been left out – American spelling). It made me wonder whether the American editor missed out the first word during the editing process or whether this was the spelling adopted by the author herself and the editor had let them be. It also made me wonder what happened when a 19th century (or earlier) British classic was published by an American publisher – do they delete the ‘u’ and replace every ‘c’ with an ‘s’ in the concerned words? The tyranny of spelling variations 🙂


I enjoyed reading ‘She Left Me the Gun’. Enjoyed is actually the wrong word. It left a deep impression on me. It was depressing, haunting, inspiring and life-affirming. I hope to find out what Emma Brockes comes up with next.


Have you read ‘She Left Me the Gun’? What do you think about it?

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I got Clare Morrall’s ‘The Language of Others’ a few years back while browsing in the bookshop. I liked the description of the story and so thought I will get the book. Morrall’s first book ‘Astonishing Splashes of Colour’ was shortlisted for the Booker prize. ‘The Language of Others’ is her third book. I have wanted to read it for a while now, and so now I thought I will read it as part of the British Women Writers series. Here is what I think.

The Language Of Others By Clare Morrall

‘The Language of Others’ is a story which has plot strands set in three time periods and tells the story of Jessica, who at the present time is in her forties, and who is a librarian and also a musician who gives piano concerts with her friend Mary. Jessica has a grown up son who is in his middle-twenties, has his own business and lives with her. Jessica is single. One day Jessica gets an email from her ex-husband Andrew, who says that he wants to meet her. After this the story moves back and forth between three time periods – the present, the past when Jessica is a young girl living at her parents’ place, when she is shy, introverted, likes being left alone with her piano and doesn’t like talking to her parents, sister or cousins and a third time period which is in between these two times, when Jessica is in college studying music where she meets Andrew and falls in love with him. What happens between Jessica and Andrew and why they have reached the situation they are in today, why Jessica is working as a librarian when she trained to become a musician, why Jessica’s grown up son still lives with her, why Jessica was quiet and introverted and wanted to be left alone when she was a child and whether she is still like that now – the answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.


I loved ‘The Language of Others’. Clare Morrall’s description of music is very beautiful and one of the most natural that I have read. Most of the time, when an author writes a book which has a classical music backdrop, I find that the description of music is very general and very soon the story explores love, death or other themes and the music part of the story is ignored. I suspect that this might be because the author doesn’t have expertise in music and for a non-expert it is difficult to write about music naturally and authentically (beyond mentioning a few composers, a few musical instruments and then saying that the music was divine or heavenly or enveloped the audience warmly like a cloud). But Morrall’s passages on music are brilliant, authentic and natural – they have enough technical information without intimidating the musical novice and they are also beautiful and transport the reader inside the story into the music scene. It is a difficult art and Morrall is an expert at it. It must have helped that she is a music teacher too. This was one of the first musical passages which made me fall in love with the book.


The violin player started to play sections of concertos – Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven – carelessly, tossing them off into the air like quick flurries of rain. Each one swirled around in the wind for a few seconds, sharp but brilliant, uncertain whether to settle for a serious downpour or move away and give up.


For a book which I fell in love with, it also made me angry, quite angry. There were many scenes in the story where the heroine Jessica gets bullied by different people and it continues till the end, till she learns to resist them and fight back. I hate bullies and I hate nice people being bullied and the scenes where Jessica suffers at the hands of bullies were quite realistic and they made me quite angry. I am normally quite calm and never get angry when I read a book, but this was an exception.


I liked the old-fashioned way of storytelling that Clare Morrall had adopted. It almost read like a Victorian novel written in modern language. I don’t think that there was a word or a sentence or a scene wasted and the sentences were constructed beautifully and they all made the story move forward. All the characters were well fleshed out. My favourite characters were Jessica, her friend Mary, her son Joel’s girlfriend Alice, her mother Connie and her piano teacher Thelma Gulliver. Jessica’s ex-husband Andrew and her cousin Philip were two characters that I didn’t like (and who made me angry) but they were important characters in the story. Traditional storytelling, interesting characters, beautiful prose, musical backdrop, powerful scenes which make one angry and happy and sad, an ending which had a surprise but which was also very satisfying – what else does one need? ‘The Language of Others’ is a perfect novel. I can’t believe that I waited for so many years to read it. I know we have not reached the half way point of the year yet, but I can safely say that ‘The Language of Others’ is and will be one of my favourite books of the year. I can’t wait to read other books by Clare Morrall. I want to read all of them.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


I couldn’t really understand what Andrew saw in me. It was as if a shaft of brilliant sunshine had decided to push its way into a dark corner of the house where it wouldn’t naturally go, turning a corner to get there, penetrating walls that obstructed its progress, breaking all the laws of physics.


I was fascinated by the way people changed when they dressed up, became someone different. They shimmered and glittered and it was like placing them in front of a mirror, turning them through 360 degrees, and finding them altered when they came back. The same people, the same features, but subtly different. The nose that had seemed too big became elegant, the lips that protruded too much became full and individual. Skinny people became slim, fat people warm and shapely. I began to see what attracted people to each other. A glistening aura that was not normally on show.


Her left hand started to stroke the repeated A flats with a gentle insistence, establishing a constant presence, but taking a passive role, hardly there at all. The right hand sang out, cantabile, easing its way through the simplicity of the melody. Rubato, indulgent, taking its time. Each phrase rose and fell, shaped and polished with love. This was how you played Chopin. It was music for the nineteenth-century salon, a piece to impress George Sand and the cultured circles of Paris, who, like Thelma Gulliver, were all slightly in love with the consumptive, temperamental composer from Poland.


Pretence gives you room to get round obstacles without touching them, the space to observe that there are other sides to people, not just the abrasive, challenging attitude that you can’t cope with. You have to view people from new angles, see where the light falls, discover which edges have been worn down and softened with time. Otherwise you get so caught up in the negatives you can’t see anything else.


I want to hear the echo of nothing for miles around. I want to be the only person who can disturb the air when I walk through my house. I can feel it parting to let me through, closing up again behind me. The silence soaks into my mind, an invisible medicine that drips down, melting hardened arteries, easing its way into neglected and forgotten places.

      Apparently, loneliness is a twenty-first-century disease which leads to alcoholism, drug-taking, depression, suicides. It’s better to be married if you want to live longer. I defy all of this research. I thrive on the emptiness of my house.


Have you read ‘The Language of Others’ by Clare Morrall?

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While browsing through my book collection, I discovered an interesting trend in it. Across the years, I had collected books by British women writers, writers who were probably well known in their circles, but who were all new-to-me. In the case of most of these books, I picked them up because I liked the plot. In the case of some books, I picked them up, because there was something about the writer that I found interesting, and in some cases, the book had won a literary award. Some of these books were also long / shortlisted for the Booker prize or the Orange prize. So, a few days back when I thought I will pick a new book to read, I decided to take all these books I have by British women writers and read them together. I thought it will be fun to compare their different takes on life and their different writing styles if I read them together.

The Whole Wide Beauty By Emily Woof

The first book that I picked up for reading, in this series, was ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ by Emily Woof. I bought Emily Woof’s book because I had discovered her through a different context. A few years back I had seen the movie version of Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Woodlanders’. It is about a young woman who wants to grow out of her village roots and become a sophisticated person, but she keeps getting pulled back to her village by her childhood sweetheart, while the doctor that she is in love with, though he is sophisticated, is not exactly the nice person she assumes him to be. This young woman’s search for love and how circumstances and the social setup of that time foil her plans form the rest of the story. Emily Woof played the role of this young woman and I loved her performance. So, when I saw ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ and discovered that it was written by the same Emily Woof, I couldn’t resist getting it. I have a soft corner for artists who are talented in multiple fields and who find expression for their creative impulses in diverse ways. ‘Have a soft corner’ is putting it mildly. I love these artists and am extremely jealous of them. I am especially biased towards actors and actresses who write novels. I have read and loved novels by Steve Martin (‘Shopgirl’) and Ethan Hawke (‘Ash Wednesday’) in the past. So I had to read Emily Woof’s ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.


‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ is about Katherine who teaches music in a school for special children and her life and loves. Katherine used to be a dancer before, but she has given up dance after she got married to Adam. She and Adam have a son called Kieron. Adam’s parents David and Kay are very literary – David is a poet and also manages a foundation which is attempting to preserve the literary heritage of Northumbria, while Kay teaches literature and poetry at school. David organizes a fundraising dinner which also features poetry readings. Stephen, a poet who is mentored by David, is one of those who participates in the readings. The audience loves his poetry. And Katherine falls in love with him. How Katherine manages her relationship with Stephen and that of her family form the rest of the story. This is, of course, summarizing the plot simplistically. The novel is also about David’s attempts at raising funds for his literary foundation and the problems in doing so. It is also about the complex relationships that David has with May (his wife), Gregory (his brother-in-law), Katherine, Stephen and other characters in the story. From one perspective the novel is the story of Katherine. From another perspective, it is also the story of David. Though the novel is just around 300 pages, like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, the book has many characters, many stories, interesting surprises and beautiful prose. The main characters were all fully fleshed out and complex and flawed and humanly beautiful. Though I liked Katherine and Stephen and some of the other main characters (I didn’t really like David much) my favourite characters in the story were May and Ken (David’s gardener).


Some of the interesting things I noticed while reading the book were these : one of the characters was called Kieron (Katherine’s son) and the word ‘pollard’ was used (in the sentence ‘the pollarded plane trees seemed to push up…’ – if you are a cricket fan you would probably know about Kieron Pollard); Katherine looks at her mobile phone to find out the time (which seems to be a very contemporary practice – I remember reading about this in two other novels recently); the singular form of the verb is used with the noun ‘a couple’ (in the sentence ‘A couple was crossing a side street.’ – today the plural form is used quite regularly though it is grammatically incorrect and it has even started sounding right to our ears, for example, if we say ‘A couple were crossing a side street’).


I liked ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’ very much. I read some parts of the novel rapidly and I now regret doing that, because it is a novel which needs to be read slowly because only when we read it that way, the novel rewards us with its magic. I can’t wait to find out what Emily Woof comes up with next.


I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.


May knew that he was reassured by her mischievousness, as she was by his indignation.


When he spoke to Katherine about May, David always referred to her as ‘your mother’ rather than the familiar ‘Mum’ which presumed an intimacy he resisted. It was part of his stubborn Northern heritage. ‘Your mother’ was used by men to distance themselves from the family; ‘your mother’ seemed to Katherine to mean, ‘she’s your mother and neither of you have anything to do with me’.


Once people were introduced to poetry, they would change forever. Poetry was a quiet permission for people to embrace their own mystery.


David : His work is conceptual, very abstract.

Christopher : Art has to look like something for me, I’m afraid.

David : Artists like George Gull need you.

Christopher : What on earth for?

David : They need to be rejected.

Christopher : I see. The perversity of the artist. Longs for success but thrives on disdain.


They probably took their dog on the same walk every afternoon. May imagined their lives, conventional, their marriage so faithful and unchallenging. They were perfectly moulded to each other, like two bowls on a kitchen shelf. She could never have chosen a life like theirs, but as she got in her car to drive to Carlisle, she wished for a small measure of their contentment.


The poem held a new intelligence. The language was arresting, almost disturbing, s though he had pounded and bullied the words, pushing them to the limits of making sense. It was a raw excavation of the human need for love and the struggle to sustain it.


Have you read Emily Woof’s ‘The Whole Wide Beauty’? What do you think about it? Do you like reading novels by actors / actresses or creative artists from other fields?

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