About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 30 January 2021

"Notes from an Exhibition" by Patrick Gale

As with a number of books I have reviewed recently (Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan), this book is constructed from interlinked snapshots going backwards and forwards in time. I have suggested before that this has the advantage that you can 'head hop' and present multiple perspectives and that you can keep the reader's attention by manipulating the order in which you present information but the disadvantages of making the narrative a little more confusing and potentially multiplying characters. This book avoids the latter trap by restricting the main characters to the husband, the wife and the four children, although the sister creeps in towards the end. Thematically the book is brought together by prefacing each of the sections with notes for one of the artist's creations, as if the stories are triggered in a retrospective exhibition.

Rachel Kelly is a painter living in Newlyn, West Cornwall. Early in the book she dies. The stories then explore her fractured family: husband Anthony, a Quaker (as they all are; I don't think I've ever read fiction involving Quakers before), eldest son Garfield, a married ex-lawyer, gay son Hedley, estranged daughter Morwenna who has disappeared, and dead son Petroc. Infusing the whole book is Rachel's bipolar syndrome which means that she lurches from high creativity to desperate depression (especially post-natally); this has distorted family relationships. In addition, she has kept secrets from all of them and the reader learns about these as the book progresses.

The question that keeps the story captivating to the end is: why did Petroc die? But all of the characters are fascinating and beautifully drawn: they are utterly real and the depiction of family life is perfectly presented.

Some of my favourite moments: (page numbers refer to the Harper Perennial paperback)

  • "She listened to his breathing and heard it still had the full depth of sleep upon it." (p 2)
  • "The gallery owner ... had so many piercings one could hear them click on the receiver during her phone calls." (p 8)
  • "It was one of the wonders of the beach ... Some intense heat, was it, or violent tumult within the earth there had brought forth stone of every shade? Garfield had once tried to catalogue them. Like some lost soul in the Greek underworld, he had felt compelled to sort them into black, white, white and black, grey and pink, grey with white streaks and bronzy yellow. The variety had defeated him as much as the lack of time between tides." (p 90)
  • "She had three children by three different men and was a notorious slapper in both senses." (p 107)
  • "He went to art school in Falmouth where he was quiet but fairly popular and continued to drift in the upper half of the underachievers." (p 157)
  • "Perhaps it was that she was the best Quaker of them all, striving to create the fewest ripples as she moved through life." (p 161)
  • "Garfield thought she was mad. A lot of people did. Largely this was because their idea of sanity was so enmeshed with property; economic and social stability with its mental equivalent." (p 259)
  • "If a blade of grass was a tree to an ant, what must a tree be or a whole lawn? Perhaps, he thought, they simply blanked out such vastnesses and, having no conception of their own insignificance, could thus cope with life and even be happy? Perhaps the trick was to aspire backwards, to the blessed narrowness of a baby's pram-bound outlook and the more you saw, the less happy you could hope to be?" (p 307)
  • "If you saved your anger rather than speaking it, it had a way of evaporating like smoke, leaving just a faint smell where before there had been flames." (p 313)
  • "They hadn't kissed much earlier, which was a relief because ... it struck him as the most intimate thing ... The rest was intimate too, naturally, but it was limbs and body parts whereas mouths were sort of where your personality came out." (p 360)

A super book: engaging and absorbing but also wise.

January 2021; 374 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Patrick Gale also wrote Kansas in August

Other books in this blog about artists include:

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok and its sequel The Gift of Asher Lev

Wednesday, 27 January 2021

"The Golden Ass" by Apuleius

Written between 150 and 180 CE, this is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety. It is a bawdy picaresque which follows the adventures of a young nobleman called Lucius whose flirtation with magic results in him being transformed into a donkey who is then stolen by a gang of bandits. He then undergoes a series of adventures and is told a number of stories. 

In many ways the novel is a collection of stories, of which the longest details the love affair of Cupid and Psyche, one of the few Hero's Journey type legends that have a young girl as the protagonist. Collections of stories are common in early fiction, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, The Thousand and one Nights, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Most modern novels structured in this form have a stronger overarching narrative, as does the Golden Ass. I'm thinking of books like:

The success or failure of such a book depends partly on the strength and coherence of the interconnections and partly, (mostly?) on the quality of writing.

Another category in which the Golden Ass might be considered is as a picaresque in which case it might be compared with

The Golden Ass is even more imaginative than Candide in getting its characters into impossible scrapes and then coming up with a marvellous escape. It is similar to Candide in the nice little asides which the author interpolates: "Forgive this outburst! I can hear my readers protesting: 'Hey, what's all this about? Are we going to let an ass lecture us in philosophy?'" (C 17) It certainly outdoes Candide in the Pythonesque fecundity of the author's imagination. It is incredibly colourful, utterly bonkers, and rather bawdy. A great read, brilliantly translated by the late, great Robert graves.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • "I lay prostrate on the floor, naked, cold, and clammy with loathsome urine. 'A new-born child must feel like this', I said to myself. 'Yet how different his prospects are! I have my whole life behind me, not in front of me'." (C 1)
  • "How daintily, how charmingly you stir that casserole: I love watching you wriggle your hips. And what a wonderful cook you are! The man whom you allow to poke his finger into your little casserole is the luckiest fellow alive. That sort of stew would tickle the most jaded palate." (C 2)
  • "Cupid, that very wicked boy, with neither manners nor respect for the decencies." (C 7)
  • "The first lamp was surely invented by some love who wished to prolong all night the passionate delights of his eye." (C 8)
  • "The old sages had been right to speak of Fortune as blind and even eyeless, because of the way she rewards the unworthy or the positively wicked. She never shows the least sense in selecting her favourites: indeed, she even prefers men from whom, if she had any eyes in her head, she would feel to recoil in disgust." (C 10)
  • "She was malicious, cruel, spiteful, lecherous, drunken, selfish, obstinate, as mean in her petty thefts as she was wasteful in her grand orgies, and an enemy of all that was honest and clean." (C 13)
  • "You know the proverb: no crime discovered, no crime committed." (C 15)
  • "Soon a golden sun arose to rout the dark shadows of night ... and the calm sky shone with its own deep blue light." (C 18)

Great fun. January 2021; 247 pages

The writer of this review, Dave Appleby,
is author of the novel Motherdarling

Sunday, 24 January 2021

"Before I go to sleep" by S J Watson

 Following brain damage, when she wakes up Christine has forgotten everything that happened yesterday. She wakes up beside a man she doesn't recognise, in a house she has no memory of. Each day she has to find out who she is. And then tomorrow do it all again.

It makes her massively vulnerable to manipulation. How can she believe the person who tells her he is her husband? Who can she trust?

Recently she has started undergoing treatment which involves the writing of a journal so that she can read about what happened yesterday and write about today and slowly build an understanding of her life. 

This is the premise of an original thriller. The book is brilliant where it explores the distress of such a condition and the fear and anxiety it inevitably provokes. It means that Christine is a very unreliable narrator, full of self-doubt, who can only slowly disentangle the threads of her own history. 

The book is formally a frame narrative with 'today' sandwiching 'the journal'.

My biggest problem with this book was the detail of the journal. Where things were being narrated as they happened, they were presented as Christine's stream of consciousness. But there was no real difference when it came to the journal entries. They were incredibly detailed for journal entries, including conversations reported verbatim, and we were being asked to believe that Christine was writing the journal while hiding that fact from her husband. I understood why this device was necessary to tell the story but, for me, it undermined verisimilitude.

It was a clever thriller, with a classic four part structure, although I predicted the twist at the end. But it had the potential to be much more than a thriller and when it drilled down into the reality of a life without memory, and the emotions that brought up, it became so much better than a normal book.

Some of my favourite moments included: 

  • "He looked to be the sort that would develop a paunch. For now, though, he was young, and age had hardly touched him.
  • "Is it possible to both want and not want something at the same time? For desire to ride with fear?
  • "Men always say I love you as a question.
  • "My husband was earning the money to pay for the clothes and underwear I was wearing for someone other than him."

January 2021; 368 pages 

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Saturday, 23 January 2021

"Oscar Wilde" by Richard Elliman

 A definitive biography.

I wanted to read it after watching The Happy Prince, the 2018 film starring Rupert Everett as Oscar Wilde, Colin Morgan as Bosie and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. A great film, with much that is fictional and much that is authentic.

One of the things about biographies is how many celebrated connections a celebrity always seems to have. Wilde's ancestors included Revd Charles Maturin author of Melmoth the Wanderer. His father was a celebrated surgeon; the mastoid is known as ‘Wilde’s incision’. His father's friends included Maria Edgeworth. At Oxford Wilde knew John Ruskin and Walter Pater. A later girlfriend married Bram Stoker. He knew Whistler and Walter Sickert. He helped Lily Langtry enter London society. He met Yeats at the house of William Ernest Henley and Proust in Paris. Even in exile in Paris, after his disgrace, he still rubbed shoulders with Esterhazy, the man who actually did the spying which Dreyfus went to Devil’s Island for.

Much of this biography traces the development of Wilde's art: he went from poetry to novels and then top plays.

  • Though both Ruskin and Pater welcomed beauty, for Ruskin it had to be allied with good, with Pater it might have just a touch of evil. ... Ruskin spoke of faith, Pater of mysticism, as if for him religion became bearable only when it overflowed into excess. Ruskin appealed to conscience, Pater to imagination. Ruskin invoked disciplined restraint, Pater allowed for a pleasant drift. What Ruskin reviled as vice, Pater caressed as wantonness.” (Ch 2)
  • Pater argued that just as physical life was now known to be a concurrence of forces rather than a group of objects, so the mind must be regarded as a fluid process rather than an adhesion to fixities and definites. William James and Henri Bergson were soon to depict consciousness as a river or stream; for Pater it is, more intensely, a whirlpool. There is nothing ‘but the race of the mid-stream, a drift of momentary acts of sight and passion and thought’.” (Ch 5)
  • Wilde lingers like Keats over sweets, and like Swinburne over sours.” (Ch 5)
  • His insincerity was the result of his representing difficult hesitations instead of pleasantly easy certainties. His indecency was a calculated risk, to portray his sensuality as frankly he could.” (Ch 5)
  • Wilde said later that he had made literature out of brilliant triviality, but it was triviality of a special kind, subversive of established modes ... destructive of hypocrisy.” (400)

A compelling feature of the Wilde tale is the classic tragedy in which a man, at the height of his success, flies too close to the sun and is destroyed. Wilde first experienced homosexual intercourse when he was 31, seduced by a 17 year old Robbie Ross. “He was not attracted to anal coition, so Ross presumably introduced him to the oral and intercrural intercourse he practised later.” (259) Wilde was already married with two sons. But having first tasted those fruits, Wilde went wild. He began to explore the delights of young rent boys, who often doubled as blackmailers. He and Lord Allfred 'Bosie' Douglas, youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry, fell in love, though it was never a sexually exclusive relationship and one might wonder whether the utterly selfish Bosie had any real concept of what love involved. “What Douglas called love was the opposite of wishing the beloved well.” (460) When Queensberry became outraged and insulted Wilde, Wilde sued him for libel (the QC against him was Edward Carson with whom he had played on the beach in Ireland when they were little bots). Wilde lost that case, was put on trial for gross indecency twice (because the first trial resulted in a hung jury) and went to jail. He had to live the rest of his life in disgraced exile in France and Italy. 

Wilde was a master of succinctly putting over a point of view:

  • Education: “Children should not be drilled in that calendar of infamy, European history, but learn in a workshop how art might offer a new history of the world.” (Ch 6)
  • The essence of good dialogue is interruption.” (Ch 9)
  • A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so unbearable that we feel compelled to alter it every six months.” (Ch 10)
  • Mr Whistler always spelt art, and I believe still spells it, with a capital ‘I’.” (Ch 11)

Other memorable moments included:
  • Man makes an end for himself out of himself: no mend is imposed by external considerations, he must realize his true nature, must be what nature orders, so must discover what his nature is.” (Ch 3)
  • Wilde acknowledged a division in himself ... it might be thought that he had a double nature, but he actually claimed to have a triple one” (Ch 5) Catholic, pagan and Freemason.
  • The mitre and the rose come together; Catholicism blends with paganism in the same sense of mutual suffering and sin, with the promise [page break] of eventual unity of being, when opposites will be joined. Insofar as Wilde had a creed, this was it.” (Ch 5)
  • The claims of action over art were challenged by the idea that artistic creation, related to that contemplative life celebrated by Plato, was the highest form of action.” (Ch 12)
  • There was news about the Queensberrys. The Marquess was dying in January 1900 ... his son, Percy, heir to the title, came to see his father, who gathered himself to spit at him.” (542)

This is a thorough and well-written biography; I found it fascinating. If you think Oscar Wilde's story is just about the homosexuality, think again. 

January 2021; 554 pages

This review was written
by the author of 

Friday, 15 January 2021

"Keep Them Safe" by Sarah Bartrum

 The story of the hunt for a child killer. Partly it is a police procedural, told from the point of view of the lead copper 'Joanie'. Partly it is told from the point of view of a paedophile ('Sid') who is initially a suspect but later seems to be being groomed by the child killer into becoming either an accomplice or to be framed as the fall guy. This is an original (and brave) PoV and some of the best parts of the novel are those which explore Sid's feelings:

  • "It was the hair that did it. Flashed gold so bright that it left blue spots before Sid’s eyes. A beacon against the drab cement walls; a distraction from the stench of urine. It shot straight through Sid’s retina and lit up the dark corners of his brain, the parts that were better kept in shadow." (C 1)
  • "Sid thought how perfectly formed that tongue was. The colour of a sunset blush neatly curved at the end. Saliva made it glisten as it withdrew behind the lips." (C 5)
  • "Sid wasn’t sure which he was aware of first, the buzzing in his pocket or the throbbing of his penis." (C 18)

Sid lives in a flat on his own. He works collecting trolleys at the supermarket. He isn't very clever and he gets frightened. Abused as a child, he knows his feelings for children are wrong but ... There is a level of honesty and reality about this portrait that soars way above the stock whodunnit thriller.

It is also original regarding the copper. Most such books have the protagonist a social misfit or a loner with a past including a fractured relationship. Sid plays the part of the social misfit so Joanie is allowed a wife and a grown-up daughter. The usual job problems (and his wife's redundancy) put this relationship under strain and a substantial proportion of the novel is devoted to exploring the development of the relationships within the family.

In short, this novel is a refreshing take on the whodunnit genre with some genuine originality and three-dimensionality.

Some other great moments:

  • "Sid had spent his whole life being avoided by beautiful people." (C 1)
  • "They’d end up saying things they didn’t mean or maybe they’d say things they did mean but had never dared voice before?" (C 4)
  • "Lying in bed, she let him spoon his body around hers. Joanie was surprised to notice how far his stomach prevented his face from nuzzling into her neck." (C 8) I love this comment on the difficulties of this position!
  • "Even now when she had so clearly asked him to bed, he had declined. Why was that? But a part of him knew. A part of him felt that he could no longer make the grade. That no matter what he did, it wouldn’t be enough. He was failing at work, and he certainly wasn’t winning at home. Maybe it was time to accept his lot." (C 10)
  • "The wheel was as flat as Mickey’s baseball cap after they’d chucked it in front of that lorry." (C 11)

There is depth and honesty in this novel. A great read. January 2021

You can see a free preview and purchase the book on the Amazon website.

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

"Busman's Honeymoon" by Dorothy L Sayers

The last of DLS's murder mystery series starring aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. 

Lord Peter and whodunnit writer Harriet Vane get married after a courtship campaign started by LPW in Strong Poison and continued in Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night finally wears down Harriet's defences. DLS appears more interested in the honeymoon of her characters than in the story. But there is an utterly ingenious murder at the heart of the book. There are also a smattering of delightful, mostly rural and mostly stereotyped, characters. 

Having guessed the method (and therefore the culprit) very early on I was able to admire the way in which DLS scattered clues, often by her choice of metaphor or while relating something wholly unrelated to the crime.

However, regular readers of this blog know that a dislike the use of foreign language when it is not translated and there are whole pages of this. It seems to me that this is just the author showing off: I can write in more than one language. In addition, there are pages of LPW (and HV) engaging in a battle of quotations with the poetry loving policeman. This became very tedious and seemed to be just another way in which DLS could thrust her erudition before the reader. 

(Before I am accused of hypocrisy I will come clean and admit that in my novel Motherdarling I have a character who has lived in France and therefore sometimes slips into French. However, these are always translated except for the single paragraph in which he uses French for a torrent of abuse; I thought the meaning was clear and it was better left untranslated. Motherdarling is available on Amazon.

Moments to treasure:
  • "What’s a poet? Something that can’t go to bed without making a song about it." (Prothalamion)
  • "Wonder whether Mussolini’s mother spanked him too much or too little – you never know, these psychological days." (Prothalamion)
  • "To do her justice, I can’t see that she could have found anything nastier to say if she’d thought it out with both hands for a fortnight." (Prothalamion)
  • "so I told him hastily I was sure his diagonal was the right one (wonder whether I meant ‘angle’ or ‘diagnosis’)" (Prothalamion)
  • "Yes, he seems to be getting a nice derangement of epitaphs, poor old creature." (C 7)
  • "It is impossible for human nature to believe that money is not there. It seems so much more likely that the money is there and only needs bawling for." (C 8)
  • "Your notion of loutishness is exceedingly feeble and limited. You simply don’t know how to begin." (C 10)
  • "What was a gentleman for, except to take your difficulties to?" (C 11)
  • "Gawdamighty, wot a tongue! I wonder ’er own spit don’t poison ’er." (C 15)
  • "It’s a pity the dead are so quiet; it makes us ready to forget them." (C 17)
  • "Her faculty for hitting the right nail on the head is almost miraculous – especially as all her blows have the air of being delivered at random." (C 19)
  • "Not that anything but a very rapidly moving picture could really convey her quality." (Epithalamion 2)
A fun story and an easy read. January 2021

This review was written
by the author of Motherdarling

I have now completed reading all the Lord Peter Wimsey novels (mostly again) in order. The ones I have read and reviewed in this blog include:
  • Whose Body in which my Lord and his manservant, Bunter, are introduced
  • Clouds of Witness in which Lord Peter must sleuth to get his brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, off a murder charge; Bunter assists; policeman Parker falls in love with Peter's sister Mary
  • Unnatural Death which introduces another Wimsey sidekick: Miss Climpson; Bunter is involved
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club; Bunter is involved as is Miss Climpson
  • Strong Poison which introduces Harriet Vane, a detective writer who becomes Lord Peter's love interest; Bunter realises Lord Peter's affection first
  • The Five Red Herrings; Lord Peter in Scotland; Bunter in the background
  • Have His Carcase: Harriet and Peter investigate the death of a gigolo with dreams; Bunter has a small supporting role
  • Murder Must Advertise: Peter goes undercover at an advertising agency; Bunter plays a very small role; policeman Parker has married Mary and they have sons
  • The Nine Tailors: Peter investigates the discovery of a body in someone else's grave in a small fenland village. Floods and campanaology.
  • Gaudy Night: Harriet Vane investigates poison pen letters and high jinks art her old college; Lord Peter arrives belatedly to assist
There are also Wimsey books written since the death of DLS by Jill Paton Walsh. These include:
  • The Attenbury Emeralds in which Lord Peter, in 1951, recalls the circumstances of his first case, the Attenbury Emeralds, which have gone missing again.
  • The Late Scholar: in which Wimsey returns to Oxford

Sunday, 10 January 2021

"Shuggie Bain" by Douglas Stuart

It's brilliant. 

This is a frame narrative: the opening and closing chapters are set in 1992 and records a day in the life of Shuggie, a fifteen year old boy living on his own in a bedsit in Glasgow. The bulk of the book chronicles Shuggie's growing up as a boy who's 'no quite right'; son of taxi driver and ladies man Shug and his second wife Agnes, a very beautiful woman whose alcoholism destroys her family: driving away her husband and her daughter and her tragic son Leek, a gifted artist. It is a story of terrible sadness and enormous authenticity. 

Apart from the frame, the narrative time scheme is linear. It is told from multiple perspectives including Shug, Agnes, Shuggie and Catherine.

The writing is wonderful. The verisimilitude is such that it is almost memoir: there were echoes of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes. The dialect reminds me of the best of Irving Welsh (although his books, such as Ecstasy and Train Spotting are set in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow which anyone but a Sassenach like me can probably distinguish as distinct dialects). Shuggy's bowel problem is like that of Vernon God Little, another Booker Prize winner. 

Favourite moments:

  • "On particularly low days he folded all types of his bodily discharge into the taramasalata. He sold an uncanny amount of that bourgeois shite." (C 1)
  • "A life bought on tick, with nothing that ever felt owned outright." (C 2)
  • "He was a selfish animal, she knew that now, in a dirty, sexual way that aroused her against her better nature." (C 2)
  • "He watched them rub their pink arms in the cold night air and shelf their tits over tight-folded arms." (C 3)
  • "He was golden, though in reality, he was more of a dewy, translucent pink." (C 4)
  • "His sweaty shenanigans had been separated from his family by a few feet of council-grade concrete." (C 6)
  • "By the time the hackney had turned on the Pit Road, her children were in the hallway and Agnes, sparkling and fluffy, was lying like a party dress that had been dropped on the floor." (C 8)
  • "It's got peas in it," said Leek, a little hurt that his fifteen-year war against green vegetables went unnoticed." (C 8)
  • "The nights were gathering in again. The street lights were on, and a gang of collarless dogs wandered from stank to stank, sniffing the rotten drains. One pissed, and the others took their turns and marked the same spot." (C 9) A super metaphor for the humans who live in the god-forsaken mining town whose pit has closed.
  • "Thirty-eight pounds a week was meant to keep and feed them all. It made mothers stand in the little shop and look at pint cartons of milk like they were a luxury." (C 10)
  • "The women behind her did sums out loud, their lips moving as they counted, adding bread to oven chips to cigarettes and then, defeated, putting the bread quietly back on the shelf." (C 10) Later Agnes does the same, putting the food back and keeping her cans of lager.
  • "'You should watch how you walk. Try not to be so swishy. It only puts a target on your back.' Leek made a great pantomime of walking like Shuggie. His feet were pointed neatly outwards, his hips dipped and rolled, and the arms swung by his side like there was no solid bone in them. 'Don't cross your legs when you walk. Tray and make room for your cock.' Leek grabbed at the bulge in the front of his corduroy and strode back and forth in a half strut, half lazy amble." (C 13)
  • "She sat on the edge of the clean settee with a can of courage and hissed it open." (C 14)
  • "There was a smell of pine about him, from the kind of aftershave that smelled like bathroom cleaner, not a trace of sex in it." (C 17)
  • "As with any good weather, there was always more rain on the other side." (C 18)
  • "He couldn't worry about next week. He'd have to worry about the rest of this week first." (C 24)
  • "It's too much, Mammy. I can't be the one to save everybody all the time." (C 24)
  • "Ah think the more ye love someone the more they take the piss out of that. They will do less and less of what you want and more and more of just as they fuckin' please." (C 32)

A wonderfully written book; a worthy winner of the 2020 Booker Prize.

The writer of this review, Dave Appleby, 
is author of the novel Motherdarling

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

"The Shadow King" by Maaza Mengiste

 Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.

Written in the present tense. The bulk of the narrative set during the invasion of Ethiopia by Italian troops in 1935 but framed by a related narrative set in 1974, when Haile Selassie, who had spent five years in exile between 1936 and 1941, was finally overthrown. Aside from this framing the story is sequenced in chronological order. The story is told by multiple narrators, both Ethiopians and Italians.

Protagonist Hirut is servant to Aster, wife of local landowner Kidane. When Kidane leaves to join the army fighting the invading Italians, Aster and Hirut accompany him and train up a fighting force of women. After being defeated in battle, they form a guerrilla resistance in the mountains. To encourage the local people to support them they dress a peasant called Minim (which means Nothing) as the (shadow) Emperor, fostering a legend that Haile Selassie has returned from exile to lead his troops.  Their main enemy is a force led by Carlo Fucelli, the antagonist, an evil man who throws prisoners over a precipice to their death, having these executions photographed by 'Foto', Ettore, an Italian of Jewish descent. Fucelli's mistress, an Ethiopian named Fifi, acts as a spy for the guerrillas. After a skirmish, Aster and Hirut are captured by the Italians.

One of the intriguing characters is 'the cook', a woman who deliberately refuse to be named, who has been a servant of Aster's from before her marriage, and who becomes a servant of Fifi.

There are some beautifully lyrical passages in the book. It is divided into many small unnumbered chapters. It takes time to explore the characters and the situations. As well as the sections narrated by one of the characters, there are sections narrated by the 'chorus' and there are sections which describe a photograph.

The characters are carefully crafted with all their complexities. Carlo, the Italian devil, has paternal feelings towards Ettore who is threatened because of his Jewish ancestry; Carlo the commander has terrors; he is fond of Fifi though he must suspect her treachery. Ettore, complicit in the terror, photographing the victims. Hirut, a stubborn servant and a thief; Aster, almost hysterical and jealous as Kidane's wife, from whom Hirut steals and with whom she shares imprisonment. 

Some of my favourite moments

  • "She is in that small box of a room that Hirut shares with the cook, that place where they go at night to shed their usefulness and sleep." (p 11)
  • "You still think this world was built around you? she asks. You were born to fit into it. That's your fate." (p 41)
  • "They have done their best to hide from those glinting large windows as frightening as the open eyes of Satan." (p 94)
  • "If you turn to your side during battle, Aklilu told her, if you look at just the right time, you'll see angels running beside you, flicking bullets away with their wings." (p 394)
  • "There are those born to own things, and those brought forth to keep those things in their rightful place." (p 417)

It's not a page turner or a thriller. It took me a long time to read and I sometimes found it heavy going. But it is beautifully crafted. January 2021; 426 pages

The writer of this review, Dave Appleby, 
is author of the novel Motherdarling