Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1302: Crow Lake

Cover for Crow LakeBest of Ten!
Kate Morrison grew up in a farming community in far northern Ontario. She is reticent about her personal life, which frustrates the man in her life, Daniel Crane. Both are zoologists, and Kate can track her interest all the way back to the times she spent as a young girl watching insects and other wildlife in the ponds near her home with her older brother, Matt.

Kate finds it difficult to discuss her family, mostly because of her estrangement from that beloved brother. Crow Lake relates the events that led up to that estrangement from the time her parents died.

When Kate is seven, both her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. When their relatives plan to split up the four children, Luke, at 18 the oldest, decides to give up his scholarship to a teaching college to raise the two girls, Kate and Bo, aged one. He intends that Matt, the real intellect in the family, will go to the college the next year.

This sacrifice on Luke’s part makes Matt angry. Still, the biggest struggle is that the family get by at all, despite the help of the neighbors. Although their father had a good income, he gave most of his money away to struggling family members.

Aside from the troubles in the Morrison household, there are hints of tragic events at the neighboring Pye farm. These events will eventually affect the Morrisons in unexpected ways.

A visit back to the family to celebrate the birthday of Matt’s son, Simon, sends Kate’s thoughts repeatedly back to the events of her seventh and eighth years. In some ways, she is forced to face facts that she’s been avoiding.

Crow Lake is truly the kind of book that creates a world for its readers to explore. It is loaded with atmosphere and tension as Lawson explores the origins of family resentments and feelings pushed firmly below ground. This is a powerful book, completely absorbing. I was sorry for it to end.

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Day 1284: Hot Milk

Cover for Hot MilkSofia is an anthropology graduate student who has given up her job and her room in a storage cupboard to care for her mother, Rose, as she seeks medical help at a clinic in Spain. Rose has a myriad of symptoms, but no one has been able to diagnose a problem. Mostly, she is concerned about her legs. She can’t walk, at least when she doesn’t want to. She can’t feel anything, except when she does. She complains constantly, and nothing is ever right.

Sofia is unhappy with her life—her unfinished dissertation, her job as a barrista, the cubbyhole she lives in, her subservience to her mother. Her father left them when she was five and despite being wealthy, seems to feel no responsibility for them, even in the days when they could barely afford to eat. He has made a religious conversion and now has a young wife and baby daughter.

Sofia is dabbling in an affair with a German girl, Ingrid, from Berlin, but they seem to be at cross purposes.

This novel is intelligent and sometimes almost hallucinogenic as it explores Sofia’s attempts to wake up and take responsibility for herself. At times, I found it a little confusing and its incidents unlikely but mostly I was engaged in Sofia’s journey.

This is another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1237: Little Fires Everywhere

Cover for Little Fires EverywhereBest of Five!
One Saturday morning, Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, sets fire to the house and leaves. As in her previous novel, Ng begins with the end of the novel to show how it comes to pass.

We don’t really get to Izzy right away, however. We start with Mrs. Richardson and her duplex house in Shaker Heights. Although the family doesn’t need the rent from the duplex, Mrs. Richardson likes to think she is helping someone worthy by leasing the apartments to the right person. In this case, she rents one to Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl.

Mia and Pearl have lived a wandering life, settling in a city as long as it takes Mia to finish a project and then moving on. Mia makes some money from her work and occasionally takes a part-time job to supplement their meager income. Upon arriving in Shaker Heights, however, Mia has unexpectedly announced that they can stay. She also reluctantly accepts a part-time job as a house cleaner and cook that Mrs. Richardson pushes on her.

The plot gets moving around a situation that seemingly has little to do with either Mia or Mrs. Richardson. Mrs. Richardson’s friend Mrs. McCullough is close to adopting a little girl of Chinese heritage when the baby’s mother, who has been searching for her, sues for custody.

When Mrs. Richardson figures out that it was Mia who told the mother who had the baby, she begins investigating Mia. It is her self-righteousness as well as her misunderstanding of some of the facts she gleans that mount up and provoke Izzy’s outburst.

At first, I was a little impatient with this novel. Ng certainly understands the adolescent psyche, but in many ways, this novel seemed too similar to her previous one, Everything I Never Told You. She knows how to tell a story, however, and she understands complexity in relationships, so ultimately I was swept up.

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Day 1192: The Priory

Cover for The PrioryBest of Five!
Saunby is an old estate that belongs to Major Marwood. It was once a priory, and the ruins are still there. The major is a poor landlord and manager who cares only for cricket. Although he has hundreds of pounds of unpaid bills and the house is falling to bits, he spends a huge amount of money every year in hosting two weeks of cricket matches.

The major is most unhappy about how the house is being run. His sister, Victoria, who is supposed to be in charge of the house, pays attention to nothing but her art, producing one atrocious painting after another. His two daughters, Christine and Penelope, are happy in their isolation up in the nursery, making odd-looking dresses and ridiculing the neighbors. The servants do what they want. Everyone in the household is completely self-absorbed.

So, the major decides it is time he remarried, principally to get someone to take care of the house and keep expenses in check.  He has his eyes upon Anthea Sumpton, a woman no longer young who he is sure will be sensible.

Unfortunately, Anthea is in love with him and doesn’t understand he is making a marriage of convenience. Soon, she will have a rude awakening.

Everyone in this novel is due for a rude awakening, however, as the focus of the novel moves to Christine and what happens when she falls in love with Nicholas Ashwell. He is one of her father’s cricket players who has been raised to be as selfish as her family is.

This novel is also somewhat an Upstairs/Downstairs novel at first, when the new maid, Bessy, falls in love with Thompson, who helps with the cricket. He returns her feelings but doesn’t reckon with the rejected Bertha.

This novel is the best kind, the type in which characters develop and you change your mind about them. Beginning in the late 1930’s, it is also winding its way slowly toward the war. I found the novel beautifully written, involving, and ultimately touching, as a dysfunctional family learns to become slightly more functional. I have enjoyed all of Whipple’s novels, but I think I liked this one best, so far.

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Day 1092: Commonwealth

Cover for CommonwealthIt’s difficult to explain what Commonwealth is about without either telling too much or failing to make it sound interesting. Yet, it is a very interesting novel about how one afternoon changes the lives of everyone in two families, or at least that’s partially what it’s about.

The novel begins when Albert Cousins, an attorney from the district attorney’s office, crashes a christening for Fix and Beverly Keating’s youngest daughter. Fix only vaguely knows Bert Cousins from his work as a police officer. Bert has crashed the party in an effort to get away from his own household with his three children and pregnant wife, Teresa, as he does every weekend.

But once Bert sets eyes on Beverly Keating, he decides she is his future. One kiss in the upstairs bedroom with a sleeping child begins an affair that results in divorce for both families.

The novel concentrates on the effects of this divorce on both sets of children. Although Carolyn and Franny Keating beg year after year to stay in California with their dad, they are uprooted to Virginia to live with their mother when she and Bert move back to his home state. Bert demonstrates again and again that he doesn’t care to be around his own children, but he wins custody of them for the whole of each summer, while Teresa gets a job and keeps it together the rest of the year by the skin of her teeth. The result is that the kids grow up with virtually no supervision, especially in the summer, when Bert leaves everything to Beverly, who can’t cope.

This novel reminded me in some ways of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy, although it spans only about 45 or 50 years. However, it felt that the characters in this novel are much more knowable. I always enjoy Patchett’s writing, and her novels are all different from each other. I enjoyed this one very much.

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