The Last Will of Moira Leahy, by Therese Walsh


Twenty-five-year-old Maeve Leahy, professor of languages at Betheny University in New York State, has set up a straight and narrow path for herself. She devotes herself to her job, has two good friends, and never goes home to Castile, Maine. Her roommate Kit is a first-year resident and her best friend since childhood. Her other friend, met in college, is Noel, a painter whose father owns an antique store in town.

The person who is missing is Moira, the identical twin sister Maeve lost nine years earlier.

The chapters in this intriguing story alternate between Maeve’s adventures in the present day and the twin sisters’ childhood, told from Moira’s point of view. The pattern of alternating chapters and the clear statement of year and place for Moira’s chapters ensure that there is no confusion.

Taking refuge from the November wind and the memories it carries, Maeve goes into an auction house where she falls in love with and buys a keris, a Javanese weapon said to have mysterious powers. It reminds her of the keris her grandfather once owned, the one Maeve lost in the bay as a child, pretending to be Alvida the Pirate Queen. Her new purchase brings on mysterious letters and a package, leading her eventually to Rome to unravel the secrets of the keris and the people connected to it.

I generally don’t like to read adult novels with elements of the supernatural. It’s odd because I like the supernatural in Young Adult novels, often rereading some of my favorites such as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series and, one of my top five favorite books, Jane Langton’s A Diamond in the Window. I even read a good bit of fantasy in my twenties and early thirties, when I still sort of believed that I might be given a magic cloak or sword that would make everything right. Then, during a difficult time, I decided that the only way to move forward was to adopt poet Stevie Smith’s dictum to just “go on, without enchantment.”

My slight acquaintance with the author and the praise I’d heard for the novel led me to set my scruples aside. I’m glad I did. For one thing, the elements of the supernatural in this book can be explained rationally, so it becomes the reader’s choice what to believe, as in The Virgin of Small Plains. Curiously, I read that book with two book clubs, one of whom all accepted the supernatural causes and the other who all believed in only the rational explanations.

Secondly, Walsh’s story revolves around one of my continuing interests: the influence of the past on the present. And finally—making me laugh at myself—Maeve’s inner struggle is about breaking free of the restrictions she has placed on herself, even as she confronts the dangers that attend the keris.

I enjoyed the story, even though I sometimes felt like shaking Maeve and Moira for their missteps and bad decisions. These grow naturally out of the young women’s characters, though, so I forgave them. A few unexpected twists surprised and delighted me, and the ending satisfied me in a way that few novels do these days. I look forward to reading Walsh’s latest book, The Moon Sisters.

When you read an adult novel that contains some elements that might be supernatural, do you believe the rational explanation or the supernatural one?

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald


Another short novel from Fitzgerald, this is easily my favorite of her books so far. Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel introduces us to the unfailingly affable Maurice, a young male prostitute; Willis, an elderly marine artist and former longshoreman; Richard, who presides over meetings of the boat owners with military precision learned in the Navy; and his dissatisfied wife Laura, who dreams of country estates.

The story mainly follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. As always, with Fitzgerald, the children are beautifully drawn. More of an adult than most girls her age, Martha tries to assert her practical knowledge of the world, while young Tilda knows only the boating life and what she’s learned from their neighbors. Tilda’s knowledge of tides and knots does not do her much good, though, since the barges never set sail, remaining moored with a complicated system of gangplanks between them.

This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. Nenna is neither married nor unmarried, her husband living in a flat in the city since returning from a job in South America and refusing to see her. The girls are neither in school nor out; they have been skipping school ever since the Sisters started making the other children pray for Martha and Tilda that their father would return. The characters sometimes stray onto the edges of the just-starting-to-explode social scene of early 1960s London, with its coffeebars and boutiques and new music, yet they are as outside of that scene as they are of Partisan Street near their moorings, with its physically damaged inhabitants.

All of the barges’ inhabitants live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Willis is trying to sell his disastrously leaking barge. Richard does not understand why he is so drawn to life on the river, particularly in the face of his wife’s opposition. Maurice, who talks of selling his boat and going abroad, has long middle-of-the-night talks with Nenna. In one, he tells her:

“Decision is torment for anyone with imagination. When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can . . . They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it’s really too late, we should be grateful.”

This fear of making a decision reminded me of reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as a teenager. The two courtiers—also on a boat, prey to shifting tides—try to work out what decision they made, not realising they were making one, that has led to their current predicament. I have always been afraid of making a wrong choice, some irrevocable decision that takes me down a dark tunnel. Making lists of pros and cons never works for me, because the outcome of my decisions never matches any of them. The decisions I make on the spur of the moment seem to work out better than those I labor over.

Fitzgerald uses an effective technique I’d not seen before to convey Nenna’s attempts to sort out what is going on with her husband and what she should do about it: “Nenna’s thoughts, whenever she was alone, took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrate’s hearing.” And then we get those thoughts, the relentless questioning by a magistrate who turns into a judge, her shifting attempts to explain and justify her actions. It’s brilliantly done. I recognised the tone of conversations I’ve had with myself, though I’ve never actually imagined myself in the witness box.

Fitzgerald is often quite funny. Her humor comes from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, she doesn’t satirise those whom Hermione Lee, in her biography of Fitzgerald, calls “characters at odds with their world: the depressive, the shy, the unworldly, the emotionally inarticulate.” Instead, Fitzgerald treats them with compassion and respect. In an essay called “Why I Write”, she says:

I am drawn to people who seem to have been born defeated or, even, profoundly lost. They are ready to assume the conditions the world imposes on them, but they don’t manage to submit to them, despite their courage and their best efforts. They are not envious, simply compassless. When I write it is to give these people a voice.

I think this assertion is beautiful and a good part of why I love her books.

What decision have you made that didn’t turn out the way you expected?

The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald


It’s 1959 in Hardborough, a town on the East Anglian coast. Florence Green is trying to reach a decision about purchasing a run-down building and opening a bookstore. She doesn’t have to worry about competition—there are no bookstores for miles around—but will she be able to find readers?

Small enough that everyone knows each other’s business, Hardborough doesn’t have much going for it. There is no fish and chip shop, no laundrette and no cinema except on alternate Saturday nights. “Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought—either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.”

Since Florence has been living on a small legacy from her husband, she must apply to a bank to purchase even the abandoned and decrepit Old House on which she has her eye. From Mr. Keble at the bank to Raven the marshman to a family of self-sufficient and extraordinarily practical children, Fitzgerald presents her assortment of odd characters in pithy, yet memorable, scenes.

Hardborough is loosely based on Southwold, where Fitzgerald lived for a while, where she became friends with the owner of a small, less than prosperous bookstore. I’ve been reading Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Fitzgerald which not only explores the influences that shaped her philosophy and choices, but also gives the lived background of the books.

As any writer knows, in the process of crafting fiction, the materials of our lives—people, places, events—are transmuted. Bits here and there are recombined to create a desired effect.

The effect here is of isolation and endurance. The basement of the Old House still has seawater from the 1953 flood; the house has a resident poltergeist, locally called a rapper; and Florence has no retail experience other than a brief stint in a bookstore in her teens. As she tries to balance her vision with her neighbors’ expectations, she inadvertently antagonises Mrs. Gamart, the local society maven. Florence’s choices—of location, of stock, of allies—come back to haunt her.

Hardborough itself acts as a character in this short novel, a bleak battleground where Florence makes her stand. At the edge of the sea, sometimes cut off by tides and floods, clinging to the barest edge of land, Hardborough’s dogged persistence and occasional defeat inform Florence’s story.

I recently read The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald, his record of a walking tour along the Suffolk coast, partly about the physical world he encounters, but much more about the intellectual landscape, the associations and intricate histories aroused by these places. That book gave me a deep appreciation for East Anglia.

We are often told, as writers, to make every word count. We are to “kill our darlings”, as Faulkner famously said, to ensure that everything that remains moves the story forward. This brilliant short novel demonstrates how it is done.

What short novel would you recommend?

The Vacationers, by Emma Straub


The Post family is going on a long-planned vacation to Mallorca. Jim and Franny originally meant the trip to be a celebration of their thirty-fifth anniversary, but given the recent tensions, they are calling it a last family vacation before Sylvia heads off to college. Sylvia’s older brother, Bobby, and his even older girlfriend, Carmen, are invited, as well as Franny’s best friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence.

On this blog my intention is to discuss books from a writer’s point of view, that is, describing what I can learn about this craft of wordsmithing by examining what works and doesn’t work in a particular book, looking at what tools and techniques the author uses. If my response to a book is overwhelmingly negative, I normally do not discuss it here. Today, though, I am making an exception. I can learn much from even a poorly crafted book.

I’ve mentioned the way one of my book clubs operates. In another book club, we select all of the year’s books at one meeting. We discuss a number of proposed books and then each of us selects one book. While there are some authors who are consistent favorites, this process has given us a fair number of books most of us might never have read, plus a few stinkers.

I don’t recall who chose this one, but I believe the motivation was to include something light to balance our heavier choices. The glowing cover blurbs promising wisdom and insight and true-to-life characters also swayed her choice.

Unfortunately, as so often happens with books that trumpet on the cover that they are New York Times bestsellers, this novel does not live up to its promise. Sure, the prose is smooth and uncomplicated, as you would expect from a book touted as a beach read. And Straub conveys the Mallorcan setting beautifully—we are ready to book our trips!—including some expected references such as to a slightly disguised Rafael Nadal. Although the plot is predictable, this too is not unusual for a beach read.

Where Straub goes wrong is with her characters. One book club member said it was as though the author went down a checklist of stereotypes: middle-aged man having an affair with a “girl” near his daughter’s age: check; woman who shows love by feeding people and her boho credentials by having a gay best friend: check; adolescent girl discovering her sexuality: check; grown son who is still emotionally a child: check; girlfriend who hangs on hoping Peter Pan will grow up: check; a couple trying to adopt a baby, one in love with the idea, the other not so much: check.

By the end of the book we don’t know any more about these characters than these masks. One technique that would have helped Straub go beyond the superficial would have been choosing a different point of view. She hops from one person’s head to another constantly, even in the same scene, never alighting for long enough to examine any layers of complexity. If Straub had chosen to stay with one character’s point of view throughout the story, at least she would have been forced to discover more about that character.

As I’ve said before, the best fiction opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from inside someone else’s skin. To make this work, the writer has to give us characters in all their contradictions and convoluted motives. Such rich characters will drive a story that is anything but predictable and, yes, possibly convey some of the promised wisdom.

There is a place for novels that are essentially fluff. We all agreed that there are times when we want the distraction of a such a book; for example, one person who enjoyed the book read it at two in the morning when she couldn’t get back to sleep. However, as another person said, there is good fluff and bad fluff.

What book have you read that you’d call “good fluff”?

Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain


I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. As I’ve described in an earlier blog post, it seemed to me the moment when everything changed for western civilization. Of course the more I read about earlier eras, the more I see that such cataclysms were nothing new. Yet, there is something peculiarly wrenching for me when I think of the ranks of young men, blinded by visions of patriotic glory, being mown down into the mud of the Somme and Ypres.

What I haven’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead.

Vera Brittain’s memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became. Brittain generously quotes from her journals and letters, both her own and those received, to give us the genuine flavor of the time. She also includes a few poems written at the time by her and by her fiancé, Roland. I think it was the poems that moved me the most, with their distillation of emotion.

While the book is a daunting 600+ pages, I was irresistibly drawn forward by this mix of voices.

(from a letter to Roland) “One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation–with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”

No sudden gift of second sight showed me the future months in which I should not only contemplate and hold, but dress unaided and without emotion, the quivering stump of a newly amputated limb–than which a more pitiable spectacle hardly exists on this side of death.

For contrast, she gives us a bit of her early life, growing up in Macclesfield and Buxton. Desperate to escape the provinces and have a career, she resists the strong pressure of family and neighbors to leave school and marry young. Instead she sits for admission to Oxford, although by the time she gets in, the war has started; her fiancé and beloved younger brother have enlisted; and Oxford no longer seems relevant.

She becomes a nurse, and it is through the lense of her nursing career in London, Malta and France that we experience the war. In 1918 soldiers from the front tell her of seeing their mates who’d died on the Somme in 1916, saying “‘And it’s our belief they’re fightin’ with us still.'” She responds:

But at the time I merely felt cold and rather sick, and when I had finished the dressing I put down my tray and stood for a moment at the open door of the hut. I saw the Sisters in their white overalls hurrying between the wards, the tired orderlies toiling along the paths with their loaded stretchers, the usual crowd of Red Cross ambulances outside the reception hut, and I recognised my world for a kingdom of death, in which the poor ghosts of the victims had no power to help their comrades by breaking nature’s laws.

After the war, stunned by grief, going mechanically through her days, she finds meaning in working for peace, both as a journalist and for the League of Nations. She calls this the terrible responsibility of the survivors.

Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.

In this strong memoir, Brittain fulfills that goal. I look forward to finding the two sequels to it.

What book have you read that might teach our children to take the courage that has in the past been dedicated to war instead devote it to peace?