The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin

lathe

I read a lot of science fiction in my teens, mostly because my older brother was into it and let me raid his library. Then I read a lot of scifi/fantasy in my late twenties; I was in a difficult place and wanted to be anywhere else. It helped. So during this tense and terrifying week, I returned to that strategy. It’s been long enough that those books are ripe for rereading.

This 1971 novel begins with a man waking up amid fallen concrete blocks feeling dizzy and nauseated. Eventually a medic brings him around, shocked by how many different meds the man had taken.

George Orr has been taking multiple medications to keep himself from dreaming, because his dreams come true—literally. Not all of his dreams, but now and then he has what he calls an “effective” dream and when he wakes, the world has changed to conform to that dream. And he is the only one who knows that has happened; he is the only one who remembers the way the world was before.

As a result of his overdose, he is sent to Dr. Haber, a psychiatrist working on a machine similar to an EEG that can control the type of waves in a patient’s brain to induce dreaming. Over the course of the book Haber uses his machine coupled with hypnotic suggestion to try to instigate and control George’s dreams. But the effect is usually unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic, because dream logic comes up with its own way of implementing Haber’s directions.

One constant, though, is that with each dream Haber gets a promotion and more power. He claims he only wants power in order to help people by solving the terrible problems in society. But Haber’s vision of an ideal society is a little scary given his belief in utilitarianism and eugenics. Haber’s ability to implement his beliefs using George’s dreams combined with his own insatiable hunger for power and fame drive the world down a dangerous path.

We writers are advised that, along with hooking the reader’s attention, we should use the first page to teach the reader how to read our book. Make sure they know what genre it is. Identify the protagonist, their goal, and what or who is preventing them from achieving it. Give at least a hint of what themes will be explored. I have to say that rereading the first page of this book after finishing it changed the story for me and filled me with awe at Le Guin’s mastery of the craft.

What’s also interesting is how much Le Guin is able to explore different philosophies and approaches without slowing the story. In my workshops we’ve been talking about generating suspense, and she has definitely crafted a page-turner. George’s dreams and the new world each creates are fascinating. And often destructive, to the point where one wonders how this world can possibly survive.

Well, out of the frying pan, as my mother used to say. It felt like the story of the last four years, right from the first page: waking up to an unrecognisable world, one that has changed in catastrophic ways. Still, I’m glad I read it this week. And now things have changed again. Someone has had a good dream.

Do you read scifi/fantasy? Why?

Blackberries, Blackberries, by Crystal Wilkinson

blackberries

Wilkinson’s first book is a collection of short stories—perfect for my attention span just now! These stories feature Black women in rural Kentucky, young and old, each with her individual take on the world, her own idea of herself.

In some stories, such as “Tipping the Scales”, we meet women who can’t be bothered by society’s conventions. A big woman, “not sloppy fat, though,” Josephina Childs has “sure had her hands full in the men department most all her life.” All her life she’s been aware of how “the whole town ‘bout tripped over” themselves to find out what was going on with her mother in the house Ethel’s lover build for them. So when Josephina wants children, she goes ahead and has them. I could hardly wait to find out what happens as she charts her own path among the gossiping townsfolk.

A few stories are from a man’s point of view, such as “Mine” in which Joe Scruggs complains about his former girlfriend Racine. She’d left him when she found out he was cheating on her. Now he sees that she has cut the long, straightened hair he’d loved in favor of short natural hair. Worse than that, she’s had breast reduction surgery and “black women do not get their breasts worked on.” The voice is pitch perfect as Joe thinks about what he sees as Racine’s insult to him and about Darlene, the woman he cheated with, now his wife. It’s a strong indictment of a man’s idea of ownership.

Wilkinson’s use of voice carries each of these stories. Without resorting to dialect, she captures the individual rhythms of her characters’ thoughts and speech. In “Mules” she finds just the right voice for a naïve girl, just starting to develop and learning to navigate the complicated and risky world of men. In “Deviled Eggs” Wilkinson gives voice to a young girl who is dragged along when her mother goes to her job as a domestic servant and has a startling lesson in racism from the elderly white woman who thinks she is doing the child a favor. In “Need” we meet three characters in a café, two women embarking on a difficult conversation and their male waiter, each with a distinctive voice.

I’ve been thinking recently about the shape of short stories, how they begin, how they end. The variety of story shapes is this collection is part of what makes it so enticing. Some stories spiral back to their beginning, while others rise to a new understanding. Many for me ended in ways that surprised me, taking a direction I hadn’t expected: Wilkinson displaying the penchant for independence we see in many of her characters. I love being surprised!

In every story, Wilkinson demonstrates the writer’s mantra that the personal is universal. These may be Black women in Appalachia, but I saw myself in each of them. Reading their stories has been a gift, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Do you like reading short stories? Can you recommend a collection?

Trip Wire, by Charlotte Carter

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Another mystery, this time set in Chicago in December of 1968. It’s the end of a tumultuous year that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Summer of Love, and in Chicago itself the violence around the Democratic National Convention.

Seeking independence, Cassandra has left the home of her well-off grandaunt and granduncle to live in a multiracial commune in a questionable part of town. She’s in her early 20s, cutting college classes to read books on politics and social justice. When she met Wilt, a charismatic Black man, she found a friend who was on the same wavelength, and was delighted when he encouraged her to join the commune where he and his white partner Mia lived along with several others.

She delights in her new freedom and friends, happy to have found a family she has chosen rather than the over-protective relatives who took her in after her parents’ death. There are tensions, not only family issues but also marijuana use perhaps affecting her schoolwork, sexual freedom coming up against learned ideas about relationships, decisions about who else to admit into the commune.

Then they discover the brutally murdered bodies of two of their members. As Cassandra tries to untangle why they were killed, she is confronted by how little she knows about her new friends, while navigating the questionable tactics of the police and resisting her family’s attempts to make her come home.

The secrets and hidden agendas that make mysteries so fascinating are well-constructed here. The story kept me guessing, surprising me at times. I also found Cassandra a realistic and intriguing woman, simultaneously familiar and different, someone I enjoyed spending time with. All the characters come alive, not just their flaws and fine points, but also the different worlds they straddle.

Carter succeeds in capturing this period, which I remember only too clearly. Seeing it again through the eyes of a young Black woman, with all the additional hurdles and advantages, fascinated me. For example, much as most of us hippies distrusted the police, a person of color has more factors when deciding whether to call them when a crime is committed.

And thinking of the differences and similarities of the country during that election and the current one has given me a slightly different perspective on today. Change is hard, and the Age of Aquarius which once seemed within reach is something we are still seeking.

Anyone who is interested in a glimpse of what the 1960s were like, looking beyond the memes and stereotypes, will enjoy this book, as will mystery readers. I’ll be looking for more books in Carter’s Cook County mystery series.

What do you look for in a mystery series?

In a Dry Season, by Peter Robinson

dry season

This summer’s drought and the dire predictions of a shortage of potable water made me think of this mystery from the author of the DCI Banks series. Of course, the metaphorical interpretation is just as important. The disasters roaring across the U.S. and the world have left many writers—and others—paralysed.

It’s been 20 years since I first read this book and found it even more fascinating this time around.

A prolonged drought has uncovered a Yorkshire village that had been buried under a reservoir for decades. Although it is supposed to be off-limits, a local boy can’t resist exploring the buildings and unexpectedly discovers a skeleton. Banks is sent to investigate by his Chief Constable as punishment for an earlier clash between the two.

Assisted by the local DS, Annie Cabbot, Banks tries to identify the skeleton and reconstruct the events of 50 years earlier. At the same time, the events resonate with him, reminding him of Jem, a friend from his younger days who came to a sad end. Then there’s Annie Cabbot. Still mourning the end of his marriage ten years earlier, for the first time Banks feels the stirrings of attraction.

As if those threads were not enough, interwoven with the investigation and Banks’s memories is a first-person account by a then-young woman of the village during the Second World War, as well as the story of an elderly novel-writer being harassed by anonymous phone calls.

A writer in the middle of writing their first novel remarked to me the other day, “This is hard! There are so many things to keep track of.”

It’s true. Novels have so many moving pieces, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Has this minor character appeared often enough that a reader wouldn’t have forgotten them? Did this theme work its way into every part of the story? Did I remember what season it was, what day of the week, what color that character’s eyes are? Writing a mystery is even worse; you have all those red herrings and unreliable characters to work in.

I’m stunned by how well Robinson manages the complexity of his storylines here. I use spreadsheets, outlines, journals and hand-drawn maps, and have replaced physical index cards with virtual ones. It’s not uncommon to peek into an author’s study and find one or more walls completely covered with notes and drawings and maps. Novelist Laura Lippman sometimes posts pictures of her insanely complicated charts.

I don’t know what Robinson’s process is, but the effect here is amazing. So many disparate threads, each with their own continuity, bouncing off each other. The timing is perfect. Just when you are starting to think, What has happened to . . .? that thread reemerges.

And with each scene, information emerges prompting new questions, heightening the suspense, making me ask—as my three-year-old friend often bursts out with in the middle of a story—What’s going to happen? Best of all, everything that does happen grows organically out of the story, without artificial dramatics.

Reading and thinking about an amazing story helps to bring rain to my dry places. Writing a novel is hard, but Peter Robinson makes it look easy.

Have you read any of the Inspector Banks series? Is there another mystery series you’d recommend?

Old New Worlds, by Judith Krummeck

Subtitled A Tale of Two Immigrants, this book is both a memoir and an historical reimagining. In February of 1815 Sarah Barker, formerly a servant, and her new husband George, a missionary, set sail from Portsmouth, England bound for South Africa.

Whatever we may think of missionaries and colonialism today, it was an extraordinarily courageous thing to do. It is a brave thing to embark on a marriage—how much more so when it means leaving behind your country and culture; knowing that you will rarely, if ever, be able to return for a visit; unsure of what you will find when you arrive.

Two hundred years later, Sarah’s great-great granddaughter, writer and broadcaster Judith Krummeck, newly married, left South Africa for the United States. (Full disclosure: Krummeck and her husband are friends of mine.)

With a gentle but assured touch, Krummeck explores that transition, showing this country from an outsider’s point of view. She looks at the nuances of belonging, of creating a home in a new place. Unlike Sarah, her experience is complicated by the possibility of return, for visits or perhaps even permanently.

Much of the memoir portion also invites us into her process of learning about her great-great grandmother, not just burying herself in library reading rooms, but figuring out how to walk the tightrope between being true to the time period and the urge to impose today’s values on the actions of her imagined great-great grandparents. To her relief, the records show that George Barker did in fact treat his parishioners with respect and tried to protect them from the colonial administration.

The book is well-researched, drawing on Barker’s letters and journals as well as other sources. An extensive bibliography is provided. For all that, Sarah’s life, her thoughts and feelings are undocumented. Krummeck explains that Sarah is almost never mentioned in George’s writings, so she has had to use her imagination to fill in the gaps.

Of course it is no surprise that so little is known about Sarah. At that time, the lives of ordinary women were not considered worth documenting. Indeed, it is only recently that historians have begun concerning themselves with ordinary life, much less the lives of women.

For Sarah’s story alone I love this book, as I love any that fill in that empty space in the shape of a woman. Entwining it with Krummeck’s physical and emotional adjustment to America adds depth and resonance to the themes explored here.

As the pandemic spread and stayed, most of us have had to rethink our ideas of home. We look at our once adequate spaces with new eyes, trying to gauge where work can be done, children can be schooled, perhaps even an infected family member isolated. I remember how, as a child in a large family, I was constantly seeking out spaces to be private. Confined to the house, many people are experiencing that now.

So it is a good time to consider what it means to be at home: the place where we are born and the one we choose, the house we create and the family we construct, the country we call home and the landscapes we inhabit. This delightful book reminds us of what we inherit and what we make for ourselves.

What does home mean to you?

A Visit to London

Tavistock Sq

Today is a Significant Day for me, and I am celebrating by going to London.

Not really, of course. With the pandemic restrictions and my own abundance of caution, I can’t just hop on a flight. But I can visit one of my favorite cities virtually.

When I go, I always visit the Tate to see the Turners and the National Gallery for the Pre-Raphaelites. I can’t explain it, but I am fascinated by the National Portrait Gallery and by the Foundling Museum (though it makes me cry). I always try to get to the British Museum, especially since I usually stay in Bloomsbury. I go to the Royal Maritime Museum and am shocked all over again by the size of the James Caird, the tiny boat Shackleton and a few men used to travel 800 miles in terrible conditions to reach South Georgia Island and get help for his stranded crew. Many of these collections are available online.

My favorite parks are, well, all of them. I try to walk through St. James’s Park and visit the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. I’m partial to the Chelsea Physic Garden and Holland Park’s Kyoto Garden. There are plenty of London videos online to supplement my photos from previous visits.

And I always try to go to the theatre. One long weekend I saw five plays, with incredible actors such as Jeremy Irons, Judi Dench, and Alan Rickman–or was that another time? I very much enjoyed the National Theatre Live and Shakespeare’s Globe productions that were available online for free last summer. Some shows are still available at both, though you may have to pay for them, but it’s good to support these venues. I’ve enjoyed their shows in London, too. Once the only seat available for Warhorse was in the front row, which gave an astonishing view of the “trenches”.

Toast and marmalade for breakfast, a cheese and chutney sandwich for lunch, and fish and chips for dinner should set me up quite nicely.

Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) has a wonderful listing of online resources for a virtual tour of London.

But of course books are my ultimate imaginative vehicle, so I’ll dip into Mrs. Dalloway, have tea with Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, and see the changing of the guard with Christopher Robin and Alice. I’ll tour Sir John Soane’s quirky museum again via Christopher Woodwards In Ruins and walk along the Embankment with Elswyth Thane’s Tryst.

And of course I’ll draw on my own memories for this tryst with a city where I—to my surprise—have always felt as though I have found my real home.

Where are you going today?

Free Food

Screenshot_2020-09-27 Resources – Edible Brattleboro

Today I’m giving away food.

I volunteer with a local nonprofit, Edible Brattleboro, to plant help-yourself gardens around town and, from July through October, operate a weekly Share the Harvest stand where we give away vegetables donated by farmers at the end of the farmers’ market, harvested from our gardens, and donated by local gardeners. This COVID year, when so many are struggling, we’re also part of the town’s Everyone Eats program that funds restaurants to make meals to give away.

Trying to get by on food stamps back when I was on welfare opened my eyes to the hunger in this prosperous country, now broadened to food insecurity. That first winter I quickly realised that most fresh vegetables were too expensive for my tiny food stamp allotment, so I relied on the cheapest things I could find, like carrots, cabbage and turnips. I also put the tops of the root vegetables in a saucer of water and used the fresh greens that sprouted.

Luckily we were not in a food desert; there was always an expensive spa a few blocks away and a cheaper grocery store within a couple of miles. However, when I didn’t have a car, walking to the grocery could take all morning, and I could only carry what would fit in the stroller basket and my backpack. In summer, there was no way to keep frozen food safe on the walk home.

What saved me was being able to cook.

The summer I was 12, my mother boycotted the kitchen and assigned me the job of cooking dinner for our family of eight. My culinary skills were limited—I could make a sandwich, pour a bowl of cold cereal, heat up a can of soup, and make toast—but she promised to teach me. That didn’t happen. Sometimes she’d answer a question or offer a suggestion, but mostly I relied on her battered Good Housekeeping Cook Book.

cookbook

Thus I not only learned the basics of cooking but also the astounding truth that I could learn whatever I needed to know from a book.

So years later, when I realised I couldn’t afford fresh vegetables, I turned to books for the new skills I needed. They taught me how to turn a vacant lot into a vegetable garden and how to can the excess tomatoes it produced. They taught me how to make jam from the wild blueberries I gathered and applesauce from seconds at nearby orchards.

Before I moved away from Maryland, I volunteered with Maryland Hunger Solutions whose motto is “Ending Hunger in Maryland”. They work with state and community partners to help Maryland residents get nutritious foods. As a former food stamp recipient I helped bring a real-life perspective.

One thing that was quickly brought home to me was how lucky I had been to be able to cook meals from scratch. Many people living in poverty either don’t have cooking facilities or never learned to cook. One food bank organiser told me she often couldn’t even give away pasta because people didn’t know how to cook it. Many people rely on expensive and less nutritious packaged foods they can simply heat up.

The founders of Edible Brattleboro—”Grow Food Everywhere for Everyone”—were inspired by a Ted talk by Pam Warhurst, explaining how the tiny village of Todmorden in England turned plots of unused land into communal vegetable gardens. We have also been inspired by Ron Finley’s work creating gardens in open land in South Central LA. He says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

We’ve also been following Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm, which defines itself as “a BIPOC*-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. . . *BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, and People of Color”. I am especially drawn to their commitment to the ancestors. “With deep reverence for the land and wisdom of our ancestors, we work to reclaim our collective right to belong to the earth and to have agency in the food system.” Penniman’s book is called Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.

Back when I was gardening in the vacant lot, I also got involved with a group starting a land trust, a fairly new concept in the 1970s, in the hopes of eventually renting a farm through them.

Over the years I’ve heard of land trusts for conservation purposes, but was excited to learn recently of the BIPOC Land and Food Sovereignty Fund organized by The SUSU Healing Collective, whose purpose is to help BIPOC farmers here in Vermont. There is also the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. Both are worthy of our support.

Let us look for a moment at what we have in common rather than what divides us. We all need food. We all want to feed our families the best food possible and to support good causes. So I’m off to give away free food to anyone who comes by the stand.

Note: While I call this a book blog, it is essentially about stories. This post is full of them: Pam Warburton’s, Ron Finley’s, Leah Penniman’s, my own.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

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An unusual and fascinating novel, Tokarczuk’s book explores the border between poetry and prose, story and fairy tale. The quirky voice of the narrator is firmly established with the first sentence and sustained throughout the book.

Living alone in an isolated community in western Poland, Janina is an older woman who manages her vocation of astrology, the translations of William Blake’s poetry that she and a friend are doing, and the griefs that accumulate over the years. Despite her various physical ailments, she looks after the other homes during the winter, making sure the martens don’t get in and the pipes don’t freeze. Only two other people live there during the winter, Oddball and Big Foot. These are her names for them, as she names almost all the characters.

Then Big Foot turns up dead under mysterious circumstances. He was a loathsome creature in her eyes, a poacher who didn’t care how cruelly he hurt the animals he snared, someone who showed no respect for the non-animal natural world either, cutting down trees for no reason. Yet his death moves her. Oddball insists that the two of them wash and dress the body before the police come. She says:

There we stood in the cold, damp room, in the frosty vacuum prevailing at this dull, gray time of night, and it crossed my mind that the thing that leaves the body sucks a piece of the world after it, and no matter how good or bad it was, how guilty or blameless, it leaves behind a great big void.

Such a powerful way to describe a death. Their call to the police is delayed because not only is the signal spotty, but they often get a signal from the other side of the nearby Czech border instead of their own signal.

Borders are a recurring image, not just between countries, but between a remote community and town, fields and forests, humans and animals, grief and love, one person’s truth and another’s, language and reality. In fields near her house the hunters from town have erected huts they call “pulpits” where they hide in order to shoot the animals that come near, lured by the food the hunters have spread. I’m jarred by the idea of doing murder, preaching murder from a pulpit. Yet it’s so true.

More deaths follow, stranger and stranger. But there are greater mysteries here. What life is worth more than another? What actions are justified by law or ethics, and which one dominates the other? Are we as helpless as we think we are? How do our homes, so meticulously described in this book, reflect us and nurture us and protect us—or not? What is our relationship with the wild, meaning the portion of the natural world that we do not manage?

The title is from Blake, as are epigraphs for each chapter, adding to the fantastical atmosphere. The story sometimes feels like a fable, sometimes a prose poem, sometimes a wrenching view of age and isolation, sometimes a paean to friendship. For Janina does have friends: Oddball, her neighbor; Dizzy, her compatriot in translating Blake; Good News, who runs a second-hand store in town; Boros, an entomologist she meets in the woods.

I found this book so rich, so thought-provoking that I not only listened to the audio book, repeating many chapters two or three times, but also bought the paperback book and am reading it. I loved the narrator’s performance in the audio book, but with the physical book I am seeing different things, appreciating different things—mostly to do with language. Thus, I’m continuing the story’s exploration of borders between one sense and another, between the physical and the metaphysical.

Have you read a novel so fascinating that you immediately reread it?

Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

visitation

I’ve noted before in this blog the curious fact that books I pick up at random sometimes talk to each other in ways that deepen each of them. Lately I’ve found myself reading books about home and the wild and the border between the two.

Visitation highlights different aspects of last week’s book, Abigail, where the teenaged narrator is sent precipitously and secretly to a boarding school far away from the home she misses. The school, a former monastery, is vividly described, its stones, its curious doorways, its atmosphere of age and order. Part of her maturation is to make a home for herself in this bleak environment. Next week’s novel, too, is deeply engaged with these themes, but more about that next time.

The main character of Erpenbeck’s novel is a plot of land by a lake in Brandenburg, and the homes built there, especially a fabulously detailed home built by an architect in the 1930s. The architect comes up with details to enchant his wife: colored glass in the living room windows, a finial he himself carved, a secret closet, a wrought-iron bird in the balcony railing off the bedroom. The succession of people who live in this house and next door mirror the changes in East Germany during the ensuing decades.

At 150 pages, this novel is short but surprisingly intense. I found myself engaging with each character more than in almost any other book I’ve read for years, and this in spite of the way they come and go. The one constant person is an unnamed gardener whose chapters intersperse the others as he goes about his work of planting and building and chopping wood. We have no access to his thoughts and he doesn’t speak, yet I know and treasure him.

There is little dialogue and few dramatic scenes, making this an unusual read for me. It shouldn’t work, but it does. There are events that listed sound boring—locking up a house, sailing on the lake, drying off with a towel, noting the cost of things—but the focus Erpenbeck brings to each makes them a profound experience. Focus, details, and a voice that speaks of joyous and terrible things with a calm compassion.

The land was originally intended as the inheritance for one of the mayor’s daughters, but he instead divides the land and sells it. The idea of inheritance recurs, each time a little different, sometimes as the symbol of a family’s continuity, but more often of loss, as with the mayor’s daughter. There are many such spirals—a sentence, a scent, a key—each turn revealing a little more. They pull you in deeper, another reason why this short novel feels so intense.

Visitation reminds me of Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s beautiful novel about a village over a span of thirteen years. Both books make me think about what inheritances are passed on and what are lost, about the so-brief time that we inhabit this world that is our home, and how the earth itself, though changed, persists. Our cares and worries, even in this terrible time, will pass. Feel them and move on.

Do the books you read ever talk to each other?

Abigail, by Magda Szabó

abigail

Szabó‘s novel The Door made a strong impression on me so I leaped at the chance to read this newly translated book, also set in Hungary. Originally published in 1970, it is the story of 15-year-old Gina who in 1943 is exiled from Budapest by her beloved father, sent to boarding school near Hungary’s eastern border.

Gina is bewildered and furious at being sent away from her father and her social life in the city, which ranges from her friends at school to the more sophisticated people she encounters at the home of her aunt, especially a young lieutenant. The General’s sister may be flighty, but she is Gina’s only other relative. Yet Auntie Mimó is not allowed to know where Gina is going. No one is.

Headstrong, a little spoiled, Gina rebels, finding creative ways to break the rules at the strict academy. When her clothing and few possessions are taken from her, she finds a way to secret a few. She mocks the games and traditions of her fifth year class and later leads them in a series of pranks.

She can only talk to her father by phone once a week in the presence of the humorless Director and the Deaconess; Gina’s forbidden to complain to him. Only later does she come to understand his motives in hiding her away. The war is not going well for the Axis countries and there are fears that Germany will occupy its supposed ally. Thus, this book complements my recent nonfiction reading about WWII.

While having many characteristics of a traditional coming-of-age story, and echoes of books like Jane Eyre, Gina’s story is unusually perceptive and complex. My book club read this, as we had The Door, and we discussed the significance of the title. Abigail is the name of a statue of a woman holding a vase in the school’s garden. The girls believe that the statue comes alive to help them, so when they are in trouble they leave a note in the vase. This legend lends a magical touch to the story.

We wondered why this statue, significant as it is in the story, should be the title. I believe it’s for the same reason the author includes several flash-forwards, brief messages from a future Gina telling us how a particular thread will turn out. At first I was surprised that the author would give away these endings; surely the goal should be to build suspense rather than deflate it. Then I realised that the author didn’t want these threads to run away with the story. She wants us to stay with Gina and how she learns to recognise and admit when she is wrong, not least about the Abigail legend which works as a symbol of Gina’s arc.

One of my book club friends asked if this book is for adults or young adults. Publishers and bookstores may categorise it as a Young Adult book simply because of the protagonist’s age, but I would say it is also for adults.

While it’s obviously a book that would appeal to young adults, there’s plenty to interest those of us who are no longer in that age group. There’s the vivid reminder of what it was like to be 15, so sure of things and so often wrong. There’s the vivid evocation of time and place: an ancient monastery turned boarding school in remote Árkod in the last years of WWII.

There’s also the experience of a mind gradually opening to new ideas, to seeing her own mistakes, adjusting her worldview, understanding people from their own point of view rather than what we think they must be feeling.

I can’t think of anything more relevant to this particular moment we find ourselves in. This book has made me recognise how my own outlook and opinions have hardened as I’ve aged. As a result, I’m trying to cultivate again the kind of mental resilience that Gina demonstrates—not an easy task!

There is much more to this book—the subtle use of symbols, the remarkable shifts in characterisation, the minimal yet effective evocation of setting—all of which I plan to examine more thoroughly in hopes of improving my own writing. Still, Abigail is a fun and poignant story for non-writers, adults and teens alike.

Have you read a story set in a boarding school that lingers in your mind?