women’s lives

Two English Village based Stories…

by Debbie Young, and Ruth Leigh

After Sarah Moss’s three linked, feminist, rather serious novels, (Night Waking, Bodies of Light, and Signs for Lost Children), read in autumn and winter, I have turned to a couple of lighter books. Each author is someone I know: Debbie Young, who introduced me to the Alliance of Independent Authors, and later invited me to participate in the Hawkesbury Upton literary festival, of which she is the founder, Ruth Leigh via a Facebook writers’ group.

With summer at last appearing, both these books would provide an excellent light read for a vacation or staycation. Murder Lost and Found is the seventh book in Debbie Young’s cosy mystery series, and keeps you guessing past the halfway mark as to whether or not a crime has really being committed. Or have Sophie and her friend Ella been hoodwinked by a joker?

Once verified, the pace increases, and the sad fact behind the murderer’s intentions becomes clear. No spoilers, but as is appropriate, the motives are found, as was the body, in the depths of the local primary school.

Having read most of the series, I’ve always found Sophie Sayers a wide-eyed, innocent protagonist, and her employer/boyfriend Hector not entirely someone who’s future intentions towards her I would trust. As we move through the series she sometimes seems to be becoming slightly more savvy, but in this story she is definitely showing us her most innocent side, while Ella seems slithery and suspect, and Hector doesn’t help Sophie’s peace of mind at all. The text sustains the usual atmosphere of archness and amusing irony, though as a city dweller how could I comment on the attitudes and relationships of villagers many of whom are restricted to living among the same group of people their whole lives? They were mostly together at the primary school – and long before now each found their allotted place, and knows well the foibles of the others! Certainly the denouement is unexpected and the motive gives pause for thought about traditional English education.

‘Suddenly, the church clock began to strike midday, and I knocked over a sugar bowl in my surprise’: what could be cosier, once the murderous culprit (and the body) are uncovered? A book to leave you with that warm feeling, all well in the world in a perfect English country village.

Ruth Leigh’s debut novel, The Diary of Isabella M. Smugge, also set in a village, (it’s Suffolk this time), also brings rural and cosmopolitan living into contrast, and on the first hearing about the book I expected it to be a waspish critique of well-heeled contemporary living, especially of ‘influencer’ style mums. 

I found it a pleasant surprise, and was soon captivated by Isabella Smugge (rhyme it with Bruges), known to her cult followers on Instagram as Issy. Again we are given a portrait of village life but here it is the contrast between Issy with her urban sophisticate ways and the mums at the school gates, particularly those from the council estate struggling with various family difficulties yet gamely carrying on. Issy discovers how the other half live. As various difficulties hit her family and thus her influencer status, she begins to see how other people’s lives, without the safety net of wealth, are impacted by coping with their everyday troubles. She is treated as just another mum by the Head. By contrast, her present life seems a charmed existence: her banker/hedge fund manager husband, au pair, and wonderfully written brittle, gin-drinking Mother, (‘If I begin to behave like that, shoot me!’) though clouded by memories of boarding school, from where, nonetheless, Issy left with the ‘crime’ she committed still unsolved. All these contrast with her new friend, the Vicar’s wife, (whose background I found a little extreme, though it made its point of apparent contrast.)

Other reviewers have likened Leigh’s book to the work of Jane Austen: there is certainly something of Emma in Issy Smugge…

And a clever thing about Leigh’s portrait of Issy is how true it is to reality. I have had friends from this group,  lively, life-affirming women with a strange innocence about them around the class differences and the wealth issue: this made them charming and funny, and you knew that despite the ‘big kisses’ at the bottom of their letters, these larger than life ladies, (I think of splendid blooms at the Chelsea Flower Show), are sure to melt back into their proper place, unlikely to become real bosom pals with us middle-class mortals. They can’t, they are different breed.

Again, a book which reaches its denouement as it gallops downhill towards the end, and in the tradition of that old Victorian Charles Dickens, leaves the reader waiting impatiently for a sequel. Though from early on I guessed where the problem might turn out to be. Although this is a longer and, as we begin to realise, a more serious book than it appears, it’s a page-turner which might suit a longer holiday break.

Both highly recommended for enjoyment, relaxation, and a gentle way to study the ‘human condition’.

New! Guest blog by author Fiona Veitch Smith & my review of her new book The Art Fiasco – both here Thursday 29 October…

The Art Fiasco is 5th in Fiona’s Poppy Denby Investigates series, and I was given the chance to read a copy for review. I thoroughly enjoyed this new mystery, set in Newcastle on Tyne and in the mining village of Ashington, in 1924 (with backstory in 1897-8). The book has a cast of lively and varied characters, social comment on the contrasting lives of the middle class and working class families (especially the women), and a host of possible suspects to be considered as the possible perpetrator of the crime…

Author Fiona Veitch Smith was born in the North East then spent much of her childhood in South Africa, where she graduated fromRhodes University in the Eastern Cape, and worked as a journalist. On return to Britain and her native county, she’s lectured in journalism and other writing areas, at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, and written a number of books for both adults and children…She has a certain relation to her heroine, Poppy Denby, who also works for a newspaper…

Conversations with Friends

by Sally Rooney

Mari HowardSeptember 1, 2020

When I finished reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, I thought that is the saddest novel ever. When I re-read it some years later, I felt the same. Now Sally Rooney has updated my list: Conversations with Friends is up there with Tess, the saddest tale – though not ‘told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Rooney’s tale signifies that her protagonist Frances is not an idiot – but she is a woman without a ‘map’, wandering in a fog of relationships and meanings.

Frances and ex-partner-now-best-friend Bobbi are students and performance poets. Early on, we learn that Frances sits in bed, writing work to perform at gigs alongside Bobbi, and it’s at a gig that the tragedy begins to play out.

Here we are, back at Trinity College Dublin, and indeed Rooney even introduces us to a cameo of one of the two main characters of her second book Normal People, set partly at Trinity College, about two thirds through the story. Their ‘friend Marianne’. Though is this same Marianne as enters into the tortuous relationship with Connell in that book, or not? Frances also refers a couple of times to the concept of ‘normal people’ and we feel she isn’t sure whether or not she qualifies as one. So, the author’s first book looks towards her second.

This story of ex-teen angst comes close to Normal People in questioning the impossibility of true friendship and honest relationships, whether with friends or lovers. What indeed are ‘friends’? When Frances and Bobbi take up with an older couple, also involved in the Dublin arts scene, they probably don’t realise they’re stepping into deep water. The needs and the experience of this couple, Melissa and Nick, will take over their lives, and further educate them in the ways of the world. Frances and Bobbi have already been lovers, and possibly regarded themselves as experienced and moving towards sophistication, but their friendship with these two draws them into complications and mind games.

Here we have a couple not unlike Marianne and Connell from Normal People. Frances mirrors or foreshadows Marianne, for although her family is not well off, and is indeed ‘almost working class,’ they are dysfunctional, cold, and lacking a father. Frances’s father, (although not mysteriously no longer alive, like Marianne’s), is absent as he is a hopeless alcoholic and has moved out to live alone in squalor. Her mother isn’t exactly cruel like Marianne’s, but she is distant and has little to offer as positive emotional support. Frances stands apart from them, coping alone with her feelings, all too ready to fall for anyone who appears to offer love and positive regard. We see this earlier on when we’re told Frances had responded to Bobbi’s question at school ‘do you like girls?’ by eagerly and presumably without question entering into a lesbian relationship. Later, in this book she is drawn towards a man. Of course this could indicate that Frances is bisexual, or that in today’s world our orientation is fluid, but I wonder whether for Frances it is not orientation which matters but whether a person invites her into intimate relationship? Bobbi is the wealthy one, but her divorced parents fight and are equally unsupportive towards their daughter. She is physically attractive, while Frances regards herself, as does Marianne, as plain or even ugly. Frances and Bobbi are in effect family to one another, answering each other’s needs for affirmation even after ‘breaking up’ as a couple. A situation in which any circumstances which cause suspicion or jealousy will inevitably tear them apart both within themselves and from each other.

My impression is that although this may simply be a story of two young women negotiating the process of growing up, leaving family background behind, and making choices as they join the adults, alongside the academic process of gaining a degree, it goes deeper. By accident or by design, Rooney clearly illustrates the lost without-a-map experience of today’s post-modern society. Where anything goes, maybe nothing goes or grows. I am reminded of the work of Edna O’Brien (e.g. The Country Girls, 1960, a trilogy which also features a pair of young women, school friends anxious to break with restrictions and live their own lives) by the desperate, uninformed, and clinging of Frances to Bobbi in the wilderness of a self-seeking adult world which will use her – or indeed either young woman – and then cast them aside. What has changed since 1960?

So how does this story relate to Hardy’s? In obvious plot-related ways not at all. However, as we encounter three incidents, any of which could tip Frances into depression and seeking solace, there are possibly points where she could resist the magnetism of a relationship which ultimately promises her nothing. A small possibility of ‘redemption’ occurs, but is quickly removed by an accident of circumstance, and we readers kind of know that Rooney, Frances herself, and society have already rejected that route. She ends up taking another, one which promises nothing long-term, but on this particular day seems to provide her with at least a fellow traveller for the present.

Like Tess, circumstances have led a young person with her life before her into a cold, dark and uncaring cul-de-sac, invited there by a physically attractive but emotionally weak male. How long will this continue? And will this possible fate haunt girl children for ever?