Book Review: Dark Earth By Rebecca Stott

It is the year 500 CE, and in post-Roman Britain Isla, her sister Blue, and her father, a famed blacksmith, are exiled to an island in the River Thames. They all have dangerous secrets and when their father dies suddenly the sisters’ security – already fragile – is threatened. Should they look for mercy from their cruel and unyielding tribe, or take their chances in the lawless hinterland of the Thames?

Or perhaps there is a third way? On the north bank of the river is the “Ghost City”, the looming remains of Roman Londinium. Evil spirits are said to lurk in the forbidden ruins, but what Isla and Blue find is a hidden colony of fugitive women. This is a community of smallholders and craftswomen, augurers, and abandoned children. But can Isla and Blue find a long term future here?

Dark Earth is set in the “darkest corner of the dark ages”. This is a period of history about which little is known, a time when reason battles with superstition, when new-fangled Christianity is trying to supplant the native religions, and to overturn a culture of religious tolerance.

It is not always easy to understand such an unfamiliar culture (I occasionally had to resort to Google to find the meaning of an unknown word or concept). But Rebecca Stott weaves a credible story from what we do know. This is a world of casual violence, where everyone is in need of protection, where laws are made and enforced at the whim of the most powerful. Yet it is also a place where love and loyalty can thrive, where art and creativity can flourish. The detailed descriptions of metal working and the production of decorated swords act as a reminder that humans have always sought beauty, even in the darkest times.

But what sets this book apart is that women are at the forefront. If the men of this period are little-known, the women are invisible. As Blue says, the male leaders have a genealogy, but “where are the women? Who is going to remember them?” There is a passing reference to a boy king named Arthur: in their way Isla and Blue and their community of wise women are a female counterpoint to the court of King Arthur and Merlin, his magician.

In the end, however, “no city can stand for ever”. As the Ghost City represents a vanished civilisation, so too will the world of Isla and Blue disappear, to be mostly forgotten but leaving tantalising clues for future generations to interpret as they will.

Dark Earth, Rebecca Stott, 4th Estate, 2022, 9780008209223

Book Review: The Language Of Food By Annabel Abbs

It is 1835, and aspiring writer Eliza Acton is mortified when her publisher tells her to abandon the idea of poetry and write a cookery book instead. But a change in the family’s fortunes leaves her determined to learn to cook and to accept the challenge. Together with Ann, her newly-hired kitchen maid, she slowly masters the art of cookery, creates a range of recipes, and publishes her book.

The Language of Food is based on a true-life story. Little is known about the real Eliza Acton, but her book – Modern Cookery, published in 1845, was a best-seller in its time, and many of her recipes found their way into the better known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

Annabel Abbs takes the few facts available to us and uses them to create two memorable characters – Eliza and Ann – whose voices alternate throughout the book.

Eliza may be initially driven by the need to make money but she soon finds additional motivation for her task. Looking at the few recipe books available at the time she is appalled  at how clumsily they are written – imprecise, unhelpful and not fit for purpose. As a poet she aims to make her own book more practical and also a pleasure to read: “like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered”.

The Language of Food is a sumptuous read, full of food described in loving detail. There are frequent comparisons between cooking and poetry – “Fruits, herbs, spices, eggs, cream: these are my words and I must combine them in such a way they produce something to delight the palate. Exactly as a poem should fall upon the ears of its readers, charming or moving them”. An added bonus is the inclusion of some of the original recipes at the end.

However, this is more than just a celebration of food. Eliza starts to become aware that even the rich do not eat well. This was a time when women of the upper classes simply did not concern themselves with what went on “below stairs”, when it would have been shameful for the woman of the house to involve herself in the cooking. The result was bland, unappetising food.

She is also forced to confront the reality of poverty. When Eliza visits Ann’s parents’ home with its lack of food she thinks of “all the lavish food served and wasted in monied kitchens everywhere.” For Ann herself, the child of paupers, “a kitchen is like a puppet show, a fairy tale…”, far removed from her former life. The elaborate descriptions of food and cooking are made poignant when imagined through the eyes of a poverty stricken girl.

Eliza’s concern is both for the rich – who eat badly through ignorance – and for the poor, to whom nourishing food is simply not available. Her mission is now to make cookery both simple and pleasurable for all, whatever their station.

Finally, this is the story of two women trying to escape the restricted roles defined for them in the Victorian era. I have to confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the speed with which Eliza learns to cook well, or by the relative absence of culinary disasters but, that aside, this was an enjoyable and compelling read.

The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 9781398502222

Book Review: Violeta by Isabel Allende

Set in an unnamed South American country, Violeta is the rollercoaster story of a strong and determined woman, a woman who battles dramatic changes in destiny. Violeta endures the ruin of her family, some less-than-perfect relationships, and almost permanent worry about her children. All the time she is doing her best to ensure her own survival – physical, economic and emotional – and that of her extended family and those who have befriended her along the way.

What emerges is a portrait of an unconventional woman who meets life head-on and who will do whatever it takes to survive. Violeta’s life is mirrored by the tangled politics of Latin America in the 20th century. Isabel Allende – who has first hand knowledge of these events – draws a picture of the ruthlessness and corruption of the different regimes, of the frequent “disappearances”, and of the way that individual fortunes could rise and fall with the volatility of the times. She does not hesitate to point a finger at United States interference in the affairs of other countries, or at those who turned a profit from the conflict.

The story is bookended by two pandemics, beginning with the Spanish flu in 1920 and ending with the Covid outbreak of 2020. Some aspects are eerily similar – the face coverings, the restrictions on movement, and the paranoia – but there is an added level of brutality in 1920.

The writing is so vivid that Violeta sometimes reads like an autobiography. Allende has obviously drawn on her own life experience, and the reader is tempted to speculate how much of the author resides in her protagonist. Despite the suffering, there are moments of joy and deep humanity, and the writing is often lyrical.

The novel contains some unforgettable characters. There is the unprincipled Julián, who “ran liquor, drugs, and girls, and provided other highly compensated services”. Miss Taylor, the English governess who turns out to be a free-thinking Irishwoman. And the staunchly loyal Torito, who is anything but the simple giant that he appears to be.

An added bonus is the way that different cultures are woven through the story. Close to home we have Yaima, the local healer who “was the link between the earth and the spirit world, with great knowledge of plants and shamanic rituals”, priests, businessmen and a colony of German refugees. But we also encounter a Norwegian bird-watching diplomat, the US underworld, and the brittle high-life of Havana…

A new title from Isabel Allende is always a treat, and I enjoyed every page of this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Violeta, Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 9780593496206

Book Review: The Other Daughter By Caroline Bishop

The Other Daughter is Caroline Bishop’s first novel, a multi-period story set in England and Switzerland. In the present day Jess has travelled to Switzerland in search of answers to questions about her own life. Meanwhile, back in the 1970s, her mother, Sylvia, is trying to forge her career as a journalist. In the course of her work she meets some Swiss women who are fighting for the most basic rights.

Book cover with a woman in an orange dress and text saying "Caroline Bishop, The other daughter"

The background to the novel is the struggle for women’s rights in the 1970s. It looks back to a time when Swiss women had only just got the vote and were still fighting for legal recognition. Women in Britain had more rights, but society and social expectations still needed to catch up. An additional element is the scandal of the “forced placement” scheme in Switzerland, in which children were removed from poor families and sent to work on farms, sometimes in brutal conditions.

This is also a story about family secrets and personal identity. Secrets are gradually revealed as the book progresses: Jess has had some shocking revelations, but there are more to come. She knows that she was born in Switzerland, and that there is a mystery around the circumstances of her birth, and she is determined to find out more. But at what cost?

The novel poses many questions. How important is it to know the truth? And what makes us what we are? What would have happened if an alternative path had been taken? As the publisher’s blurb describes it, “you only get one life – but what if it isn’t the one you were meant to live?”

I found this a satisfying and absorbing book. I particularly enjoyed the historical aspect – although I previously knew something of the struggles of Swiss feminists, I was completely unaware of the child placement scheme. And, at the same time, the personal stories of Jess and Sylvia created a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down – a recommended read!

The Other Daughter, Caroline Bishop, Simon & Schuster, 2021, 9781471190056

Book Review: Unto This Last By Rebecca Lipkin

Unto This Last is the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his troubled relationship with his student Rose La Touche, an obsession that begins when Rose is ten years old. It is also the story of his uneasy relationships with others who are close to him, in particular his parents and Effie, to whom he was once married.

The background to the novel is Ruskin’s growing fame as an art critic. He also becomes known as a teacher, guest lecturer, and an Oxford professor. At the same time he sees himself as a social reformer, with his own particular brand of socialism. He is concerned to improve the lives of the poor, but even more intent on enriching all lives through art and education. “Man should not desire to be rich, but content,” he says, as he urges his students to engage with nature, to see clearly what is before them. For him, art is not an accomplishment, but a fundamental means of communication.

As the book progresses we follow Ruskin on his travels, to the Lake District and to France and Switzerland. And to Venice, which provided the inspiration for one of his most famous works, Stones of Venice. We also meet other members of the Victorian cultural elite. Primarily these are artists: Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana, and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But there are others, including the free-thinking intellectuals Thomas and Jane Carlyle.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including those of Rose and of Effie, the subject of Ruskin’s ill-conceived marriage. This enables the reader to feel the frustration of others when dealing with him. What emerges is a picture of a complex man, brilliant and charismatic but often flawed. The Ruskin of this book has an inclination towards melancholy and is prone to fits of madness.

We come to know a man who is more at ease in nature and among old buildings than with people, hence his yearning for the unattainable Rose. Clearly the present is influenced by the past: Ruskin’s character has been formed, not just by his genius, but also by his regimented childhood and his domineering mother. And, like everyone around him, he is constrained by the strictures of Victorian society.

However, it is sometimes hard to have much sympathy with Ruskin, with his irascibility, his mercurial temperament, and his particular way of viewing the world and other people. He is described as warm and generous, but it seems to be a warmth towards humanity as a whole, while his largesse is often funded by his father. Those who are closest to him don’t always fare so well.

Unto This Last is an extensively researched novel, full of detail. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one man and his social milieu. I knew little about John Ruskin before I began reading, but I am now tempted to read some of his works for myself.

Unto This Last: A Novel, Rebecca Lipkin, The Book Guild Ltd, 2020, 9781913208820