Book Review: Land Of Big Numbers By Te-Ping Chen

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Land of Big Numbers is the debut collection of short stories by Te-Ping Chen, a journalist who has worked in China, Hong Kong and the US. Most of the stories take place in China, but some follow the fortunes of Chinese ex-pats in America. They cover subjects as diverse as a politically radicalised student, a magical fruit with strange powers, and a would-be inventor who builds machines from bits of cast off rubbish.

Land of big numbers book cover - red background with yellow writing

Whatever the subject matter, the stories share some big themes. A sense of alienation runs through the book: commuters jostle one another on trains; parents and children fail to understand one another; families are scattered; and people migrate to anonymous cities without knowing what they are looking for. Even those who move to the US cannot escape a feeling of dissociation. It is a feeling that is summed up in the image of the house on a cliff, a dingzihu or isolated house that has been cut off from its neighbours and whose inhabitants are trapped with no way out.

At times the stories seem dystopian. We have a city where visitors are obliged to wear a card that “synced with the city’s sensors and recorded the bearer’s activity”; piped music designed to “soothe tempers”; and electronic games played like sport in a stadium packed with spectators. We have the chilling statement that “if you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality”. And a group of people stuck for months in an underground station, literally trapped by mindless bureaucracy.

But at the same time we have the minutiae and small pleasures of everyday life. There are kindnesses towards friends and neighbours, flowers left for a dead man, and food raised in a bucket for the inhabitants of the dingzihu house. And people can still dream, whether of love or of riches, of the perfect invention or of an unknown, but better, future.

The stories in Land of Big Numbers are sometimes dark, sometimes humourous, sometimes fantastical. They are small cameos of Chinese life and Chinese people, a window into a very different culture. I look forward to seeing more from this author.

Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Scribner UK, 2021, 9781471190599

Book Review: The Other Daughter By Caroline Bishop

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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.

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

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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

Book Review: The Boy Who Saw In Colours By Lauren Robinson

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The Boy Who Saw In Colours is set in Germany during the Second World War. It is the story of two brothers who – despite their Jewish father – are selected for one of Hitler’s elite boarding schools for Nazi youth.

Josef, the protagonist, is a misfit in his new surroundings: as well as being half Jewish he is gay, and he prefers painting to fighting. We see the life of the school and the unfolding events of the war through his eyes, sharing his experiences and those of others around him, including his younger brother Tomas.

The central motif is of painting and colours: sudden bursts of colour permeate the story.

The premise of the story is interesting and there were some promising themes. I liked the contrast between the misfit Josef and his more compliant, people-pleasing, brother. There is an emphasis upon the human cost of the elite schools, their effect upon young lives. And there the narrative of an inarticulate boy who communicates through paint and colours, and a story of adolescent love.

Yet I felt that there were several missed opportunities. I would have expected most of the boys at the school to have become hardened by the regime (that, surely, was the purpose of the elite schools), but there was little evidence of the characters developing or changing. And the story wasn’t shocking enough. Given that this was wartime, there should have been more casualties among the central characters and their families.

However, my main problem with this book was with the way it was written. There was much more telling than showing, with no subtlety in the way the tale was rolled out. The reader was told what to think at every turn. And the main conceit of the book – Josef’s synesthesia – felt as if it was superimposed upon the story rather than an integral part of it.

That is not to say that there were not good parts to the writing. Some sections and phrases held potential, but generally the writing felt raw and unpolished. This may have been the author’s intention, but it didn’t really work for me. I was never drawn into the story, and as a consequence I didn’t have much empathy for the characters and never felt the tragedy of their fate. Overall, I thought that The Boy Who Saw In Colours had some good ideas, but that they were not fully developed.

The Boy Who Saw In Colours is published by the author, 2020.

Book Review: The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

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The Rose of Sebastopol was first published in 2007. It has now been reissued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, and the World Health Organisation’s global Year of the Nurse and Midwife.

The “Rose” of the title is Rosa, who is spirited and strong-willed, and chafes against her conventional Victorian upbringing. Her only ambition is to be a nurse (or even a doctor), an ambition that eventually plunges her into the midst of the Crimean War. Her story is told from the point of view of Mariella, Rosa’s cousin and best friend. Quiet and submissive, Mariella’s main concerns are her needlework and her love for Henry Thewell, an eminent physician. Yet she finds herself on an extraordinary journey, travelling to Italy and then on to the Crimea.

Although it couldn’t have been predicted, the reissue of this novel is timely. Its themes of medicine, contagious disease and the control of medicine speak to us as we battle with a global pandemic. Florence Nightingale is only seen at a remove, but her work in trying to ensure hygiene and discipline in the military hospitals is central to the story. At the same time, we see conditions in London hospitals, and attempts to keep cholera at bay. In a statement that now seems prescient, Mariella tells us that “nobody in their right mind would encourage frail old ladies to move in together during a season of cholera”.

War is another theme. I knew little about the Crimean War before I read this novel and it was interesting to see the action from close up, observed by those who were not themselves fighting. And to watch the changing reactions of those at home in England, moving from unwavering support to doubt and confusion.

But it is not all war and medicine. There is a strong storyline, centred around the relationship between Rosa and Mariella, and the men who complicate their lives. This is really the story of Mariella’s personal journey, and of the part that Rosa plays in that journey. In response to reader feedback, the author has added an extra chapter to the end of the book, as well as a short introduction. Personally, I would have been happy without the extra chapter, but others may disagree. Either way, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

The Rose of Sebastopol, Katharine McMahon, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2020 (revised edition), 9781474616843

Book Review: The Age of Witches by Louisa Morgan

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The Age of Witches is a tale of witchcraft in late 19th century New York; of two different traditions of magic; and of the ways in which magic impacts upon its practitioners and those around them. It is the story of the descendants of Bridget Byshop, hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. Harriet, descended from Bridget’s daughter Mary, is in the tradition of a wise woman, making traditional remedies and helping others. Whereas Frances, a descendant of Bridget’s second daughter, wants to use her powers for her own advancement. Both women have an interest in the future of Annis, who is Harriet’s great-niece and Frances’ stepdaughter.

The story moves from New York to England, taking in fashionable London and an impoverished country estate in Dorset. As the action progresses Annis, who prefers horses to polite society, and who has no wish to marry, starts to learn about her family’s heritage, and has to make decisions about her future. Decisions that may put her at odds with her ambitious stepmother. Ultimately this is the history of three strong willed women, battling for survival in what is still a man’s world.

I enjoyed Louisa Morgan’s earlier novel A Secret History of Witches, and I found this one equally engrossing. In both cases the author starts from the premise that witchcraft and magic are real, that they are necessary tools for women in a society where men hold all the power. But their magic is rooted in the everyday: Harriet’s remedies are based on herbs and other plants, and she emphasises the importance of words and intentions. And Frances’ maleficia is used as a supplement to, and not a substitute for, ordinary sexual attraction.

One of the pleasures of this book is the descriptions of the herbs that Harriet gathers, and the mixing of the remedies. Another is the character of Annis, a determined yet principled young woman, and her prickly relationship with James, the English aristocrat her stepmother intends her to marry.

The Age of Witches is a must for anyone who enjoys novels about witchcraft. It is also recommended as a work of historical fiction, with strong characters and a compelling plotline.

The Age of Witches, Louisa Morgan, Orbit, 2020, £9.99, 9780356512570

Book Review: The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to Natasha Pulley’s earlier novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Set in London and Tokyo in the late 19th century, it features Thaniel Steepleton, a synesthetic civil servant, linguist and aspiring musician. An assignment in Tokyo offers an escape from the London fog that threatens his health, but other types of danger await. His task is to investigate the rumours of ghosts that are circulating in the British Legation and elsewhere, but he is gradually sucked into a world of Japanese samurai and courtly tradition, political intrigue and a suspected murder.

It isn’t easy to categorise Natasha Pulley’s work. It is part steampunk, part speculative fiction and part historical. Some of it is real history, but it sometimes feels more like alternate history. The story is centred round 19th century science and technology, with clockwork, gas lamps and telegraph messages. Tokyo is beset by electrical storms, and scientists are obsessed with the idea of ether.

The book is full of memorable characters. There is Mori (the “watchmaker” of the earlier book), a clairvoyant who “remembered possible futures” and whose motives are often unfathomable. Then there is Six, Thaniel’s adopted daughter, rescued from the workhouse, obsessed with electricity and almost as inscrutable as Mori. And the delightful Takiko Pepperharrow, the actress and theatre-owner who is so much more than she seems. Along with a cast of minor characters, they are all decidedly modern in their behaviour and attitudes, but this does not detract in any way from the story.

One of the many pleasures of the book is the descriptions of London, with its gaslit underground stations, street urchins and strict social hierarchy. A world that Sherlock Holmes would have recognised. And there are moments to be savoured, particularly with Thaniel’s synesthetic descriptions – “the shade of paint… a pale cream, was the colour of the scritching noise that cheap phonographs made when violins lifted too high for the wax to record properly”.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is an ambitious novel, full of ideas, with several different strands. It is not a story to be read quickly, and as a reader it can sometimes be hard to hold on to everything that is going on. But it doesn’t matter too much: this is a book to play with your mind.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2020, £12.99, 9781408885161

Book Review: The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

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The Women at Hitler’s Table is based on the extraordinary true story of Margot Wölk. She was one of fifteen women in the Prussian town of Patsch who were employed to taste the food prepared for Adolf Hitler while he was at his nearby headquarters, the so-called Wolf’s Lair. This was to ensure the food had not been poisoned: if the women survived for an hour after eating, the food was fit to serve to Hitler.

The Woman at Hitler's Table book cover

In Rosella Postorino’s novel the central character is Rosa, one of ten food tasters. She is a glamorous Berliner who has come to stay at the farm belonging to her parents-in-law while her husband is away fighting. One strand of the story is that of the food tasters themselves, reluctant conscripts whose fear of poisoning becomes normalised, and who form shifting alliances with one another. Another strand is a clandestine, rather uncomfortable, love affair.  The story shows Rosa’s confusion and conflicting emotions. She is ill at ease in a country farmhouse, and worried about her husband. She struggles to fit in with the other food testers, but enjoys a brief friendship with Maria, a local aristocrat.

Of course, the person at the centre of events is Hitler himself, but we only ever see him at a remove. He is described as a sensitive man, who listens to opera and obsesses about his own health. He will not eat meat, because “he can’t stand the cruelty of the slaughterhouses”.

We get an insight into how ordinary Germans viewed the Nazis. They range from Rosa’s father, whose prospects were ruined by his refusal to join the party, to a group of women she calls “The Fanatics” on account of their blind devotion to Hitler. Others are indifferent, doing whatever is needed in order to survive. And the callous disregard with which the officers treat the food tasters is a reminder that many Germans lived in fear of their own leaders.

The novel raises some big questions. Can God exist, and can it be right to bring children into such a troubled world? The questions are reinforced by religious imagery. For instance, Rosa says “I would participate in the liturgy of the lunch room… an army of worshippers prepared to receive on our tongues a Communion that wouldn’t redeem us”.

Rosa’s narrative is mostly objective, showing her resignation to whatever fate throws at her. But the occasional jumbled sequence, recalling her childhood nightmares, emphasises the abnormality of her situation. Although I found the ending slightly rushed and unsatisfactory, it is perhaps an indication of how her wartime experience would continue to haunt Rosa for the rest of her life.

This is the first of Rosella Postorino’s novels to be translated into English from the original Italian. I suspect that we will be hearing more of her.

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino, translated by Leah Janeczko. Harper Collins, 2019, hardback, £12.99, 9780008377274

The Secrets We Kept

Book Review: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

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Based on true events, The Secrets We Kept is set in the United States and Russia during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. It tells the story of Boris Pasternak and his banned masterpiece, Dr Zhivago and of attempts by the American intelligence services to smuggle the novel back into Russia. It is all part of a strategy to use literature as part of an ongoing propaganda campaign.

But behind the secrecy and the war of words are real human lives. In Moscow, Pasternak’s long-suffering mistress, Olga, faces the Gulag and an uncertain future. While in Washington we follow the lives of Sally and Irina, two female spies. Much of the action is observed through the eyes of the typing pool, a group of mostly university-educated women, who are denied more challenging work by virtue of their sex.

I was interested to hear Lara Prescott talking about her novel at a recent author event at Mr B’s Emporium in Bath. A former political consultant herself, she talked about the ways in which government use culture and words to influence ideas and feelings. As one of her characters says, “Back then, we believed books could be weapons – that literature could change the course of history”. But, as a member of the audience pointed out, the same methods are still being used today, even if the words have moved from the printed page to Twitter and other online platforms.

A central part of the book features the writing and publication of Dr Zhivago, whose plot owes much to the relationship between Boris Pasternak and Olga. Prescott said that this was one of her favourite novels (she was actually named after Pasternak’s heroine Lara…), but you don’t have to have read it to understand The Secrets We Kept. I haven’t read Dr Zhivago myself (although it is now on my reading list!), but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of Prescott’s novel.

The typing pool was another important element of the story. The author said she was interested in gender politics, and in the way in which some women achieved a high profile during the War but were relegated to anonymity afterwards. This lack of individuality is shown through an unusual “collective narrative”, in which the typists speak with one voice: “we typed a hundred words a minute and never missed a syllable… our fingers flew across the keys… we’d pause only to answer the phone or to take a drag of a cigarette…”

Of course, that ability to remain anonymous is what made women good spies. Sally and Irina are prized for their ability to mask their thoughts and feelings, and to change identity as the job requires.

This novel poses some big questions: what motivates a spy, and are words the most powerful weapons we have? But what I enjoyed most was the way it encapsulates the world of the 1950s. This was a bleak time for everyone. In Russia books were banned and freedom of speech was suppressed. In the US women were objectified by men and prevented from reaching their full potential (even the female spies were carriers or decoys, never decision-makers). And paranoia reigned. Not just fear of the Soviet Union, the appearance of Sputnik prompting headlines like “Russia Wins” and “End Days?”. But, closer to home, we watch characters hiding their sexuality, dreading exposure, job loss and social ruin.

This is a story of secrets, both national and personal. A story to be savoured and reflected upon.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Hutchinson, 2019, hb, 456pp, £12.99, 9781786331663

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Book Review: In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark

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Interwar Berlin: the economy is in ruins, businesses are collapsing, and fortunes are being made and lost. People fear for their livelihood, and for Jews and homosexuals the stakes are even higher. At the same time Berlin is a place of unrivalled hedonism and fevered passions, a place to live in the moment, without regard to the future. It is inevitable that an atmosphere of suspicion should prevail: who is telling the truth, who might betray you, who can you trust?

It is against this background that Clare Clark has set her novel In the Full Light of the Sun. Told from the point of view of Julius, a middle-aged art critic; Emmeline, a young bisexual artist; and Frank, a Jewish lawyer, the story is connected by the mysterious art dealer, Matthias. At times the presence of Matthias seems benign, at others sinister and Svengali-like. And there is always the shadow of his brother Gregor…

Although the work is fiction, it draws upon a real-life scandal that shocked the Berlin art world. The action centres around the discovery of a number of previously unknown works by Van Gogh. At first they are authenticated, but later they are declared to be forgeries. Questions abound. Are they genuine or not? Was Matthias, the dealer, aware of the uncertainty? If they are fakes, who is the artist?

Of course the big question is: who knows where the truth lies, and how can we ever be certain? It is this question that is at the centre of the novel. The story begins with the collapse of Julius’ marriage, and moves through scenes of lies, betrayal and the abuse of trust. But love, friendship and family ties continue to flourish, sometimes in surprising ways.

Art is a central motif. The language of art permeates the description of places – “in the chiaroscuro candlelight” – and of people – “sleepy Modigliani eyes”. The unbridled passion of Van Gogh contrasts with the emotional repression of Julius, his biographer. We are left wondering which is the more alive – the people or the art.

Ultimately, as Julius says, “art is a lie that helps us see the truth”. But unless, in the words of Van Gogh, we stand “in the full light of the sun”, part of that truth will remain hidden from us. An excellent and thought-provoking novel.

In the Full Light of the Sun, by Clare Clark. Virago, 2019, £16.99, hb, 424 pp, 9780349010823 (Also avoilable on Kindle)