‘Lies Sleeping’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'Lies Sleeping' by Ben AaronovitchI’d been saving this latest installment of the Rivers of London series for the holidays, when I’d have time to enjoy it, and it was worth the wait. Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel about Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard – part of an ongoing series of novels, novellas, short stories and comics. Ben Aaronovitch has said that he’ll keep writing the books “till I die or people stop reading them”, and while the last few novels have been enjoyable, they have felt a bit chaotic, with concluding chapters that raised more questions than answered them. Fortunately, in Lies Sleeping, the author chooses to focus on one major story line that has been present since the start and brings it to a satisfying conclusion. There are still villains to be thwarted, but it’s good to see justice done.

It’s difficult to discuss this book without giving away plot details, but here are my vague, spoiler-free thoughts.

Things I loved:
– I am not usually a fan of fight scenes, but I absolutely love all the bits where Nightingale unleashes his power, whether he’s blasting his enemy through the ceiling or ‘persuading’ a suspect to answer his questions.

– There’s plenty of fascinating London history, going back to the Romans, and it’s actually related to the plot, rather than simply being Peter getting distracted by architecture. Not that I ever mind Peter rambling on about history. The more history, the better.

– Peter’s narration is always so much fun (“I was pleased to discover that the patented acid-resistant soles of my Doc Martens were also vampire resistant”) and I love when his geeky fanboy knowledge comes in handy for interpreting, say, Dwarvish runes (“From the films, though, not the books”).

– Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja doing … what she does.

– That there was finally some acknowledgement of the immense psychological stress that affects anyone involved in Folly business. You know things are bad when both Seawoll and Nightingale are urging Peter to see a therapist.

– I also liked that there was some discussion of religion, with Peter discussing how he’s an atheist, even though his girlfriend is literally a goddess. I’d really like to hear Guleed’s thoughts on this.

– Seawoll co-operating with Nightingale! And Stephanopoulos being so heroic!

– That thing that happens involving Molly! The backstory was awful, but the end was so lovely.

– All the callbacks to previous books, which gives me hope that my still-unanswered questions will eventually be addressed in a future book.

And things that made me go hmmm:
– Abigail. For all the same reasons I didn’t like her characterisation in The Furthest Station. At one stage, Aaronovitch mentioned a spin-off YA series starring Abigail and I really hope he doesn’t go ahead with that. I know this is a fantasy series, but Abigail is meant to be a regular London kid and yet she’s turned into SuperPerfectAbigail.

– There are always plot holes in these books, which I usually ignore, but there were a few scenes when things obviously happened to create interesting conflict or prolong the narrative, not because they made any sense, and that’s annoying.

– I was also annoyed that readers need to have read all the related novellas, comics and associated works to understand everything in these novels. I’ve read three of the five (or six?) comics, so I picked up some references, but there were other bits where I felt I was missing something. For example, has there been an explanation of the foxes in one of the comics? (The foxes were great, by the way, just confusing.) And the religion discussion takes on a different meaning if you know that Max is an acolyte of Beverley’s, not just her handyman. The problem is that I far prefer the books to the comics, because the comics are the old-fashioned kind, full of Ladies With Implausibly Large Breasts Who Tend To Wear Skimpy Clothes Or Be Naked For No Apparent Reason, alongside a lot of Violent Gentlemen With Excessive Muscles. I don’t want to have to read more of the comics, but now I suppose I’ll have to, and that makes me grumpy.

– I cannot see how anything good can come of Nightingale’s offer to teach magic to that particular character whom Peter correctly labels “entitled”, although I suppose it could lead to exciting magical battles down the track.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and I’m looking forward to the next book, due in June. If you’ve read this and have any thoughts, please do comment below – just assume there’ll be spoilers in the comments.

My Favourite Books of 2018

Well, that was a year. A year in which a lot of my favourite reads involved escapism and humour, because the real world was not an especially fun place to be. I read 54 books that were new to me (I don’t count re-reads). About a third of these books were adult non-fiction, a third were adult fiction, and the remaining third were books for children and teenagers. Here are the books that I liked the most in 2018:

Adult Fiction

'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' by Kate AtkinsonBehind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson was a brilliantly funny account of a Yorkshire childhood, related by a not-entirely-reliable narrator with a lot of eccentric relatives. I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading any Kate Atkinson novels, but clearly I need to read the rest of her work. I also enjoyed whimsical, meandering Winter by Ali Smith, another new-to-me writer whose work I need to explore. I have read most of Alan Hollinghurst’s books and The Sparsholt Affair was optimistic and heartwarming (not words I ever thought I’d use to describe a Hollinghurst novel), a beautifully observed story about the families that gay men and lesbians construct for themselves.

Non-Fiction

'Girt' by David HuntThe Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, the hilarious story behind one of the worst movies ever made, was a truly fascinating read. I also enjoyed Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt, a very silly and mostly accurate history of the first decades of colonial Australia, and How Not To Be A Boy, Robert Webb’s funny, thoughtful memoir about a boyhood spent absorbing toxic messages about masculinity.

'Depends What You Mean By Extremist' by John SafranI also liked John Safran’s Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Safran gets to know Muslims who support ISIS; Muslims who hate ISIS but also hate Jews, Christians and gay people; Jews who hate Muslims; white supremacists who aren’t as white as you’d expect; anarchists who hate racists but think anti-Semitic violence is okay; and conservative Christians who hate Muslims even though there doesn’t seem to be much practical difference between their belief systems. While most of these extremists come across as confused attention-seekers with no real ability to threaten society, Safran makes the serious point that most Australians – secular, rational, democratic Australians – don’t understand “the mindset of the devout: magical thinking, seeing patterns in the world, a sense that there are no coincidences, a determination that friends and strangers must be saved, karma and providence”. This was a timely read, full of Safran being his usual annoying but hilarious self.

Children’s Books

'The Terrible Two' by Jory John and Mac BarnettFor some reason, none of the Young Adult books I read this year captured my interest. I’m sure it was me, rather than the books, which were mostly well-reviewed and award-winning. I had more luck with books aimed at younger readers. I liked The Endsister by Penni Russon, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. I also enjoyed the first book in The Terrible Two series by Jory John and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Kevin Cornell, with well-drawn characters, a clever plot and lots of humour.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on Memoranda posts this year, with special thanks to the Antonia Forest fans who make such thoughtful contributions whenever I do a Forest read-along. I haven’t been blogging much lately due to um, life, but I hope to get back into it now that I’m on holiday. Happy Christmas to everyone celebrating it and Happy End of 2018 to everyone else!

‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.

What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

‘Dr Huxley’s Bequest’ Shortlisted for Young People’s History Prize

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has been shortlisted for the Young People’s History Prize in the 2018 NSW Premier’s History Awards. The other shortlisted books are The Fighting Stingrays by Simon Mitchell and Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus by Stephanie Owen Reeder, both of which look fascinating.

'The Fighting Stingrays' by Simon Mitchell

'Marvellous Miss May' by Stephanie Owen Reeder

Dr Huxley’s Bequest has also been added to the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge list for Years 7-9. There’s a good list of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) book recommendations for students in Years 3-9 here.

Plus, National Science Week starts tomorrow and Children’s Book Week is the week after that and then it’s History Week. SO MUCH EXCITEMENT!

If you’ve enjoyed Memoranda’s Antonia Forest discussions …

If you’ve enjoyed the Antonia Forest discussions at Memoranda, you might also be interested in these posts about twentieth century children’s books.

'The Years of Grace', edited by Noel StreatfeildI was entertained and educated by The Years of Grace (1950), edited by Noel Streatfeild. As the jacket states,

The Years of Grace is a book for growing-up girls who are too old for children’s books and are just beginning to read adult literature. It is a difficult age – difficult for parents and friends, but more difficult for the girls themselves. What are they going to do when they leave school? How should they dress? What is a good hobby? How can they make the right sort of friends? The problems are endless, and here in The Years of Grace is to be found the wisdom of many of our greatest writers and most distinguished people of our time.”

Noel Streatfeild must have realised that there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing, because she followed this up with Growing Up Gracefully in 1955. This guide to good manners for young people includes chapters on ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’ and it is even more amusing than her first etiquette guide.

'Friday's Tunnel' by John Verney

Readers who enjoy children’s adventure books may be interested in discussions about Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

'T.H. White: A Biography' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Finally, here are some links to blog posts about the biographies of children’s writers T. H. White and Dodie Smith.

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Seven

Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered

One last bit of Gondalling, in which they finally arrive in Angora. Again, the plot doesn’t make much sense. Jason goes straight to the King because “the matter is of deepest urgency”, but when they meet, Jason doesn’t say a word about the evil Regent’s plots. Instead, he has a nice meal, then when he leaves, Rupert hands over the forged document and claims that he escaped before the Gaaldines could torture him. Rupert goes back to join the other Guards and is horrified to realise they’re about to go and meet the Angoran King, so Rupert’s treachery will soon be revealed. He must quickly kill Jason and escape to Gaaldine, although he wonders whether he’ll be safe there.

This is the point where Ginty says “Let’s get up and act this properly”, suggesting that sometimes their Gondalling was sitting and talking, and sometimes they acted it out.

Rupert/Patrick goes to kill Jason/Lawrie, who is shocked at Rupert’s betrayal but tells Rupert to “shoot me quickly and make your getaway” (in a way that Lawrie would never do). But just as Rupert is about to fire, the others rush in, now aware of Rupert’s treachery. Jason says Rupert must be taken home and tried as a traitor, which means he will burn at the stake. Rupert urges the others to shoot him now, but Malise/Peter says he couldn’t do that, indicating his broken arm from the battle (and Peter actually has a broken collarbone now, so the Gondalling foretold that) and Nicholas/Nicola says Rupert/Patrick deserves to burn (for Rosina, the geese and not caring when she fell off Buster). Rupert announces he will shoot himself and the children break out of Gondalling to discuss this.

Peter says suicide is “too easy” and Nicola wonders how Rupert can do that if he’s Catholic. Ginty wants to save Rupert by sending him into exile “and we could all go into voluntary exile with him”. But Peter thinks Rupert deserves to burn for being a “coward and traitor”. Patrick loses his temper and points out that Malise Marlow, the Civil War ancestor who supported Charles, actually betrayed his own side when the Royalists were losing and showed the Parliamentarians how to get into the Royalist castle. And then Patrick’s Royalist ancestor, Anthony Merrick, was captured and shot.

“There was a moment’s violent silence, loud with old betrayals and antique feuds and ancient enmities. And then Nicola said, ‘Lumme, what a heel!’ and the long dead things went back to their own place. Peter, very pale, said nothing.”

Then Patrick raises an actual pistol to his head to shoot himself, Nicola is frightened to see he’s wearing his Rupert face and, “panic-stricken”, bashes his wrist with the actual sword she’s carrying. The pistol falls and discharges, shooting a hole in the window beside Lawrie’s head and nearly hitting Rowan, who’s outside in the spinney. Because of course, when Peter checked the old pistols were safe, he didn’t do it properly. Didn’t I say that Peter and guns should never be allowed in the same place? Everyone hastily re-arranges the scene so that when Rowan arrives, they all look completely innocent, the pistol having fallen off the wall accidentally (although Lawrie is “quietly bleeding to death into her trousers pocket”). Rowan is not convinced, but can’t prove anything and at least she takes all the guns away. I’m just remembering when Peter was carrying around a pistol earlier, in case they met the neighbourhood drunk, and he playfully held it to Nicola’s head – imagine if it had gone off then. He’s so irresponsible!

Nicola, thoroughly fed up, announces she’s leaving Gondal, despite Lawrie saying she can’t, they need her and it’s “four to one”:

“I don’t care if it’s a billion to a quarter,” said Nicola, discarding family democracy at the same time as she put on her macintosh. “I think the whole thing’s quite mad. And I think those Brontës of Gin’s must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!”

Then Peter, who never wants to hear the word ‘Malise’ again in his life, banishes the others from the Hide. He takes the Malise paper and farm journals and “stuffed the whole thing away at the very bottom, underneath everything”, which is exactly how Peter always responds to trauma. Then he ponders how everything in the Hide transmogrified itself:

“The sovereigns had become farthings: Malise had turned from hero to villain: even the holiday itself had changed from whatever he’d planned into this Gondal nonsense: whatever Mr. Tranter might say, it did look as if Ted Colthard’s grandfather had–well–you never knew–”

Yes, Peter, let’s put all the blame on the devil on the roof. It couldn’t possibly have gone wrong due to your own character flaws.

Then there’s a nice scene between Nicola and Rowan, in which Rowan is leaning on a gate, “Saying ‘Aarrh’ to the crops. It makes them grow,” and Nicola discusses her plans for the rest of the holidays:

“Then I think I’ll have elevenses and then I’ll get Buster and go for a ride. And tomorrow, if that’s all right with you, I’ll come up to the lambing pen.”

Good for you, Nicola. And I hope the rest of your holidays are much better than the first bit.

Lawrie blames everyone else, but she’ll be fine, Gondalling away by herself in her bedroom. Patrick and Ginty are the most upset by the abrupt end of Gondal. Ginty says, “You could sort of find out how people feel when things happen to them, couldn’t you?”, which is what fiction does and suggests Antonia Forest isn’t completely against Gondalling. And Patrick says:

“I wish we could have gone on long enough to find out [what Rupert decided] … once we really got going, what was happening to Rupert felt much more important than anything that was happening to me … we could have gone back to before all this happened and seen why Rupert got like this … Anyway, it was much more fun being Rupert than me.”

So Gondalling did seem to have a psychological benefit for Patrick – it allowed him to consider how other people thought and felt, which is not something he seems to have done before this. After all, the only real danger they faced from Gondalling was due to Peter’s irresponsible attitude to guns. A winter holiday of escapism is not going to cause much harm to most children.

Ginty and Patrick are very sad that “from now on ordinary everyday life will have to serve”, but I don’t have too much sympathy for them, because they both have youth, good health, good looks, lots of money, servants and their very own ponies. And the book concludes with Patrick suggesting, “Let’s get The Idiot and Catkin and go for a ride.”

THE END

I can absolutely see why Victoria University has chosen Peter’s Room as a set text for their children’s literature course. Apart from being an enjoyable read, there’s so much to explore within the text, especially about the role of fantasy and fiction in children’s (and adults’) lives.

My personal favourite bits were the discussion about the Brontës, the talk Rowan and Nicola had about careers, and the scene with Nicola, Buster and the fox. I found the Gondal bits fairly tedious. I can see why they had to be there, but did they have to be so badly written and clumsily plotted? Of course, the children were ‘writing’ those bits and wouldn’t be expected to be brilliant at it, but I wondered if the clumsy prose reflected Antonia Forest’s opinion of High Fantasy. Did she like Lord of the Rings and Narnia and those sorts of books? I’d guess not from this book. I also got the impression that despite her stern warning about the dangers of Gondalling, she’d had a fair bit of daydreaming experience herself. And after all, she lived inside the imaginary world of the Marlows for decades.

The next Marlow book is The Thuggery Affair. Oh dear. Perhaps it’s not as bad as it sounds…

‘Peter’s Room’ by Antonia Forest
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Two
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Three
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five
‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Six

Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running

My entire knowledge of fox hunting with hounds comes from watching Paradise Postponed and Brideshead Revisited, so I am just going to assume Antonia Forest has done her research and that this chapter is an accurate description of one of the peculiar things that the English upper classes do to entertain themselves (or used to do, as I think it’s illegal in England now). Mrs Marlow leaves it until the morning of the hunt (at breakfast, while having “an unusually early cigarette”) to explain the rules. Karen and Ann, the sensible ones, are mere spectators and Ann asks why the others do it, when it makes them nervous. “To see how one makes out, I suppose. It’s like Mount Everest. It’s there,” says Rowan off-handedly (Rowan is fearless and brave). Rowan is also the only one to notice how depressed Nicola is, but is too busy to investigate further. Then Mrs Marlow comes downstairs looking like this:

Caricature of Elizabeth the Empress of Austria. Published in Vanity Fair, 5 April 1884.

“I’ve never ridden anything else out hunting,” she explains airily as her children gape at her. “Your grandmother couldn’t abide breeches on women, so it was a question of riding side-saddle or being told how appalling one looked from behind four times a week.”

Lumme! I think Mrs Marlow ‘married beneath her’ when she wed that young sailor who wasn’t even expected to inherit any property.

Mrs Merrick, when they reach the stables, turns out to be far less enamoured of posh horsey activities than her husband or son, and gratefully hands over the Major’s “hot as ginger” chestnut to Rowan. Ronnie, the handsome Merrick cousin, offers to ride the chestnut instead of Rowan, but “both Rowan and Nicola understood instantly that this was the last thing Ronnie wanted”, so Rowan, of course, says she’ll do it. Because she’s so used to sacrificing her own well-being and comfort to make men’s lives easier.

Nicola goes to get Buster and finds Patrick having a meltdown because they might be late. His state of mind is not helped by his father serving drinks to Mrs Marlow and Ronnie. Then they all ride to the Meet, where the grown-ups go to the pub for a few more drinks. Keep in mind they were all up till two am drinking at the party. No wonder people are always falling off horses during hunts and breaking their limbs and necks. I notice seventeen-year-old Rowan is in the pub as well. Still, if she’s old enough to drive a car, run a farm and parent her young siblings, I guess she’s old enough to drink in a pub.

Meanwhile, Buster, usually very placid and dull, is very excited about being back with his “darling hounds” after three years away from hunting and Nicola is having trouble controlling him. Her worry about this is exacerbated by everyone joking about “Buster the Thruster” being back and indeed, Buster is “so larky and self-willed” that once the hounds catch scent of a fox, Nicola has to do all she can just to stay in the saddle. The others are Gondalling away and Lawrie uses the excuse of being King to use the gate instead of jumping the wall. Patrick and Ginty jump without hesitation, Peter grimly follows them (“because he was Malise”) and Nicola is alarmed to see she is “being carried irresistibly towards the wall”. Go Buster! He not only jumps every wall and hedge he can find, he bounds over an enormous ditch with a thirty-foot drop. Patrick is astonished when the rest of the Field catch up with Nicola and Buster:

“No one’s jumped the Cut since the Master’s grandfather did it on Bandsman …

Nicola forebore to say that for one thing she’d had no idea what she was jumping and for another Buster had given her no option and went on munching smugly at her sandwich.”

Good for you, Nicola!

Lawrie’s hired horse soon goes “lame” and Lawrie sulks all the way back to the stables, whereupon the clever horse makes a miraculous recovery and Lawrie walks home inventing excuses and slipping “into the delicious comfort of being Jason”. Then Peter’s “fraying courage” snaps completely and his horse, “unsettled by her rider’s uncertainty, catching the infection of his fright”, stops dead, throws him off and he breaks his collar bone. Despite the pain, he’s relieved that now he won’t have to hunt any more this season and he considers that by next season, he’ll be “months braver than now”. You go on thinking that, Peter…

Finally Buster, brave but tired, clips a wall going over and Nicola falls off. Patrick, right behind, nearly lands on top of her but carries on with only a glance back. Nicola is

“shaken less by the fall than by Patrick’s Rupert face looking back. Even if he had been Rupert jumping, once he had nearly jumped on her he ought to have turned into Patrick again.”

I think this is meant to be another example of the dangers of Gondalling, but it’s probably just Patrick being Patrick. He’s never shown much sympathy before when Nicola or anyone else has fallen off a horse. Mind you, he isn’t even concerned about poor Buster on his knees in the mud and technically, Buster is Patrick’s pony.

Then there’s a really lovely bit of writing, when Nicola walks Buster home and realises the fox that everyone is supposed to be hunting is actually walking along beside her, using her scent and Buster’s scent to throw off the hounds. But three of the hounds are tracking the fox and they’ve nearly caught up:

“She felt curiously neutral. If she did not want to see Charles James, so clever, so resourceful, caught at the last, neither did she want to see the white hounds, so tenacious, so resolute, disappointed.”

In the end, there’s a frantic dash up the hill as the exhausted fox races for home and the three hounds chase after him. Afterwards, the hounds return with no sign of blood, so I’m choosing to believe the fox made it to safety because there’s been enough dead animals in this book already. And then Buster takes Nicola home in the moonlight and she finally arrives back in the Merricks’ stableyard, exhausted, unable to move, half-asleep.

Next, Chapter Eleven: The Dispatch is Delivered

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Five

Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas

The children are distraught because they’re forced to have a three-day break from Gondalling over the weekend. Nicola thinks them “all quite mad” but doesn’t say so because she “was enough of an outsider as it was”.

The sixth of January – Twelfth Night, the Feast of the Epiphany – dawns and it’s Ginty’s fifteenth birthday. She celebrates with a long ride on Catkin, eagerly anticipating the hunt the next day, while madly Gondalling about Rupert/Patrick dying in Crispian/Ginty’s arms (“It was odd how real it became after a while”). Then she goes home to monopolise the bathroom, while everyone else is trying to get dressed for the Merricks’ party, and suddenly she realises – she’ll have to wear the Bridesmaid’s Horror! It’s her own fault for choosing to Gondal rather than go shopping for a new dress, but typically, she blames everyone else:

“Ann’s crassness in saying she could: Doris’s infamy in offering to do the dress when she couldn’t: her mother’s neglectfulness in not making her go into Colebridge and get a new one–”

But Doris has brought the altered dress back and it’s “perfect”. Mrs Marlow, as astonished as Ginty by Doris’s skill, gives Ginty a necklace to wear, then they go downstairs to show it to Doris. It’s probably because I was thinking of the slave thing, but this scene rubbed me the wrong way. Did they even pay Doris for her work in advance, or at all? Doris had to buy boning for the bodice and other materials, presumably with her own money. Mrs Marlow says, without saying please, that Doris should make dresses for all of them, and Doris says, “I’d love to. Thanks ever so,” as though the Marlows are doing her a great favour. Doris is like Cinderella, doing all the work, but while she gets to go to the ball, she still has to slave away in the kitchen instead of getting to dance with the prince. Then when Ginty idly asks if Doris makes clothes for herself, Doris says,

“Oh no, Miss Ginty,” said Doris matter-of-factly, “it’d be waste of time. I wouldn’t repay the trouble. ’Sides, I’ve got a cousin in service in Bristol. She always passes on the things her lady gives her when she’s done with them herself.”

I didn’t need to read the (very interesting) biography of Antonia Forest in the front of this book to realise she was a “lifelong Conservative” – it’s so apparent in her writing. This scene in particular is so very “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” Imagine how different it would have been if it’d been written by Monica Dickens or even Noel Streatfeild.

However snobby this chapter is, I still can’t resist a party-in-an-English-country-house scene and this is a good one. When the Marlows arrive, the infants’ party games are still in progress and Karen and Ann go off to help, while the others “stood rather stiffly and shyly against the wall and hoped no one was going to suggest they should join in”. Patrick is being his usual anti-social self and his mother is clearly fed up with him. She sends him off to check the chapel is locked before the Hide-and-Seek game starts and Ginty goes with him.

“Nicola looked after them, hesitating. But she hadn’t been invited…”

Nicola would have been a bit of a third wheel, because when Patrick sees Ginty in the chapel, “the candlelight falling on Doris’s dress and her mother’s necklace, her bare shoulders and fair hair shining through the black lace of the veil”, he offers her “the greatest compliment in his vocabulary at the moment”, saying she looks like a Gondalian. So they decide to have a secret Gondalling session right then inside the locked chapel, with Rosina/Ginty, the daughter of Alcona, in love with Rupert/Patrick even though her father wants her to marry Jason. Of course, they can’t tell the others about this Gondal development because the others are “too young”. Patrick expresses some doubts:

“I don’t know if I can do this very well,” he said after a moment. “I don’t really know how people talk when they’re in love.”

But clearly he manages to work it out, because he and Ginty spend the entire night flirting with one another. Poor Nicola, in her unflattering dress, stuck with Oliver Reynolds as dinner neighbour and dance partner, notices Patrick and Ginty “were behaving–oddly”. Suddenly she realises that Patrick is wearing his “Rupert face”, even when he’s dancing with Nicola. Patrick denies he and Ginty are being “Rupert and Crispian” (which is perfectly true, but misleading) and then Nicola overhears him calling Ginty “Rosina”.

“Since she despised Gondal and all its works, it was hard to say why this discovery should make her feel hollow inside…”

Poor Nicola, she’s having a terrible holiday. First she’s forced into Gondalling, then Sprog dies, then Patrick, her friend, abandons her for her pretty older sister. The other Marlows are having a slightly better time at the party. Peter achieves his aim of dancing “with every passable female” who isn’t his sister; Rowan is offered a horse for the hunt the next day; Karen dances with Ronnie, a handsome young Merrick cousin; Ann is a wall-flower and chats with the elderly guests, which is probably her idea of a good time; and Lawrie gets drunk with a mob of disreputable young adults. At least someone spills coffee on Nicola’s awful dress, so she probably won’t ever have to wear it again.

But then, as the party ends, Patrick and Ginty are discovered to be missing. Mrs Marlow takes her usual passive approach to parenting and decides “to hope they would turn up by the time the rest of the family were ready to go”. I pictured it as like the video for Avalon, if Bryan Ferry had “golden eyes” and Sophie Ward had been wearing peacock chiffon:

Patrick and Ginty turn out to have been outside having a romantic time watching geese fly overhead. Poor Nicola:

“Rosina was bad enough: but Rosina or no, the geese should have been hers.”

EDITED TO ADD: I’d incorrectly said it was Ginty’s sixteenth birthday, when she was really turning fifteen. Thanks for pointing this out, Elizabeth!

Next, Chapter Ten: Hounds are Running.

‘Peter’s Room’, Part Four

Chapter Six: “All the Birds of the Air…”

SPROG IS DEAD HOW COULD YOU DO THAT ANTONIA FOREST POOR LITTLE SPROG DYING ALONE IN THE COLD POOR NICOLA THIS IS SO UNFAIR.

Of course, Nicola doesn’t allow herself to cry, “even though when animals died it was always misery past bearing; one would always much rather it were one of the family.”

She is slightly comforted by the thought of Emily Brontë mourning her dead cat. This doesn’t seem very plausible to me, given Nicola’s previous opinion of the Brontës, but I’m not going to begrudge poor Nicola any comfort.

I suppose one good thing is that now she can take Daks back to school as her pet, not Lawrie’s, which will work out better for Esther. I have to say, Daks is having a much better holiday than if he’d been allowed to stay in Esther’s flat. He has Tessa and Bucket as playmates, Peter to fuss over him, and lots of delicious farm smells to wallow in. Poodle heaven.

Chapter Seven: Dispatches to Angora: II

More Gondalling. The Guards realise that Alcona’s map is wrong, they discover their sealed dispatches are their death warrants, and Lawrie/Jason reveals that Alcona forced young Jason to watch his loyal rescuers being tortured to death. Patrick admiringly says to Lawrie, “I couldn’t have done Alcona’s particular brand of nastiness better myself.”

Then there’s an ambush in the “quicksnow” and the Guards fight bravely, get wounded and kill lots of enemies. Unfortunately, Rupert/Patrick is captured by evil Navarre/Peter. Threatened with torture, Rupert/Patrick says he’ll tell “anything you want to know” and quickly spills all his country’s military secrets and agrees to kill Jason. The Marlows are outraged by this (“You can’t just tell like that!”) but Patrick:

“found it imperative to explore, under cover of Rupert, the twilights of cowardice and betrayal: partly, he wanted to know how it felt, partly, Rupert was undoubtedly that sort of person.”

Does Patrick want to explore cowardice because it’s so unfamiliar to him? He seems brave when it comes to physical feats – he doesn’t, for example, avoid cliffs, even after his near-fatal accident, and he’s a fearless horse rider. He does avoid social situations – but he’s so supercilious and disdainful of others that it seems strange he’d be afraid of doing the wrong thing and having people laugh at him or dislike him (which is the case for most people with social anxiety). This book is set in the Cold War and Patrick has an uncle in the Foreign Office, so perhaps he’s considering spies and traitors and wondering whether he himself might be capable of treachery?

Ginty goes along with this plot because it has more dramatic potential for her Crispian/Rupert romance, but she considers:

“Since she was quite often frightened herself, she thought fearlessness, which she confused with courage, the most valuable and enviable quality in the world.”

This is a good point to make. Nicola is mostly fearless, but also brave – she does what she believes is right, even when it scares her. Peter is often fearful and forces himself to be brave, although because he’s under such pressure to Be A Marlow Man, it’s often reckless foolishness, not bravery. Lawrie is neither fearless nor brave, but doesn’t really care about looking cowardly – she just stores it all up as acting fuel.

Nicola, by the way, says Rupert’s decision to tell all before the torturing starts is “jolly sensible”, but I think that’s only because she’s bored by all the Gondalling. She’d be horrified if, say, she discovered Nelson had ever behaved in such a cowardly manner.

On the subject of Nelson, I forgot to note earlier that when Peter discovered the old farm journals, there’s a casual mention of how the original Trennels farmhouse had “been built by a Marlow called Joshua who’d made his pile in the slave trade”. None of the Marlows seems to think there’s anything bothersome about this. And I was just reading about Nelson being friends with Caribbean planters and slave owners and how Nelson fought against William Wilberforce and the abolition movement. Is Nicola aware of this? Would she care? Given the children’s offhand use of racist slurs, I’d have to assume she’d be perfectly fine with Nelson’s opinions on slavery and Empire.

Chapter Eight: Dead of Night

This is nice chapter with no Gondalling whatsoever. Nicola wakes up in the middle of the night, convinced a burglar is prowling around downstairs. She bravely goes downstairs in her dressing-gown and grabs a poker (“Better not wake anyone until she was sure, because though she was sure, she’d look an awful fool” if it didn’t turn out to be a burglar). And it’s not a burglar – it’s Rowan with two newborn lambs nearly dead from cold. While they’re waiting for the lambs to revive, they have a good chat about Nicola’s life plans. Rowan suggests Nicola could train to be a vet (“you like animals and you’re not nervous of them and you handle them well”) and then she could come back to Trennels to look after their animals.

Nicola is not very enthusiastic about the living at Trennels bit and gets Rowan to admit that her new life as a farmer is pretty dull. Nicola says she sees that it might help if Nicola came back to keep Rowan company, but Rowan knocks that idea on the head at once:

“In twenty years we’d be Two Terrible Tweedy Types known far and wide as The Queer Miss Marlows.”

Yes, they would. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Antonia Forest must have been reading a lot of Mary Renault.

What Nicola really wants to do is:

“…joining the Wrens for a bit if I could be sure I’d be posted to Malta or Gib or somewhere sensible. And then I’d like to work my way around the world doing all sorts of different jobs, like people do. And if I could find anywhere no one had been yet I’d like to go there and be the first person, ever.”

That all sounds perfectly reasonable to me, apart from the explorer bit, and Rowan agrees, as long as Nicola doesn’t mind being poor, which she doesn’t.

Then, hooray, the lambs come back to life (I don’t want any more animals dying in this book, thanks very much) and Rowan takes them back to their mother and Nicola tidies up the kitchen and falls asleep there.

Next, Chapter Nine: The Twelfth Day of Christmas