Book reviews: The Time By The Sea, Something Like Happy, Call It Dog, An Episode Of Sparrows, Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes

 

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The Independent Culture

The Time By The Sea By Ronald Blythe Faber £9.99

In spite of the best efforts of a handful of TV programmes (witness The Hour for example), that period sandwiched uncomfortably between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the "Swinging Sixties" has never quite been in fashion. And yet, as Ronald Blythe points out in this often lovely memoir, so many of our best writers were published during that period: he mentions Elizabeth Bowen, P H Newby, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Mann and Rose Macaulay. "Oh, bright post-war world to have such novelists in it!" He could have listed many more.

Perhaps the Fifties seem too quiet to attract much attention, but Blythe shows a determined period, a time when writers were just as short of money as they may be now (there's a delicious account of him being "scolded" by his bank manager for going £25 overdrawn), yet who lived with simplicities. Aldeburgh houses Benjamin Britten, John Nash lives close by in Wormingford, Thomas Hardy used to visit and Tennyson's ancient father used to live there. Such star-studdedness doesn't change the character of Blythe's Aldeburgh, the kind of rural haven much favoured by writers, especially after the war.

Part of Blythe's appeal is, of course, a nostalgic one, but part of it is also his prose style - he mentions a historian, Arthur Winn, whose method was "the kind of brilliant putting together of often fragmentary facts, which I adored". It is, of course, a perfect summation of Blythe's own style. Modernism has not been forgotten, as we often imagine happens in the Fifties: that "fragmentary style" would have been as beloved of Virginia Woolf as it would of any less experimental writer. It gives Blythe's hark back to the past a strangely contemporary feel, bringing his love for English village life closer.

*****

Something Like Happy By John Burnside Vintage £8.99

There is little that the poet, novelist and short story writer Burnside cannot turn his hand to, and this collection simply exemplifies his tremendous talent both for getting under the skin of his characters and for making connections with the surrounding landscape. Burnside doesn't psychologise the landscape in the manner of Lawrence or Hardy, but he does make us feel it. There's a violence in nature that is often replicated in the characters of his stories here, either latently or overtly, as in "Slut's Hair", where the vision of a mouse hiding in the kitchen, conjured up by a ball of dust, gives battered wife Janice some comfort and strength. These can often be chilling tales, whether set in the burning sun or the bitter cold, where a wife may die outside of exposure, but just as in nature, there is a pulse of life in those who are left behind, and they cling to it. Both disturbing and yet perfectly structured, these stories embody something of the modern condition in their glimpses of ordinary people's lives.

****

Call It Dog By Marli Roode Atlantic £8.99

Roode's confident and daring debut novel confronts ugly truths about contemporary South Africa, seen through the eyes of a young woman, Jo, returning from London to her homeland after 10 years. Her father, Nico, is the voice of old, white South Africa - racist, sexist and utterly unbending in his opinions. The novel, while offering up a slow-burning thriller-style structure as they try to find the murderer of a young black man, a murder pinned on Nico, is as much about how Jo comes to terms with her father's attitudes as it is about how the new generation comes to terms with its country. This is a lot for any new novelist to handle but Roode does it well, keeping calm at crucial moments.

***

An Episode Of Sparrows By Rumer Godden Virago £7.99

Jacqueline Wilson has penned an introduction to this reprinted 1946 children's tale, reflecting just how much the stories we loved in childhood stay with us throughout our lives. There's something very relevant about Godden's tale of Lovejoy Mason, abandoned by her mother to the care of restaurateur Vincent and his wife. Lovejoy finds little joy in the world save for gardening, and in the ruins of post-war London she finds a church where she can build her own garden. A gang of boys ruins the first one, but its leader, Tip Malone, befriends her and helps her build a second one. It's a reminder that those whom so much of society may consider worthless have real potential.

****

Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes By Maria Konnikov Canongate £8.99

The "Sherlock Holmes" link may seem a little too opportunistic, but Konnikova gives us just enough analysis of Conan Doyle's fiction to get away with it, and just enough connections through it to her central argument: that we can all be Holmes-like in our approach to daily life if only we'd practise harder. Konnikova keeps jargon to an absolute minimum, although some of us may wince at the mention of "brain attics", and her approach is an entertaining and perhaps surprisingly practical guide to being more observant. Like Holmes, she eschews emotional responses for intellectual ones, and when one glances at some social media, one might wish for a little more of that.

***

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