Paperback reviews: The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory, The Vagenda by Holly Baxter & Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett


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The Independent Culture

The First World War the poets knew by Max Egremont

Picador £9.99

A year after the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War, one can’t help wondering if the next three years will see a maintaining of publishing’s tribute to what took place. 2014 saw a whole raft of novels, poetry collections and biographies to reflect that event. But will the public interest wane?

One literary aspect that is remarkable is how the poets of the Great War have stayed with us, taught to generations of schoolchildren, their words adorning statues and plaques. Egremont’s study is traditional and linear, moving from the declaration of war and the initial enthusiasm of men like Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke (reflecting the nation at large, perhaps – Egremont notes that in August 1914, The Times received more than a hundred poems a day), through the scepticism of Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas to the disillusionment of Siegfried Sassoon. He reminds us of Wilfred Owen’s early romanticism, that “what’s holding me together on a battlefield is a sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote.”

Would these men have been great poets without the war? By closely linking their time in battle with their writing, Egremont stresses an ambivalence: some of the poets, such as Ivor Gurney, positively cherished their sense of belonging to a troop (“I cannot remember a time when my health was better”) and enjoyed the war before the real horror began. And there is another coda to the belief that horror somehow makes our work greater, assures us of immortality. Robert Nichols was the one who achieved both acclaim and sales, caught in a popular triad that included Sassoon and Robert Graves. Yet Nichols hasn’t lasted, and is now eclipsed by Owen in our national consciousness.


Academy Street by Mary Costello

Canongate £8.99

What a lovely, if tragic, novel this is: from Tess’s loss of Eden at the death of her mother when she is just a child, to her passage to New York and single moment of love shared with a man who will go on to marry someone else, Costello’s tracing of a life from innocence to experience is full of compassion and an old-fashioned quality: respect for a life that’s remarkable in all its quiet oddity. Tess finds it hard to communicate. She makes occasional friends as a nurse in New York in the 1960s and bonds with her neighbour when her one-night stand leads to pregnancy. But she is wholly herself, felled only when love breaks through the barriers and leaves her unsure and dissatisfied. At times, you almost want Costello to give Tess a break and stop killing off all the people she loves, but this isn’t that kind of story. Costello must begin with death and so she must end with it, too, a mark of integrity, of both psychological and social realism.


Chernobyl Strawberries: A memoir by Vesna Goldsworthy

Bitter Lemon Press £8.99

As Goldsworthy, a Serb married to an Englishman and living in London in 2004, contemplates her cancer diagnosis, she remembers the smell of strawberries, carried by winds from Ukraine, and made all the stronger in the fateful year of 1986.  That was the first year she made strawberry jam: “I left them all in Belgrade, glowing on the shelves in neat rows. Or did I? The strawberries may or may not have been radioactive.” On the 10th anniversary of her memoir, we can be assured that Goldsworthy survived, but the soulsearching that that diagnosis produced makes for a compelling read; often funny and sceptical but the horror of war in the Nineties looms over it all, of course.


The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

Simon and Schuster £7.99

With no sign of our Tudor passion waning, Gregory cleverly marries her interest in the Plantagenets with the family that superseded them in a novel that’s expansive, if a little too heavy on the exposition. Again, she cannily chooses a character on the sidelines, this time it’s the Countess of Salisbury, who was beheaded as an old woman and who notoriously fought her executioner, to die in a horrifically bloody way. The daughter of George, treacherous younger brother of Edward IV, her life of rises and falls captures this uneasy period. Once the plotting starts, Gregory loses her reliance on explaining the past and gives a dramatic and rounded view of another extraordinary woman.


The Vagenda by Holly Baxter & Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Vintage £7.99

There’s a welcome energy and humour in Baxter and Cosslett’s response to the way the media represent women, which was the hallmark of their multimillion-viewed blog. But they are also mindful of the seriousness of their enterprise, which really is a look at the complex issue of women and pleasure. They don’t quite get to grips with all the contradictions – such as why women like reading online “Sidebars of Shame” yet also condemn them – but they do at least flag them up. Some targets have been exposed before and in greater depth, including the incessant dieting industry and the association of thinness with beauty and success, but overall this is a refreshing and much-needed approach.