The Echo Chamber – John Boyne (Doubleday 2021)

Anyone looking for the best, most versatile author of our times?  Here’s a suggestion – John Boyne, and I’m making this claim after only reading 7 of his 21 books.  There’s two timeless classics in his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” and “The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas” and this novel becomes the 5th of his five star reads, alongside “A Ladder To The Sky” and “The Boy At The Top Of The Mountain”.  When he has missed out on a 5* rating his work is also extraordinary, the tightly structured stylistically so impressive “A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom” and his 2019 YA novel “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica”, with its focus on the family of a transgender teen which I found “marvellously empathic” but it missed out on 5* because I didn’t feel totally convinced by the main characters’ family set-up and felt it lacked some of the subtlety of his best work.  My reviews for all of these titles can be found by following the links on this site.

What I did not appreciate was the fuss “My Brother’s Name Is Jessica” caused in the months after I read it.  An interview with Boyne in last week’s Guardian (17/07/21) details this with backlash against it leading to online harassment, misrepresentation, death threats and a period of depression for the author.  It also, far more positively, sowed the seeds for this, his latest novel for adults.

I cannot remember laughing out loud so much at a novel since another Irish author Paul Murray’s “The Mark And The Void” from 2015 and like that novel the humour is rooted very much in the present making it a book for 2021.  Already, I’m acknowledging this may not have the longevity of his greatest work but it warrants five stars for the sheer enjoyment it gave me.

And yes, there is going to be some controversy again over this.  At the centre is social media and the effects this has on one notable family, the Cleverleys.  Father George is a BBC light entertainment staple, a chat-show host famous for many years (I’ve already seen Graham Norton praising this work and jokingly wanting to make clear this character is not based on him), his wife Beverley, a best-selling romantic novelist who now provides the ideas which are written up by a ghost-writer, who is herself celebrated enough to be having an affair with her Ukranian “Strictly Come Dancing” partner, a man who has spread his charms amongst the next generation of the Cleverley family; Nelson, in therapy and only able to cope with social interactions whilst wearing a uniform; Elizabeth, an online troll who gave me a great number of laugh out loud moments and Nelson, a teenage extortionist.  They inhabit a world where the number of likes on your social media is what validates you as a person.  Modern life is a minefield for this family and things soon go wrong with attempts to escape situations only making it worse.  John Boyne is happy to tread on everyone’s toes using real-life celebrities to add to the humour. 

This is a work of satirical fiction and is not intended to be factual” states the publisher’s note at the beginning but satire is often not funny (as anyone attempting to watch the Britbox “Spitting Image” reboot will testify) but here it is.  Another trap for the comic novel is that the humour often wanes before the mid-way point but Boyne is able to sustain it for the length of his work (only in a couple of places does the pace falter and that is occasionally due to over-reiteration which the author needs to employ to ensure we, as readers, are keeping up) and too often the humour in books becomes predictable whereas here I had no idea where this book was going which was a joy in itself.

Maybe some people will be upset by this and some people deserve to be upset by this but I think John Boyne has written a great comic novel of our time and which should provide a great tonic for these strange times we live in.

The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday on August 5th 2021. Many thanks to Lilly and the team at Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advance review copy.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day – Winifred Watson (1938)

This is a book I have been aware of but have never read.  I also haven’t seen the film version (but I will soon be putting that right) which was made some 70 years after publication and which starred Frances McDormand and Amy Adams.

Winifred Watson is one of Christopher Fowler’s Forgotten Authors and because I am working through his book rediscovering writers I would have got round to her eventually but was urged to bump her up the list by my friend Louise, whose recommendations are so often spot-on. 

This is a charming little tale of a dowdy middle-aged spinster sent for a job interview for a governess post and who finds herself being brought into a whole set of circumstances involving a sparkling night-club-visiting theatrical social set who accept her totally. It is fast-paced with lots of dialogue, a lively wit and an optimistic kindness which runs throughout and which is very endearing.  Apparently, Winifred Watson, a Newcastle resident who had written a couple of Northern sagas which may or may not have been an influence on Catherine Cookson whose writing mined a similar area, knew nothing about the type of people she was writing about here, the smart theatrical London set, and never in her 95 year life-span went anywhere near a nightclub which provides one of the significant locations in her book.  She made it all up and it does actually have the naïve charm of 9 year old author Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” another author who because of her youth wrote from sheer imagination and not experience.  The wit is slightly Wodehousian and also reminiscent of E F Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” novels but you feel that these two characters would have made mincemeat of Miss Pettigrew and however much that is a joy in their novels in this one it would have been to its detriment.  This book illustrates that just occasionally being in the right place at the right time can cause some very special things to happen.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day was first published in 1938 by Methuen.  I read the 2001 Persephone edition.

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym (1952)

 

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Barbara Pym was one of the British writers featured in Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”. I would dispute that she is forgotten. Admittedly, there was a time in the 60s and 70s when she faded from view but she has been reinstated in latter years (she died in 1980) and her gentle, observational novels are held in high esteem and read and re-read by devoted fans. The publishing house Virago have made sure today’s readership would not have to struggle to find her work.

I’d never read her before and had sort of put her in my mind as a missing link between Jane Austen and Victoria Wood. It’s not quite as spot on as that but it’s not too wide of the mark, with the small-scale world she creates pushing her closer towards a more modern-day Austen.

She depicts a fairly drab London “very much the “wrong” side of Victoria Station” in the post-war years which still has a village mentality but with its occupants faded into accepting their shabby environment. Everyone feels slightly down on their luck. It’s a world of stewed tea, washing hung up indoors to dry, shared bathrooms combined with the less urban aspect of jumble sales, knowing everyone’s business and with the vicar as the central figure of the community.

Mildred Lathbury is one of Reverend Julian Malory’s “excellent women”, someone who everyone “respects and esteems” but who is not destined for much excitement, passion or unpredictability. She is deemed such by everyone including her more dynamic new neighbour Rockingham Napier with his military background which seems largely to have been chatting up WRENS in Italy and his wife’s friend and fellow anthropologist Everard Bone (I’m not sure if Pym is being racy with a double entendre here). Mildred seems interested in all of these men but cannot move beyond casual acquaintance or friendship.

That’s largely the plot, but let’s agree it’s unlikely that many readers would read Barbara Pym for her plotlines. It is the close observations which enrich her writing. It’s an understated world which focuses in on small absurdities. Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction states that this is not laugh out loud comic writing but is likely to result in many wry smiles. Like Victoria Wood, who I had imagined Pym to be closer to be than she actually is, the humour is in the ordinariness of everyday life. Being caught up in an emotional scene whilst holding a teapot or having two ping pong bats in one’s grasp or with a baguette and a biography of Cardinal Newman poking out of a shopping bag is as riotous as it gets for these characters.

In a world where so much is brash Barbara Pym is a perfect antidote which should ensure a continued growth in reputation and I did enjoy my first experience of her work. I do think that as a reader I respond better to bigger issues and greater depth than evidenced here. This was her second novel and is usually up there amongst readers’ favourites. She spent almost a couple of decades not being able to find her place in the publishing world but she returned with the Booker shortlisted “Quartet In Autumn” in 1977, since then she has become an inspiration for many other (especially) British writers. I think I might have been expecting a little more as a result of this, the lightness of touch was a little surprising to me. I could almost say she was frothy but it would be a pretty down-at-heel frothiness, whipped tinned evaporated milk rather than whipped double cream would be more fitting for the world Barbara Pym’s characters inhabit.

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Excellent Women was published in 1952. I read a 2013 Virago paperback edition.

The Complete Mapp & Lucia Volume 1 – EF Benson (Wordsworth Classics 2011)

mapp and lucia1There was a time when you had to buy the books that made up the Mapp and Lucia sequence separately, which I did, all apart from the last one for some reason.  Then omnibus editions began to appear and then cheaper omnibus editions arrived.  I recently re-read this version published by Wordsworth which can be picked up for under £2, a real bargain for a good quality 600+ pages. I was quite happy to replace my tatty five paperback novels with this one.

The other day whilst browsing on the Kindle shop on Amazon I discovered that the copyright restrictions must have been lifted as it is available for free.  I’ve already mentioned that during this little browse I discovered the Delphi Complete Classic Editions and there is a EF Benson volume which contains a massive 32 novels and countless short stories, his non-fiction and autobiography for the amazing sum of £1.49.  Now this collection was not amongst the ten (10!) Delphi Classics I did purchase because I do have a fair bit of still to read Benson on my shelves and I’m not convinced that this, unlike some of the others on offer, is a complete collection. (To be fair, unlike some of the other titles it does not claim to be “complete”)  I have some that I couldn’t see in the breakdown of the titles in this collection.  I know this is laughable because it would take me a lifetime to get through the 32 novels that are there so why am I quibbling about a couple of titles I couldn’t see?  Anyway I left Mr Benson in the Amazon store (for now anyway) particularly because I have the two Wordsworth volumes which do represent his finest work. If, however, you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia books you might want to consider the e-book versions.

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Up until the 1980’s Mapp and Lucia were a bit of an underground classic.  This changed with the enchanting Channel 4 production from 1985.  The two series made from Benson’s stories are held in great reverence, were filmed in the correct locations and starred Prunella Scales, Geraldine McEwan, and Nigel Hawthorne.  Readers began to seek out Benson’s work.  (I have seen some of the 1985 version recently and it has dated greatly- the pace was slower than I remembered, it didn’t sparkle quite as much as it did in my head and compared to the standards of British TV Drama production today it looked a little, well, cheap.)

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Last Christmas the BBC put on a re-make of 3 episodes starring Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor and Steve Pemberton.  It was very enjoyable Christmas viewing but obviously did not go down well enough for them to make a series (it did seem to pick and choose a little from the sequence of novels).  To date nobody has actually filmed the novels and told the stories in the sequence that Benson produced them.  They have tended to focus on the middle novels.

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In Volume one you get the first three novels – “Queen Lucia” (1920), “Miss Mapp” and “Lucia In London” (1927).  “Queen Lucia” is a laugh-out loud comic novel and a real triumph- it sparkles throughout.  Surely Lucia is the blueprint for Hyacinth Bouquet in “Keeping Up Appearances” (in fact in my warped memory banks I did erroneously think I recalled Patricia Routledge playing her in the Channel 4 series). She is a superb creation as is her friend and neighbour, the deliciously camp Georgie.  This book fairly skips along as those who live in the village of Riseholme (based on Broadway in Oxfordshire) get swept away with enthusiasms for yoga when a guru comes to stay and are thrilled by the arrival of celebrated opera singer Olga Bracely.  It is affectionately written and quite delightful.

As far as I am concerned “Miss Mapp” is not as successful. For this second book of the sequence the action is moved to Tilling (based on Rye, where both TV series were filmed) and we are introduced to a new set of similar characters (alas no Georgie).  Miss Mapp is perhaps more monstrous than Lucia and as a result some of the warmth is lost.  Two retired gentlemen- Major Flint and Captain Puffin are perceived by Mapp to be vying for her attentions and a duel that never was dominates this book.  The pace is slower, the sparkle less effervescent, there’s quite a lot of bridge played, which Benson seems to like to write about, but which does slow things down for the non-bridge playing reader.  It is still very enjoyable and ranks up there with a good PG Wodehouse novel but it’s not a match for its predecessor.  (Interestingly, I’m not alone in thinking this.  Perusing the introduction by Keith Carabine after I read the novels he seems to agree with me).

Lucia once again becomes the focus of “Lucia In London” and this book brings that sparkle back.  It does this by having its foot in two camps as Lucia inherits a house in London and moves from her beloved Riseholme to begin soaring up the social ladder of the capital.  The rest of the village view this ascent with disdain and busy themselves with spiritualism and opening a museum.  Lucia, unsurprisingly, tramples on her old friends on her way up and faces social isolation.  Georgie has more of a supporting role to play but is magnificent as is the returning opera diva Olga, who manages to balance running two homes without ostracising anyone.  Lucia’s behaviour increasingly makes her a laughing stock in both camps but this is classic comedy and so Georgie and Olga are able to pull her through.  Not quite as essential as “Queen Lucia” but a marvellous comic novel nevertheless.

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I’ll have a little more to say about Benson himself when I review the second volume of this collection but I hope I have whetted your appetite to discover or rediscover these classic novels from the twenties.

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The Complete Mapp & Lucia Volume 1 was published by Wordsworth in 2011.  Other versions are available.