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Both novels are shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and both focus almost entirely on the experiences of their  main protagonist as well as paying homage to literary history. Apart from that, they are as different as different can be.

Jo Baker’s second novel, A Country Road, A Tree, follows the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, from Ireland to France, where he chose to stay during the Nazi Occupation, forced eventually to flee Paris and go underground when he became involved with the French Resistance.  Not for Beckett the easy option – he could have sat the war out in neutral Ireland in safety, had he so chosen.  But he returned to France to his partner, Suzanne and remained there until the end of the war. It is commonly accepted that these are the years that formed the writer. Although Beckett published prior to the war, his works thereafter are those which Earned his reputation as a modernist master.

Baker has chosen to chart these formative experiences in third-person present tense.  Thus the reader walks, runs, flees with Beckett through his trials. I’ll admit this didn’t work for me in the early pages, the Irish pages, if you will, which I found slow and stultifying – much as Beckett found his Irish village in real life!  (Mission accomplished then, writer!)  Following the outbreak of war, life becomes much more intense as Beckett and Suzanne are forced to flee the Gestapo to seek sanctuary in the Zone Libre.  The hardships, deprivations and dangers on the road accumulate into a pulse-raising read and, at one point, survival depends on finding a meeting point on a country road, by a tree.  (Just thinking about the chances of waiting by the wrong tree, makes my blood run cold.) When they do find a safe-ish haven, Beckett jeopardises it through his incapacity to resist more resistance work.

Suzanne’s frustrations are entirely understandable – by this time they have been through hell.  She is worn out with stress and grief.  Beckett is able to detach/distract himself from everyday realities (fatigue, hunger, cold, distress at the ever-increasing loss of friends) through his writing, Suzanne has no such luxury.  Their relationship becomes strained, and it appears that another choice of Beckett’s at the end of the war might just be the end of them.

The novel ends, however in January 1946, with the words This is where it begins. Beckett is sitting down to distill his experiences into his first post-war work. His writing is about to free itself from its pre-war influences, including that of James Joyce.  Just like the winter coat that Joyce gave Beckett, and which kept him alive during his time of tribulation, Joyce’s exuberance and linguistic excesses have had their day.  Now that he is wearing a coat of his own, Beckett is about to become his own writer.

The cover of Francis Spufford’s debut, Golden Hill, gives a good indication of what is to follow.  Gentleman in 18th century garb fleeing over the rooftops, with a larger than life female overseeing the action. And indeed that is the era to which Spufford transports us; his plot a homage to the picaresque tales of Henry Fielding, albeit with Fielding’s wordiness pared down – somewhat – for 21st century readership.

There’s only one word to describe this novel – it is a riot!

It’s 1746 and Mr Smith arrives in New York with a promissory note for 1000 dollars.  But his arrival is unexpected and the merchant who is to cash the note is suspicious, particularly as Smith refuses to give any details regarding the nature of his business. He agrees to wait for six weeks for his money – it’s not a hardship, he has 4 golden guineas to tide him over.

The novel follows the course of those six weeks, which become a time that Smith is unlikely ever to want to repeat.  Firstly he is robbed, forcing him to live on his wits, although they are not the sharpest a fictional hero ever possessed.  Secondly, thirdly and fourthly – suffice, he suffers an extraordinary conspiracy of circumstance, adventure and tragedy, and his life is endangered more than once.

He also falls in love with Tabitha, the Dutch merchant’s daughter, a spirited girl though entirely jaundiced by the limited options available to her.  This manifests itself in her cruelty to others, her biting tongue and her bad temper.  And yet this world is not without its opportunities.  Smith understands that she is not the proverbial bird in a cage.  She is the bird and the cage. Will she find the courge to fly from the cage of her own making?

There’s honestly never a quiet moment as Smith negotiates his way through post-colonial New York, never able to make a move (good or ill-advised) without the whole village (for New York was still that small at the time) knowing of it, and celebrating or shunning him in the morning.  I’m making a huge assumption here in that I believe Smith’s tale to be entirely fictional, the historical detail of Spufford’s novel consisting of his almost Hogarthian portrait of the society of that time.  It’s meticulous and unflinching.  But never dull.  How can it be when Spufford uses card games for high stakes, steamy encounters with buxom actresses and duels to advance the plot?

There is a more serious nature to Smith’s business, but he keeps his secret – secrets, actually – until the very end, thereby obtaining the last laugh. And Tabitha? Well the girl, who wants more than anything else to control the plot,  also plays a hidden role in all of this.  It’s a brilliant twist and that’s all I’m saying.


Time now for a tough decision as these are both very fine novels.

I loved the immediacy and the humanity of A Country Road, A Tree, the present tense finally winning though and I felt all the anxieties of Beckett and Suzanne as they sought to survive in a hostile world.  I was in that world with them.  The novel also taught me things I didn’t know, About Beckett, in particular, and I may now consider reading him.

I never felt that emotional connection to Golden Hill.  Whether that was because I was reading an e-book, I can’t say, but I was always an observer.  And yet, writing this review, looking beneath the surface of the entertaining plot, I begin to see other literary merits adding to the cleverness of an already clever novel.

So, on the basis that my head almost always rules over my heart, Spufford advances to the next round of my tournament.

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I do enjoy a good homage novel but it’s not everyone that can write them and when it comes to Jane Austen, the crop is abundant but not necessarily grade A  …. On a scale of A to E, previous reads include Lynn Shepherd’s Murder in Mansfield Park (A) and P D James’s Death comes to Pemberley (E).  How will the most recent batch stack up?

Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013) is easily the most original.  Like Shepherd, she has played with the template. She has taken us to the servant’s quarters, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the lady’s maid, Sarah.  Except that Sarah is also washer woman, cleaning woman, yard-sweep and a few other things besides, the consequences of which play havoc with her poor hands.  Life in the servants’ quarters is illuminating, full of household maintenance tips from the past.  As a tea-drinker, I was fascinated by the usefulness of old tea-leaves.

As fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the Bennetts were not rich but their life described from Sarah’s point-of-view is certainly comfortable, enviable, if somewhat empty.  The tea-parties and balls hardly glamorous for the servants, rather occasions for hard graft, additional chores to be fitted into an already full schedule, complete with waiting-up duties which reduced the already paltry hours available for sleep. 

Life at the beck and call of the Bennetts is not easy but not without room for adventure.  Sarah may be kept busy but there’s still time for romance – in fact, she attracts the attention of Bingley’s exotic ex-slave man-servant and a mysterious stranger, who arrives, as if from nowhere, to take up service in the Bennett’s household.  

By creating a novel focused on details which Austen mentioned in the passing, if at all, (the Napoleonic wars, money making in the colonies), Longbourn has a broader view of life in Regency England than Austen’s novel of the chattering classes.  The downside for me, however, was the tendency to excess and I’m asking myself was it necessary for Wickham to be so wicked, or for Mr Bennett to be so imperfect?  Even Jane and Elizabeth become slightly imperious following their marriages.  I will accept all that but the subplot involving the housekeeper’s husband, specifically his death, went too far. I’m willing to change my mind if someone can show where Austen hinted as such things …..

The Borough Press have commissioned the retelling of Austen’s six major novels in contemporary settings. The series launched in October 2013 with Joanna Trollope’s retelling of Sense and Sensibility.  Now how can I say this kindly?  This is the weakest of the three novels under discussion today (though not as bad as Death at Pemberley).  Knowing the remit that Borough Press has given to the authors –  must keep the characters, must keep the narratie arc – I reckon that Trollope had her pen nib capped before she started.   I mean in our welfare state, would a widow with three daughters be so entirely reliant upon the beneficence of her male relations?  For that reason, this story never felt entirely feasible and the modern technology – the headphones, the mobile phones, etc – felt like a veneer.  In its defence though, Trollope makes the most of personality differences between Eleanor and Marianne and the girls behave as contempories would.  So Marianne’s passion for Willoughby is not just emotional, it is physical.  Neither is Eleanor simply an emotional crutch for her family – she becomes a working girl, lending economic support as well.  But the greatest pleasure in this retelling is Margaret who transforms from a background figure in Austen to a typical 21st century, precocious, know-it-all, interfere-in-it-all teenager.  I wouldn’t want her at my kitchen table, but I enjoyed the cheek and insolence in this audio book.

And so to the cream of the crop.  I’ve had a soft spot for Northanger Abbey since it was my O-level text.  I’ve reread it a few time since, though never the Mysteries of Udolpho, the gothic novel which it satirises.  (Later this year for definite …) So I was looking forward to McDermid’s satire on a satire.  She’s gone one better, having chosen to satirise that contemporary phenomenon, the vampire novel.  Not only that, she has moved the novel north from Bath and its season of balls to Edinburgh and its season of plays, concerts and books.  There’s no greater social occasion than the Edinburgh Festival and for bookish Catherine, Charlotte Square and the book festival is full of adventure.  Bella Thorpe is deliciously dreadful and her brother John an insufferable bore.  Speaking recently at Glasgow’s Aye Write McDermid said that she had been given strict instructions not to kill anyone off, but you can tell that her pen must have been feeling murderous when she wrote his scenes!  Love me, love my car could be John Thorpe’s motto, a modern riff on the love me, love my carriage of Austen’s original.

Northanger Abbey is the Tilney’s ancestral home in the Scottish borders and Colonel Tilney a bullying old man.  Ellie is as sweet and charming as ever though Henry is not as foppish as I remember his original.  (Or am I mixing him up with Edward Ferrars?) Actually he is quite an appealing well-read young fellow.  Yes, I can see what Catherine sees in him.  Although, of course, her overactive imagination which goes into overdrive apropos the death of the colonel’s wife almost ruins everything.  But it’s not her vampiric fantasies that cause her abrupt banishment but a malicious rumour – a twist as sudden as it is modern, for indeed, nothing else would estrange the right-wing colonel so effectively.  It’s along the same lines as one of the plot updates in Longbourn but McDermid isn’t salacious with it and so does not offend Austen’s spirit.

I listened to the unabridged audio, narrated by Jane Collingwood and I loved it from the first sentence.  So much so, that I bought myself the book.  Reading that sentence now it would be so easy to immerse myself into Catherine’s adventures once more.

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely ressemble her books.

In McDermid’s retelling it does and there’s no disappointment to be had at all.

Longbourn (B)35_stars.GIF / Sense and Sensibility (C) 3stars.GIF / Northanger Abbey (A)4_stars.GIF

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