Consumed (2014): Harry Wallop

★★★

How We Buy Class in Modern Britain

Harry Wallop is well-placed to write about class. The cousin of the Earl of Portsmouth, he went to private school, learned from a young age how to tip a gamekeeper, and went on holidays with his nanny until his parents felt he was old enough to appreciate travelling abroad. But in recent years he has moved away from the world in which he grew up: he now lives in Islington and works as a journalist and television presenter (which is essentially just a different kind of social elite). Class is something that, we’ve been told, many times, is no longer relevant in the modern world, but anyone who lives in Britain knows this isn’t true. In this book, Wallop argues (and I agree) that the great post-war age of social mobility is over. Class is becoming more entrenched and more subtle than ever. He describes the new social tribes of modern Britain, and how they are defined not so much by birth but by lifestyle and consumer choices. It’s a lively and engaging book – albeit full of sweeping generalisations (but that’s the point of any work of classification) – and extremely British. The shades of nuance described here will be difficult for foreigners to pick up, and rightly so (you would be forgiven for exclaiming, on numerous occasions, “But why is that even a thing?!”), but I imagine that native Brits will feel shimmers of recognition. You might come to Wallop’s book for an accessible discussion of how class continues to shape modern society – but you stay because you want to find out which of his categories you fit into. Reading this book is, in itself, an act of class anxiety.

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Edith’s Diary (1977): Patricia Highsmith

★★★

We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator in fiction. But how much greater is that unreliability, how much greater the pinch of salt or the necessary adjustment, when we read someone’s diary! Many of us will have kept diaries, in our teens if not for longer. Looking back on them provides us with an opportunity to reassess the self-delusions of someone who is no longer the same ‘us’ are we are now. To read old diaries is to engage in a constant process of negotiation with a past self. Diaries give us the chance to tell our own stories: to present the world as we know it, with ourselves as the central characters, and everyone else swirling around us in secondary roles. We are unreliable, not through intention or malice, but through simple solipsism. Edith, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, also keeps a diary. It was given to her as a gift when she was young and idealistic, starting out on a life that she felt sure would be full of success. But increasingly, as we follow Edith through her life, that diary becomes a reminder of life’s unpleasant tendency not to fit in with nice, neat expectations. The appropriate narrative arc never quite seems to arise in real life. Family members, somehow, never quite fulfil the expectations we have of them. More and more, Edith finds herself having to correct the shortcomings of real life in her diary, an imagined world of perfection which could all too easily become more real than her own imperfect life.

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The Iron Hand of Mars (1992): Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Falco is in trouble. His girlfriend Helena has gone off in a strop because he’s forgotten her birthday, and Vespasian’s son Titus Caesar has stepped up his pursuit of said senatorial lady. Now Falco can’t find Helena to apologise, and Vespasian has given him another of those special god-awful tasks that seem to be kept on one side especially to make Falco’s life more difficult. To make matters worse, this particular task isn’t in Rome, or even in Italy. No: Falco is to be sent north, into the dark forests of Germany, on the very edges of the civilised world, to nose into the disappearance of a legionary commander, with no one at his side except the overly perfumed imperial barber Xanthus, who has chosen an unfortunate time to play tourist. Falco’s journey will take him to the extremities of the Pax Romana, in a world still reeling from the slaughter of Varus’s legions in the Teutoberg Forest sixty years before, and from the Batavian uprising two years earlier.

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Lady’s Maid (1990): Margaret Forster

★★★★

Two days ago, I found mild fault with No Bed for Bacon for skating on the surface of things, without ever giving them substance. The same criticism cannot be levied at Margaret Forster’s brilliant novel Lady’s Maid, which introduces us to a young woman in service in mid-19th-century London. Yet Elizabeth Wilson is no ordinary maid. She is lady’s maid to Miss Elizabeth Barrett, the invalid daughter of a wealthy London gentleman, who has made a name for herself as a poetess. When Wilson enters Miss Elizabeth’s service in 1844, her mistress is withdrawn and easily tired, plagued by mysterious physical weakness and given to depression. As time passes, the patient Northern maid and her mercurial employer find a sympathy, deepened by Wilson’s reverence for books and by her compassion for the unworldly Miss Elizabeth. Gradually, Wilson convinces Miss Elizabeth to take turns in the park, coaxing colour into her face and strength into her limbs. Yet Wilson’s ministrations are nothing beside the impact that a new correspondent has on her mistress. Letters from the poet Mr Browning are soon the highlight of Miss Elizabeth’s day and Wilson finds herself drawn into a daring plan that will take her further from home than she ever dreamed possible. Amazingly rich, thoughtful and evocative, Forster’s novel introduced me to the full picture of the great Browning romance – seen through Wilson’s loyal but unsentimental eyes.

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No Bed for Bacon (1941): Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon

★★★

The epigraph page of No Bed for Bacon bears a Warning to Scholars: ‘This book is fundamentally unsound’. It may be so, but it’s both fun and, surely, hugely influential. Written in the course of several frenzied months in 1940, this historical farce imagines the London of Queen Elizabeth I at just the time that so many parts of the city were being destroyed in the Blitz. The two authors, both of whom were serving as air raid wardens, often had only an hour or so together each day to exchange ideas, and were reduced to leaving cryptic notes for one another in their wardens’ log-book. Though they squabbled passionately, and at one point considered taking out a legal injunction to prevent them ever having to work together again, they managed to produce a work of high British silliness. At its heart is Francis Bacon, an ambitious courtier who wants nothing more than to be awarded one of Gloriana’s beds from her progresses, so that he can pass it down to his heirs as an investment. Across town, the rival impresarios Philip Henslowe and Richard Burbage strive for theatrical domination, while the author Will Shakespeare is struggling to find a suitable opening for his new play Love’s Labours Won. A young aristocrat, Viola Compton, dreams of becoming an actor. And, at court, Sir Walter Raleigh plans for the greatest day of his life: the ceremonial tasting of the first potato from the New World. If only he can find a new cloak elegant enough to wear…

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The Last Anniversary (2005): Liane Moriarty

★★★

In the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, two teenage sisters find a baby in an abandoned house on a small Australian island. Connie and Rose explain to reporters how they’d been invited to tea at Alice Munro’s house; how they arrived to find the kettle boiling and a marble cake cooling on the kitchen table, but no sign of Alice or Jack Munro anywhere in the house. Their clothes remained in the wardrobe; their baby daughter lay sleeping in her crib; but all that remained of the Munros was an overturned chair and a few specks on the floor, which might be blood. The Munro Baby Mystery swiftly becomes a famous puzzle, sparking conspiracy theories and the inevitable flood of curious tourists. Connie and Rose, ever entrepreneurial, are waiting for them with cups of tea and slices of cake (at a modest price). Seventy years on, the Munro House on Scribbly Gum Island has become a beloved tourist attraction, and Connie, Rose and (former) baby Engima have become wealthy women. But Connie’s death sets in motion a train of events that will place the Munro Baby Mystery under tighter scrutiny than ever before.

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The Fetch (1991): Robert Holdstock

★★★½

So far, I’ve only read one book by Robert Holdstock: Mythago Wood, an utterly captivating tale of mythic power and ancient legends, closely bound to the English landscape. The Fetch turned up in a second-hand bookshop some months after I’d finished Mythago Wood and, although I was keen to explore more of Holdstock’s imaginative world, it didn’t take me long to realise that The Fetch is a very different kettle of fish. I’ve never actually read any Dennis Wheatley, but I suspect this has a similar flavour to his books; I’m reminded, too, of those horror films in which wholesome families are gradually reduced to primeval terror. Yet this isn’t an outright horror novel: if it were, I wouldn’t have read it. In some ways it’s a classic Holdstock story, a tale of the past weaving itself into the present and breaking through in unexpected ways, a tale of treasures and quests and miracles – but one underlaid with the slow, inescapable thrum of something nasty in the woodshed.

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An Academic Question (1986): Barbara Pym

★★½

I enjoyed Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women so much that perhaps it’s inevitable I’d feel underwhelmed when I picked up another of her books. Having said that, there does seem to be something objectively thin about this novel of mild academic skulduggery and frustrated marriage in a provincial university. Our narrator is Caro Grimstone, a young woman of good family who has somehow found herself married with a four-year-old daughter. Seeking for a way to occupy her time (since her anthropologist husband doesn’t seem to need her to type or index his books – the usual role of an academic wife), Caro drifts into helping at a local nursing home. Here, while reading to a retired missionary, who jealousy guards his field-notes from his African sojourn, she realises that she may be able to be of use to Alan in another way – but at what cost?

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The Twelfth Transforming (1984): Pauline Gedge

★★★★

What distinguishes a visionary from a madman? That question lies at the heart of this sumptuous novel by Pauline Gedge, which takes us to the Egyptian court of the late 18th dynasty, in the mid-14th century BC. The Empress Tiye is the primary wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose failing health and debaucheries distract him from the everyday business of ruling. Tiye has commanded the reins of power for years, using her acute political sensibilities to keep Egypt prosperous and to maintain its military supremacy. Unusually, she is not of full royal blood herself, and her rise has also boosted members of her family, especially her brother Ay, a leading courtier. Now, in the twilight of her husband’s reign, Tiye is preoccupied with the issue of the succession. Her eldest son, also called Amunhotep, has spent his life imprisoned within the harem, hated and suspected by his father, but he is the only plausible successor if Tiye wishes to continue her control of Egyptian politics. She sets out to secure the throne for her son, planning to marry him off to her niece (Ay’s daughter) Nefertiti, thereby cementing her family’s influence. It is a fine plan. But Tiye hasn’t accounted for one crucial detail: the personality of the prince into whose hands she has consigned the future of her country. For Amunhotep IV – or Akhenaten, as he renames himself – has a vision of his own for Egypt, which will strike to the very heart of the country’s civilisation. Epic in every sense, this account of the Amarna period is richly intricate: a gripping story of Egypt’s most extraordinary, fascinating and enigmatic personalities.

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The Second Sleep (2019): Robert Harris

★★★½

Robert Harris’s new novel opens on a bleak evening in 1468, as a young priest makes his way wearily towards the village of Addicott St George. The parish parson, Father Thomas Lacy, has recently died and Christopher Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to oversee the burial. It’s supposed to be a quick job but, when Fairfax arrives, he begins to hear rumours of murder that he feels bound to investigate. Even worse, he makes shocking discoveries in Father Lacy’s study: the former priest was dabbling in dangerous heresies, which seem to have had some bearing on his mysterious death. And that, my friends, is all I feel able to say before the cut. I will add that I found this an engaging, amusing and unexpectedly engrossing novel, and that if you’ve enjoyed Harris’s earlier works you would do well to give this a go. But The Second Sleep is a novel best approached in complete innocence. If you haven’t yet read it, but think you might like to, I urge you to stop right here. Don’t read past the cut, where there will be spoilers. Come back when you’re done and, while you’re reading, pay attention. Those with sharp eyes will realise pretty swiftly that all is not quite as it seems.

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