I’ve always been very clear about the purpose of this blog. It isn’t a confessional exercise and I’m too English to feel comfortable baring my soul in public. But I’ve decided that I need to write this post for my own well-being and sense of closure. Some of you may remember a short-lived, rather anguished post back in early May, begging for time to deal with a personal crisis. So many of you rallied to me in that moment, and yet I never explained what had happened. I wasn’t going to. But I’ve come to realise that I need to do this, as a way to thank you for your incredible support and, more importantly, to close this chapter in my own mind. I was going to save it for the blog’s 7th birthday post in late July, but I’ve decided that that’s a joyful occasion and this doesn’t belong there. Nor do I want this still to be dominating my thoughts in late July. I want to move on.
I’m still trying to get my head around John Banville as a writer. The first novel of his that I read was The Sea, which I remember being lyrical and dreamy; then I turned to Dr Copernicus, which I found frustratingly dense. This new historical novel shares elements of both those other books, blending a poignant sense of loss with high style; but it also has other strong influences. Banville isn’t really writing as himself here. As I read more, I came to realise that Mrs Osmond is actually an ambitious tribute, elevated fan-fiction if you like, in which Banville imagines how Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady might have continued. The titular Mrs Osmond is Isabel, née Archer, and we first meet her as she returns to London in what might fairly be called the darkest period of her life.
(Grange Festival, Hampshire, 8 June 2018)
Last weekend, on a balmy Hampshire afternoon, H and I donned our cocktail dresses and set off for the first of our two country-house operas this summer. It was time for the Grange Festival near Winchester (not to be confused with Grange Park Opera in West Horsley in Kent, who split from the Grange Festival two years ago in less than amicable circumstances). The Grange Festival have dusted themselves off, and are kicking off their second summer season in stunning style with Handel’s Agrippina. Full of maternal ambition, political intrigue and lustful shenanigans, this opera follows the Roman matriarch as she schemes to manoeuvre her son Nero onto the imperial throne. A dose of plotting makes me a very happy girl, but I was rendered even happier by the quality of the cast, headed by the redoubtable Anna Bonitatibus as Agrippina herself. Truly, an evening fit for an emperor.
In this day and age, with independent bookshops and small publishers closing in swathes, it’s a joy to hear of a newly-founded enterprise: Fairlight Books in Oxford. At one year old, they’re just about to release a series of five novellas in their Fairlight Moderns series and I was delighted to have a sneak peek. I decided to start with Inside the Bone Box, because it focused on a doctor and that appealed in the wake of Adam Kay’s diaries. It’s the story of consultant neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton, whose burgeoning obesity has already threatened his marriage and now raises very serious questions about his professional capabilities. Meanwhile his wife, Alyson, has her own demons to fight. It soon becomes clear that the ‘bone box’ of the title isn’t just the skull, within which the brain-self resides, but also the prisons we build for ourselves, trapping ourselves within excess flesh or addictions.
I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.
Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.
This post will be shorter than usual, because this book of short stories by the doyenne of Regency fiction is actually a reissue of Pistols for Two, which I wrote about some months ago. (I strongly advise that you read that post too, as only then will you get a full picture of my thoughts.) As I discussed the vast majority of the stories then, I’ll focus here on the three previously unpublished stories added to Snowdrift for its new release. These are all variations on a theme, namely encounters on the road; and, while they aren’t Heyer at her best, they do have a certain historical charm.
I was absolutely thrilled when I was offered a review copy of Tim Leach’s new novel. His first two books told the story of the Lydian king Croesus, a lyrical tale of a man who falls from majesty to slavery, and learns to live again, drawn from the Histories of Herodotus. This third book takes a new direction, unfolding among the icy crags and rolling valleys of 10th-century Iceland. It’s a tale of revenge; blood; vindictiveness; loyalty; and honour; but, more than anything else, it’s a story of friendship. This is the tale of the farmer Gunnar and the poet Kjaran, recounted with the tragic grandeur and poetic cadence of the great sagas, prickling with ice and flame.
I’m thoroughly enjoying this bite-sized books theme. It’s given me the chance to leap in at the deep end with all sorts of books, offering a taster of different genres or themes that might lead on to new explorations, but which don’t require too much investment of time or money. So here’s a further selection of stories to see you through commutes or short journeys. They include tales by some of the great names of modern literature, several of whom I hadn’t encountered before, namely William Trevor, Anita Brookner (shameful, I know), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. From works of searing feminism to bittersweet studies of modern life and reworked fairy stories, there’s something here for everyone.
It’s two and a half years since Franco Fagioli last sang in London, and a year and a half since I saw him as the eponymous Eliogabalo at the Opéra de Paris. Would time have wrought any changes on that distinctive voice? I came to his latest concert full of curiosity. This time his programme was devoted to music by Vivaldi and Handel, with the accompaniment of the Venice Baroque Orchestra, led by Gianpiero Zanocco. Part of the evening’s success must be attributed to their deft and zestful performance of the music, but – as I said to Dehggial – they are the Venice Baroque Orchestra after all and, if they hadn’t been able to play Vivaldi properly, it would have been a sorry state of affairs. And Fagioli himself? A very pleasant surprise. He’s stripped away some of the affectations that have irritated me before; his voice seems stronger than ever; and he turned in a performance that left the Barbican’s rafters shaking with applause.