The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (Virago)
Before you read this review, just to get yourself in the right mood,please cut and paste the link above into Google (I haven't been able to make it live, I'm afraid!) and listen to this clip from Youtube of Gillian Welch singing a song called Annabelle from her album Revival. I had Gillian’s voice (and particularly singing this song) running through my head as I read The Well and the Mine. The book was published by a small press at first, having been turned down by several mainstream publishers and then went on to win the coveted Barnes and Noble award in the USA. Now it’s here and I’m recommending it highly to anyone who wants a novel that’s well-written, involving and full of characters we grow to love in spite of their flaws and weaknesses.
It’s the story of a family in hard times. Carbon Hill is a small mining town in Alabama and the book begins in dramatic fashion with a young girl hearing someone...well, here’s the first sentence: “After she threw the baby in, nobody believed me for the longest time. But I kept hearing that splash.” The whole novel, as well as solving the mystery of who threw the baby into the well, describes a community and the relationships between the individuals in it brilliantly well. The members of Tess’s family tell the story in a kind of relay of narration: handing the point of view baton from one to the other. The result is a slow-burning but consistently interesting and engaging story. The mother of the family in particular, is a wonderfully- realized character and the descriptions of such things as food and clothes and furnishings are outstanding. You really do come away from this novel feeling as though you’ve joined the family as one of its members and lived another life for a while. When you surface, it takes time to forget where you’ve been, and I went on remembering what it was like in Phillips’s world for a very long time after I’d finished the book. It’s a terrific first novel and I’m already looking forward to what this writer does next. Buy the book and also the Gillian Welch cd while you’re at it.
Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books. £12.99)
My top tip for Christmas for anyone who loves books is this small volume (HEIOTL from now on!) by one of our best and most reliable writers. Susan Hill writes everything, pretty well: literary novels, detective stories, ghost stories of course and essays too, as this book proves. She also blogs at the Spectator and runs a publishing house called Long Barn Books. HEIOTL began when Hill went looking for a book and, in the course of a search through the intricacies of her house, came across a whole number of volumes she either hadn’t read yet or else wanted to revisit. So she made a resolution to buy no new books for a year and simply read what she fancied from her own shelves. What she finds and how she finds it and what these discoveries bring to mind turns into a huge treat for us, her readers. It’s exactly like having a friend sitting with you, chatting about books in a most civilised and also gossipy and personal fashion. You find out not only about her tastes, but also about her education, her brushes with such people as E. M Forster, Edith Sitwell, Benjamin Britten and lots of others. You learn about her life, a little, and most importantly, you learn about the house itself. It is described in small glimpses, but by the end, you feel you know it, every corner. And just as you can envisage famous houses in novels, Susan Hill’s house comes to life as a character in these pages.
One of the best things about reading HEIOTL is that you are almost bound to disagree with some of Hill’s judgements and jump up and down and yell: YOU CAN’T THINK THAT! But yes, she can. Of course she can and why not? These are her books and her opinions and there isn’t a single thing in the world which pleases everyone. We all have our bêtes noires, don’t we ? And we each have our own taste. Most of the reviews for this book have been kind and more than kind, but I did see a sort of luke-warmish one which said something along the lines of: all very nice if you discount her Middle England tastes....or some such. I nearly exploded. You have the taste you have, and if you can write about it as well and as delightfully as Susan Hill, then that’s fantastic. You’ll find here, by the way, three pages of some of the best writing on Dickens that I’ve ever read and which nails completely and succinctly what it is that is so magical about his works.
As a bonus, the book is beautiful as an object. Hill is fussy about fonts and quite right too. Her cover is perfect and, as I said at the beginning of this piece, would look good gift-wrapped under a Christmas tree.
Alice in Love and War by Ann Turnbull (Walker Books, £6.99)
Ann needs no introduction to readers of ABBA, I’m quite sure, but for those of you who have strayed here from somewhere else, you ought to know that she’s one of the very best historical novelists writing today and has not had nearly enough written or said about her books, which are in a different class from most children’s historical fiction, and indeed most children’s fiction being written today. I should declare an interest here. Ann and Linda Newbery and I collaborated on the Historical House series of books and she’s a friend of mine, but even before I knew her, I admired her work and she’s kept up a very consistent standard. I ought also to point out that Leslie Wilson has written about this book before on ABBA, but (slightly adapting the words of the creator of another Alice, who advocated three times) “What I tell you two times is true.” In the words of Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”
Alice in Love and War is a good title. The book is about exactly that. It’s the story of a young woman called Alice Newcombe, and begins on a farm in the West Country in 1644. Alice can read and write. She’s the daughter of a herbalist. Her father is dead and she lives with her uncle and aunt, but her uncle is after her with his pawing hands and slobbering lips and she’s very unhappy with her situation. When the Royalist troops are billeted on them, she falls deeply in love with Robin and when given the chance to accompany him, with the other women camp followers, she seizes it and the adventures that ensue are heartstopping, moving and will keep readers turning the pages eagerly till the end of the story. Women have always followed armies, and Ann Turnbull’s depiction of the relationships and friendships among them is particularly well done.
I’m not going to give anything away, but will say this: any teacher who’s presently embarked on teaching the Cavaliers and Roundheads (do teachers still do that? Are they still called Cavaliers and Roundheads, even? ) would immediately interest her class in the politics, the dates and the battles with a book like this in her arsenal. We learn so much about the English Civil War and we learn it in the easiest and best way possible: through the medium of a cracking story told in prose that’s as clean and refreshing as pure water. This book is a real achievement and anyone who enjoys reading about the past will love it. It is also a crossover book, so one for adults too. Marvellous stuff.