Book Review: The Watercolourist, by Beatrice Masini

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cv_The_watercolouristBeatrice Masini spent ten years working on this novel, which I find fascinating, as this story features a number of characters working on lengthy creative endeavours, some more successful than others. The Watercolourist‘s central character is Bianca. Bianca. who is young and recently orphaned, is offered a post as illustrator for a well-known author. Her job is to document and colour every single plant on the large summer estate. As the project is so lengthy, Bianca becomes involved with the large family and other semi-permanent guests.

Bianca’s role is somewhere between employee and guest. Although there is a clear barrier between her and the female members of the family, she isn’t popular with the other employees, who see her as ‘above her station’. So Bianca is both involved and apart – and this starts her down her trail of observing the household members.

This is a cleverly written book. It starts out very focused on Bianca’s everyday experiences – her work, her efforts at getting to know the family. It then slowly turns more insular, and we learn more of Bianca’s developing thoughts – thoughts that distract and consume her. Her art, her main concern and occupation at the start, changes over time as her inner thoughts become her chief affair. She is oblivious to the danger in this – while ruminating over the lives of the family she lives with, she does not observe the risk in her situation.

I read the last few pages of the book in a great rush, fascinated by the ending. It was very good, and exceptionally well done. As a historical novel, it offers an insight into Milan in the nineteenth century. There is political unrest, as well as a lot of detail on the lives and choices available to women of different classes. Even though it is a historic novel, it feels more like a drama or even a mystery. I was really impressed. I highly recommend this book.

Reviewed by Emma Wong-Ming

The Watercolourist
by Beatrice Masini, translated by Clarissa Ghelli
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447257714

Book Review: The Other Mrs Walker, by Mary Paulson-Ellis

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cv_the_other_mrs_walkerOn a cold, dark, Christmas night, in the depths of a Scottish winter, an old lady dies alone, surrounded by her meagre treasures in a rundown small flat. Two weeks later, a woman in the midst of her own life crisis arrives to try and find a name and a family for the lost old lady – and in doing so, finds her own.

Margaret Penny is forty seven, broke, unemployed, and friendless. Reeling from a relationship break-up, she abandons her depressing life in London to return home to her mother’s flat in dark, cold, Edinburgh. With no plans and no prospects, Margaret accepts the offer of a lowly temp job at the Office for Lost People where she is set the task of finding the next-of-kin of a recently deceased elderly woman. The investigation into lonely old Mrs Walker’s sad life leads Margaret to revelations about her own.

This is not a happy tale. Life in Edinburgh is damp, dark, and freezing. This is not Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky handsome Edinburgh. The city is “grey skies, grey buildings, grey pavements all encased in ice. And the people too.” The people of Edinburgh are cold, hardened, and constantly in each other’s business. Margaret is forced to move in with her reclusive mother and, after thirty years of having lived apart, their relationship is strained, to say the least.

“Home. It wasn’t where Margaret’s heart was. But at least it was somewhere to run.” There are long-held grudges and secrets on both sides. Neither woman is in a particularly happy place in her life. “It would be typical to come home for her mid-life crisis, only to discover that her mother’s end-of-life crisis was well under way.”

The story alternates between Margaret’s present-day investigations into the old Mrs Walker, and flashbacks into both Margaret and Mrs Walker’s pasts. The glimpses of life in London during the Blitz are fascinating. From mental asylums to backstreet abortionists, the book takes the reader into rather gritty and depressing places, inhabited by some rather tragic, miserable, and thoroughly unlikeable characters.

This is a bleak but riveting read about families and secrets. It is not at all an uplifting tale but it is one that will have you reflecting on its characters for some time afterwards. An ambitious and layered story from a new Scottish author.

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

The Other Mrs Walker
by Mary Paulson-Ellis
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447293910

Book Review: Early Warning, by Jane Smiley

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Early Warning is the second after Some Luck, in the Last Hundred Years trilogy, and what Smiley has pulled off is no mean feat. The years this novel spans are 1953-1986 – 33 years in the history of the United States that are a path well-trodden by many novelists. Our original couple, Walter and Rosanna’s children have had their own children, and during the course of this novel, many of the grandchildren also grow up to the age where they have children of their own.

This is one of those novels that reels you in, showing you the points of view of 13 members of the ever-expanding Langdon family, showing the lives of most of the family. The five siblings that survived childhood are now all over the US, scattered from the family farm in Iowa where Joe remains, to New York where Frank and Andy live, to Washington DC where Lillian, Arthur and their family live, and further afield at times, as kids went to college, joined peace marches and joined the war in Vietnam.

Each of the characters is so well-formed that I can only imagine Jane Smiley creating each and every one of them from clay, manipulating them as the story demanded. Each character seemingly has their own will given by the writer, moving themselves towards their destinies. It is true that occasionally I could pick a plot twist a mile ahead, by reading into the family tree – but this didn’t detract from the enjoyment of this dense and wonderful story.

Smiley has truly used her depth of writing experience to bring in the full range of possible fates for her characters. There are happy and unhappy marriages, there are warring twin siblings who are forever at odds with one another, a confused teenager who is nearly lost to a cult and of course, cruel ironies in the clash of reality with idealism. We learn about the ups and downs of farming in Iowa and what causes them, we understand our characters before they understand themselves, we see relationships with parents and lovers carelessly destroyed. When a significant event occurs, like the peace march in 1967 in New York, Smiley tells it from multiple perspectives, from different members of the family who don’t quite meet.

This book is for anybody who enjoys family saga and watching people live history. I am looking forward to Golden Age, the book of the most recent 34 years – interestingly enough, if the book is due next year as the publisher says, Smiley will have to invent the future. I can’t wait to see what she thinks we are going to come to.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Early Warning
by Jane Smiley
Published by Pan Macmillan. Mantle imprint
ISBN 9781447275633

Book Review: Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

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Some Luck is a vast novel, rivalling the imaginative scale of Game of Thrones, but rather cv_some_luckthan occupying a fictional realm, Smiley sets her story over 33 significant years in the history of the USA.

I was fascinated by the premise of the book – to show how the USA was formed over a century, based on the fate of one family. Smiley has planned three volumes; Some Luck is the first in the series. The novel opens in rural Iowa; a newlywed couple are just beginning their family, and the book starts with the voice of the patriarch, Walter. It is 1920, Walter is 25, and has recently purchased his own land; he is proud of his purchase, but uncertain of how wise land ownership will turn out to be.

The story that follows takes the reader through the modernisation of farming in Iowa so specifically and with such attention to detail that I found myself wishing the book was set in New Zealand so I had closer connections with the setting. As Walter’s children grow up and move across the States, and the world during wartime, we get to know the political history, and experience the evolving fashions, city life, and the growth of suburbia in America. Each chapter spans one year.

Some Luck is told from multiple character viewpoints, including those of babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, which are often very accurate. One line in particular stuck with me, ‘It was beyond Frank to understand why he sometimes did the very thing he was told not to do. It seemed like once they told him not to do it – once they said it and put it in his mind – then what else was there to do?’ I recognise that entirely from my own children’s behaviour.

Each of Walter and wife Rosanna’s children have their own strong and distinct personalities, covering all points on the spectrum. Across the timeline of the novel their children become adults, marry and have children of their own.

The positive effect of the constantly shifting point of view is that we got to know more than just one story – by the end of the book, there are nine narrators. I found it easy to keep the characters separate as their personalities were distinct, but sometimes it was hard to care for each of them equally. Smiley follows the most fascinating character through each chapter she writes; in the case of war-time, this was of course the character who went to war; in the case of the cold war, likewise the spies and later the commies got a period of narration. The one character I finished the novel without feeling I knew was Rosanna, Walter’s Wife, the matriarch of the family. I found out more about Rosanna from her daughters’ observations of her rather than from her own narrative voice, and the only time I felt like I was really there with her was at the end of the book.

Some Luck is certain to be admired by a broad and diverse audience, and I look forward to the second in the series.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447275619