T.J. Masters
Passionately Writing Passion

#Booker Prize

Well Read Wednesday: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

This book has without doubt been one of the reading highlights of my year so far. Paula Byrne has put together a brilliant, intimate, warts-and-all biography of one of my favourite English novelists of the twentieth century. Much has been written about ‘Miss Pym’ but Byrne is the first to make full use of the extensive Pym archive of intimate letters, private diaries and novels to bring us an honest narrative of her life and work. Many regard her as one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart and she has been described as a worthy successor to Jane Austen, yet her own life seems to have been so defined by rejection, both in love and in her writing.

Where to begin? I must declare a personal interest here because for me the story began in March 1982 when a friend lent me a copy of Pym’s The Sweet Dove Died. I fell in love with the story, the extraordinary characters and with the writing style. I wanted more and was happy to discover that there were already nine novels in print and since she was still publishing, over the next six years we were blessed with new books to enjoy. More on my interest later.

For Barbara, Life began in Oswestry in 1913. In 1931, she went to St. Hilda’s College, Oxford where women were very much in the minority. During this time she discovered sex, love, friendship, gay men and Germany, where she fell for a man who was close to Hitler. She used all of these experiences to provide the themes and characters for no less than twelve novels. We were allowed a view into the worlds of academic student life, spinster sisters, High Church Anglicanism and it’s priests, English rural life, London life, unrequited loves and powerful intimacies, all of which left their mark on a group of relatively humble people. The first novel Some Tame Gazelle was turned down by every publisher it was sent from 1935 until 1950 when it first appeared in print. Over the next decade there were several new books but publishers grew tired of her apparently ‘old fashioned’ style and she was dropped. The wilderness years were difficult but relationships prevailed and Pym was considered to be wonderful company with a sharp and very perceptive wit. During this time Barbara developed a deep friendship with the poet Philip Larkin who became her most ardent fan and champion. This and the support of the literary biographer Lord David Cecil led to a sudden revival of interest in her work starting with the publication of Quartet in Autumn in 1977 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Barbara’s work now enjoyed a true renaissance and we were lucky to be gifted with more wonderful novels although sadly, four of them were published posthumously since, after a long battle with cancer, Barbara Pym died in January 1980.

When writing a review of a biography it is difficult to avoid reviewing the life of the subject rather than the book itself. I could wax lyrically and long about ‘Miss Pym’ but if you want to learn more about her I would suggest Wikipedia for a quick biography and bibliography. Do read her books if they are your style. You might also take a look at the Barbara Pym Society where there is also a link to a wonderful YouTube video called Miss Pyms Day Out with Patricia Routledge in the title role.

Of course for the full wonderful story this book itself is a masterpiece. The Adventures of Miss Barbera Pym is a scholarly, fair, honest and sympathetic account of the writer and her work. Paula Byrne gives us 614 pages of biography followed by another 72 pages of itemised notes and index! There are so many facets to Pym that are laid bare for us here. We are given insights into the best and worst of the writing and publishing world. We share intimate details of passions, loves and relationships. We also get a behind the scenes look at a particular slice of English life during the mid-twentieth century.

For me, the book has been a powerful reminder of why I read and loved every one of the novels all those years ago. Barbara Pym was one of the handful of authors who through their own writing style, gave me ‘permision’ to write the things I wanted to write about. For that I will be eternally grateful.

Well Read Wednesday The Lockdown Reader 3 The General Fiction List

Today’s adventure into the pile of books I’ve read this year looks at the novels, but as mentioned in Part 1, my fiction reading is divided into two lists. Today I will take you through the stand alone novels which have kept me entertained. The second list which will follow in part 5, covers the many novels written by the same author Patrick Gale.

Lets get started with two novels which I’ve already reviewed in earlier blog posts and so will only mention briefly here. First there was the hilarious High Fire by Eóin ColferI have been a big fan of his internationally bestselling Artemis Fowl series so this, the author’s first adult fantasy novel was long awaited. Colfer did not disappoint and the book is a is a hilarious but unlikely, high-octane adventure about a vodka-drinking, Flashdance-loving dragon who’s been hiding away from the world – and any potential pitch-fork and torch-carrying mobs – in a Louisiana bayou.

The second of these previously reviewed books is the novel Normal People by Sally Rooney. This was a Number One Sunday Times Bestseller, the winner of the Costa Novel Award 2018 and also spawned one of the best television series of this year. Two young teens from the west of Ireland meet at school, but then they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin. The connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. This is an exquisite love story about how one person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. You have to avoid the feeling that they both need their heads banged together, or at least for someone to sit them down and tell them that they are profoundly in love, but maybe it works all the better for that.

Next came Tin Man which had sat in my to-be-read pile for way too long. Sarah Winman crafted a wonderful story but to describe it as a love story would not do it justice. In essence this is the tale of two boys, Ellis and Michael who are inseparable. The boys become men and then Annie walks into their lives and changes both nothing and everything. If that has you intrigued then good. Go and read it because you will not regret it and you will understand why this book was Shortlisted for the 2017 Costa Novel Award. Lets stick with women writers for the moment since this gives me a chance to mention in passing, how modern women authors are toppling the classic white male authors from their literary perches! My next choice therefore is the remarkable Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward. This novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, but it came to my attention when it featured on BBC Two’s Between the Covers. I shall steal in part from the book blurb to describe the story in which lovers Rachel and Eliza are planning their future together. One night in bed Rachel wakes up terrified and tells Eliza that an ant has crawled into her eye and is stuck there. Rachel is certain; Eliza, a scientist, is sceptical. Suddenly their entire relationship is called into question. What follows is a uniquely imaginative sequence of interlinked stories ranging across time, place and perspective to form a sparkling philosophical tale of love, lost and found across the universe. For those who like their storytelling peppered with a good dose of philosophy ( I do ever since Sophies World) then I really do recommend this highly imaginative novel. Of course among women writers, few can match the success of Margaret Attwood who this year brought everything that the fans of The Handmaids Tale had waited so long for. The sequel appeared in the form of The Testaments and was not only an instant best seller but won the Booker Prize. The scarily familiar Republic of Gilead is now starting to rot from within. At this crucial moment, two girls with radically different experiences of the regime come face to face with the legendary, ruthless Aunt Lydia. But how far will each go for what she believes? The story draws us uncomfortably in but I warn you it may leave you in tears by the end.

My next book is a slight cheat in this list. It’s not a novel but a biographical essay, I have snuck it in here because it is written by one of my favourite novelists, Irishman Colm Tóibin and it’s subject is a woman who was one of the architects of the great Irish Literary Revival, Lady Augusta Gregory. Called Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, this essay gives us a beautiful insight into the life of the outspoken Irishwoman. In his inimitable and sensitive way Tóibin delivers to us, this remarkable figure in Celtic history, she was married to an MP and land-owner, yet retained an unprecedented independence of both thought and deed, actively championing causes close to her heart. At once conservative and radical in her beliefs, she saw no conflict in idealizing and mythologizing the Irish peasantry, for example, while her landlord husband introduced legislation that would, in part, lead to the widespread misery, poverty and starvation of the Great Famine. Nevertheless, as founder of Dublin’s famous  Abbey Theatre, an outspoken opponent of censorship, and mentor, muse, and mother-figure to W. B. Yeats, Augusta Gregory played a pivotal role in shaping Irish literary and dramatic history. Perhaps the surprise nugget in this tale is that, despite her parents’ early predictions of spinsterhood, she was no matronly figure, engaging in a passionate affair while newly-wedded and, as she approached sixty, falling for a man almost twenty years her junior.

Next comes a tale of Deep England. In Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers, we find ourselves in Edmundsbury, a small town in the east of England where fear and loathing are on the rise. Brexit has happened and the ramifications are real. This is a not so unfamiliar England where a grass-roots, right-wing political party ‘England Always’ is fomenting hatred. The residents of a failing housing estate are being cleared from their homes. A multinational tech company is making inroads into the infrastructure. The real fun starts with a controversial tweet; a series of ill-judged think pieces and a riot of opinions – suddenly Edmundsbury is no longer the peaceful town it had always imagined itself to be. We are face to face with new technologies and the realisation that the interests they serve are maybe not so new. This is clever satire, rich with irony which manages to be both very funny and very profound.

From contemporary Britain we now travel back in time to Ancient Greece and the second of Stephen Fry‘s books on the Greek Myths. Heroes: The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retoldWhether you are familiar with these age old tales or not, few mere mortals have ever embarked on such bold and heart-stirring adventures, overcome myriad monstrous perils, or outwitted scheming vengeful gods, quite as stylishly and triumphantly as Greek heroes both good and bad.

Next we turn from myth to magic with The Ocean at the End of the Lane by the Master storyteller Neil Gaiman. I found this book to be a wonderful fantasy but at the same time a dissection of childhood memories and how they can and do effect our adult lives. I was doubly pleased that my edition is beautifully illustrated throughout by the very talented Elise Hurst.

Now any book which mentions a library in the title usually grabs my attention. In the case of Matt Haig‘s The Midnight Library there was so much hype around it’s publication that I was wary. Then the Sunday Times Bestseller List was topped, as was The New York Times list. Once again it was a pick on BBC Two’s Between The Covers book club which grabbed my attention so I ordered it. I loved it. The premise of the story is brilliantly simple. Apparently between life and death there is a library. When suicidal Nora Seed finds herself in the Midnight Library, she has a chance to make things right. Up until now, her life has been full of misery and regret. She feels she has let everyone down, including herself. But things are about to change. The books in the Midnight Library enable Nora to live as if she had done things differently. With the help of an old friend, she can now undo every one of her regrets as she tries to work out her perfect ‘if only’ life. But things aren’t always what she imagined they’d be,. Of course that perfect life is not always so perfect and soon her choices place the library and herself in extreme danger. Before time runs out, she must answer the ultimate question: what is the best way to live? For me some of the outcomes were predictable but what I loved most of all was the notion that books have the power to change lives and that second chances are always there for the taking.

With so many great new finds this year there has been little time to reread any old favourites. Two notable exceptions were the books in Anne Rice‘s Wolf Gift Chronicles The Wolf Gift and The Wolves of Midwinter. In these books Rice has delivered her slant on the werewolf myth in just the same way that she built a new architecture for the vampire legend. In the first book we meet journalist Reuben Golding visiting the extraordinary, grand mansion of Nideck Point to write an article about it. He is shown around by it’s current utterly captivating occupant. Following a brutal attack the owner is murdered and Reuben finds himself changing. His hair is longer, his skin is more sensitive and he can hear things he never could before. Now in a choice between man or monster, he must confront the beast within him or lose himself completely. The book is full of the kind of rich detail in setting, characterisation and world building which makes Anne Rice one of my most favourite authors.

The Wolf Gift however is only a grand preface to the glorious second novel, The Wolves of Midwinter. Here again I shall turn to the book blurb to summarise this tale:

“It is the beginning of December and it is cold and grey outside. In the stately flickering hearths of Nideck Point, oak fires are burning. The Morphenkinder are busy getting ready for the ancient pagan feast of midwinter. Everyone is invited, including some of their own who do not wish them well. Reuben, the newest of the Morphenkinder, is struggling with his new existence as a Man Wolf, struggling to learn to control his desires and bloodthirsty urges. His pure, luminous girlfriend Laura seems all set to join him in this new way of life, but Reuben is not at all certain he will love her if she becomes as he is. Beyond the mansion, the forest echoes with howling winds, which carry with them tales of a strange nether world, and of spirits centuries old who possess their own fantastical ancient histories and taunt with their dark, magical powers. As preparations for the feast gather pace, destiny continues to hound Reuben, not least in the form of a strange, tormented ghost who appears at the window, unable to speak. But he is not alone: before the festivities are over, choices must be made choices which will decide the fate of the Morphenkinder for ever.”  If you loved The Vampire Chronicles you will love these books too.

I will end this list with a book that stands out as one of the most extraordinary that I’ve read this year

I have long admired the now world famous Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis who in Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present delivers science fiction, Utopian vision, socialism and green politics. This is no naïve Utopian tale but one set in an alternative near future  where we are asked to think what might have happened if Occupy and Extinction Rebellion had actually won. There are no banks. No stock market. No tech giants. No billionaires. Capitalism has gone as we know it. The author is to my mind a modern day reincarnation of a classical Greek Hero. His description of the other world is utterly compelling and believable but of course having wooed us with it’s appeal, he also leads us to the point where we start to ask if this is what we really want. Here I remind you of my musings on The Midnight Library and its second chances. The grass may often look greener on the other side of the fence but isn’t it really only greener on whichever side of the fence that you mow it?


Coming soon The Lockdown Reader 4 The Reference books.