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Dark Journey
Dark Journey
by Irfan Orga
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.84

3.0 out of 5 stars Dark Journey, 24 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Dark Journey (Paperback)
Kamelya, a beautiful, young Turkish widow living in Istanbul finds herself in the position of having to take on work as a laundress in order to support herself and her small son Murat. Tired of the hard work involved with being a washerwoman, Kamelya visits a marriage broker in the hopes of securing a rich husband; however, things do not go quite the way Kamelya plans, and she soon finds herself not only without a husband, but also without her son. After spending time in a town outside of Istanbul, and then being kidnapped by one of the most powerful bandits in the area, Kamelya manages to escape and, after a time, she arrives back in the city where she was forced to leave her son, but Murat is no longer there. A whole series of events follow, which I shall leave prospective readers to discover for themselves, but is Kamelya destined to be reunited with her son, or does life have yet more obstacles to put in her path to prevent her from ultimately being reconciled with Murat?

Based very loosely on a true story, the manuscript for this novel was found in 2007 by the author's son who discovered it lying stained and tattered in an old case where it had been placed after being rejected by several publishers during the 1950s. The novel has now been published by Eland, who have produced this very attractively presented paperback edition described on the cover as: 'a disturbing, fast-paced story of a young Turkish woman's descent towards moral annihilation in the early twentieth century - one part Maupassant, one part 'One Thousand and One Nights.' I have to say that I am not sure I would quite agree with that description, for whilst the story does have its dramatic moments, it is not as powerful or disturbing as I would have expected from the 'blurb' and I found it more of a diverting downtime story which worked well for a escapist 'switch-off' read, instead of the dark, gritty tale I was preparing myself for. However, although this novel did not quite live up to expectations, it did keep me entertained on a cold, wet afternoon, and as Irfan Orga's memoir 'Portrait of a Turkish Family' has been personally recommended to me and has been described by 'The Independent' as '... one of the great memoirs of the twentieth century' I am certainly interested in obtaining a copy of the memoir and am now off to Amazon Marketplace to do just that.


Two Middle-aged Ladies in Andalusia (John Murray Travel Classics)
Two Middle-aged Ladies in Andalusia (John Murray Travel Classics)
by P Chetwode
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia, 20 Mar. 2015
In 1961, fifty-one-year-old Penelope Chetwode decided to set off on a riding tour of Andalusia in Southern Spain. After initially taking a conducted tour costing her £28 for the fortnight, Ms Chetwode made plans for a solo ride and, borrowing a sturdy twelve-year-old mare (the second middle-aged lady of the book's title) from the Duke of Wellington's Andalusian farm, she set off early in November in anticipation and in the spirit of adventure. On this trip, which took Penelope Chetwode a month to complete, the reader travels across rural Andalusia with the author as she tells us how she rode along mule tracks and unmade roads, stopped off at remote villages, stayed in posadas (where there were no bathrooms or even lavatories and where the author noted that although the Spanish possess a great variety of talents, plumbing was not one of them) and visited colonies of troglodytes who made cave homes for their families and their livestock by excavating into the hillsides. Throughout her journey Ms Chetwode and her mare were welcomed into the homes of her generous hosts (horses were led through the living quarters to the stables at the rear of the posada) and the sight of a lone Englishwoman (which was unusual in these remote villages fifty years ago) brought her a following of children eager for new experiences and the sweets she handed out to them.

Filled with descriptions of the landscape, the people and particularly the food of Southern Spain, Penelope Chetwode's well-observed account of her time in Andalusia makes for an engaging and effortless read. The author, who was the wife of John Betjeman and a great lover of horses (she took her favourite horse to tea with Lord Berners at his country mansion) led a busy and interesting life and, after her Andalusian trip, she set off to India in a VW van and returned there every year of her life until her death. In fact Ms Chetwode died whilst leading a tour in the Himalayas, where her body was consumed on a pyre and her ashes were later scattered by her friend Bruce Chatwin into the Beas River.

4 Stars.


Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia
Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia
by Penelope Chetwode
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia, 20 Mar. 2015
In 1961, fifty-one-year-old Penelope Chetwode decided to set off on a riding tour of Andalusia in Southern Spain. After initially taking a conducted tour costing her £28 for the fortnight, Ms Chetwode made plans for a solo ride and, borrowing a sturdy twelve-year-old mare (the second middle-aged lady of the book's title) from the Duke of Wellington's Andalusian farm, she set off early in November in anticipation and in the spirit of adventure. On this trip, which took Penelope Chetwode a month to complete, the reader travels across rural Andalusia with the author as she tells us how she rode along mule tracks and unmade roads, stopped off at remote villages, stayed in posadas (where there were no bathrooms or even lavatories and where the author noted that although the Spanish possess a great variety of talents, plumbing was not one of them) and visited colonies of troglodytes who made cave homes for their families and their livestock by excavating into the hillsides. Throughout her journey Ms Chetwode and her mare were welcomed into the homes of her generous hosts (horses were taken through the living quarters and led into the stables at the rear of the posadas) and the sight of a lone Englishwoman (which was unusual in these remote villages fifty years ago) brought her a following of children eager for new experiences and the sweets she handed out to them.

Filled with descriptions of the landscape, the people and particularly the food of Southern Spain, Penelope Chetwode's well-observed account of her time in Andalusia makes for an engaging and effortless read. The author, who was the wife of John Betjeman and a great lover of horses (she took her favourite horse to tea with Lord Berners at his country mansion) led a busy and interesting life and, after her Andalusian trip, she set off to India in a VW van and returned there every year of her life until her death. In fact Ms Chetwode died whilst leading a tour in the Himalayas, where her body was consumed on a pyre and her ashes were later scattered by her friend Bruce Chatwin into the Beas River.

4 stars.


Arthur and George
Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback

5.0 out of 5 stars (4.5 Stars) Arthur and George, 16 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Arthur and George (Paperback)
In Julian Barnes' deftly executed 'Arthur and George', the Arthur of the title is the famous writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who hardly needs an introduction as the author of the popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories; the George of the title, is George Edalji, a very respectable half-Scottish, half-Indian solicitor, accused of certain deeds which made sensational headlines in 1903 as the Great Wyrley Outrages. However, before we reach that point in the story, the author introduces the reader to his two main characters in separate sections and, in this way, we learn how the young Arthur grows up in Scotland listening to his mother's stories of far distant times, of dark villains, white knights and fair maidens; we read of his education at a Jesuit school, of his study of medicine in order to become a doctor and of him submitting stories to magazines for publication. We also learn of Arthur's move to Southsea, in Hampshire, where he meets his future wife, Touie (a woman he loves, but is not in love with); of his qualifying to become an ophthalmologist, of his interest in spiritualism and of the creation of his detective Sherlock Holmes - who started life as 'Sheridan Hope'. Meanwhile George (the son of a Parsee from India, married to a Scottish woman and now a Church of England vicar) grows up in the Midlands and, through hard work and application, becomes a solicitor. During George's adolescent years, his father receives some very unpleasant anonymous letters implicating George in certain events and although the letters stop for a period of time, the persecution begins again with renewed venom and with some very nasty threats. Soon, several barbaric attacks are made on animals grazing in the vicinity of the vicarage and, very surprisingly, George is later arrested and put on trial even though there is a lack of firm evidence. To say more might spoil the story for prospective readers, so I shall leave it here, but I will just add that when Arthur Conan Doyle later learns of George's plight, he dons his detective's hat, and is determined to belatedly prove George's innocence.

Well-researched and based on real-life events (by the way, if you don't know anything about the Great Wyrley Outrages, don't be tempted to 'Google' them before reading, as you might discover more than you would probably want to initially know) Julian Barnes' deftly executed 'Arthur and George' makes for an absorbing and enjoyable read. The two main characters contrast each other well, and the story, which is a blend of biography, detective story, romance and courtroom drama, is a vividly imagined one, written in a style that has a distinct Victorian flavour and one which held my attention from start to finish. It is true that the narrative can be a little slow moving at times (and there is a fair amount of extraneous detail, which I mostly enjoyed, but other readers may find a little discursive) so if you are looking for a pacy thriller, then this may not suit; however, I thought this an intelligent, beautifully written, deftly controlled story and one which I very much enjoyed.

4.5 Stars.


The Cupboard
The Cupboard
by Rose Tremain
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5 Stars) The Cupboard., 10 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Cupboard (Paperback)
Eighty-seven-year-old Erica March, once a well-regarded writer of unusual, allegorical novels, is nearing the end of her long and full life. Not wanting death to take her unawares, Erica decides exactly how she wants her life to end, and before it does, she agrees to be interviewed by Ralph Pears, a thirty-five-year-old American journalist, who has arrived in London keen to begin recording the story of her life. As Ralph spends time with Erica in her comfortable sitting room, lit by her prized Tiffany lamp, we learn of her childhood years which she spent in Suffolk with Gully, a foundling boy informally adopted by her father; of Erica's mother's death from being crushed by a bull; of Erica's imaginary friend, Claustrophobia, whose 'presence' helped Erica to cope with the death of her mother; and of Erica's Uncle Chadwick, a Wildean-type playwright with his flowing locks, his silk dressing gowns and his penchant for unreliable young men. In addition we learn about the time Erica spent living in London with Chadwick when she was a young adult, of her friendship with suffragette Emily Davison and of her involvement with the women's suffrage movement; we also learn of Erica's love affairs and of her deep and lasting love for a French man, Gerard, with whom she lived for years in Paris and "lay curled up in Gerard's life like a piece of sand inside a mollusc." Of course there is a lot more to Erica's long life than I have revealed here, but I shall leave the remainder for potential readers of this novel to discover for themselves.

As with all of Rose Tremain's novels, this is a beautifully written and imaginatively created story and the main protagonist, Erica March, is an interesting and sympathetic character, about whose life I enjoyed reading. However, as the reader learns about Erica's life in a rather piecemeal fashion as she dips in and out of her memories, I felt that I didn't really become as well-acquainted with her as I would have liked and, as a supporting character, Ralph didn't really come to life, and I found it difficult to become involved in the parts of the story that focused on him. Also, I would have liked to have learnt more about some of the interesting people that Erica met whilst living in Paris. All of that said however, although I did not enjoy this novel quite as much as I have some of Rose Tremain's other excellent novels (such as: Restoration; Merivel; The Way I Found Her; and The Swimming Pool Season) 'The Cupboard' was still an entertaining and interesting read, and as it is yet another of the many books I have had languishing on my bookcases and somehow never got around to reading, I am really glad that I have finally taken the time out to read it.

3.5 Stars.


Mischief: Fay Weldon Selects Her Best Short Stories
Mischief: Fay Weldon Selects Her Best Short Stories
by Fay Weldon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Making Mischief, 9 Mar. 2015
No Spoilers - however, if you don't want to know anything at all about the stories, then you might just want to read the first and last paragraphs.

Fay Weldon's attractively presented 'Mischief' is a collection of twenty one short stories and includes a recently written novella 'The Ted Dreams'. In her introduction to the collection, Fay Weldon tells the reader that during the four decades over which her stories were written, the relationship between men and women in the West has changed out of all recognition; she continues:"In the early seventies women still endured the domestic tyranny of men, in the eighties we found our self-esteem, in the nineties we lifted our heads and looked about, and in the noughties - well, we went out to work. We had to." To compile this collection, the author read through the hundred or so stories that she has written during her long career, and found it a disturbing, almost painful experience, but for this reader it was an entertaining and absorbing reading experience and even though many of these stories have appeared in previous collections, there were some here that I had not read including the 130 page novella.

In the first story in the collection: 'Angel, All Innocence' we meet Angel, a young woman in love with and married to a selfish and manipulative artist who thinks only of his own needs and desires. When Angel becomes pregnant, she has to hide her pregnancy from her husband until it is too late for the abortion she knows he will want her to have. Soon Angel begins to worry about her future and that of her unborn child, however it is not until she meets the ghostly figure of a battered woman on her attic stairs, that Angel realises that she has to be proactive and do something about her situation herself. In 'Alopecia' we meet Erica, another woman bullied by her husband, Derek - except Derek's abuse of his wife is both physical and mental - and although, unlike Angel in the first story, Erica has several female friends to confide in, unfortunately only one of them takes any real notice of her predicament, the others preferring to believe her successful and seemingly affable husband. So where is the sisterhood? In the story 'Weekend' we are introduced to Martha, a wife and mother of three, who works herself into the ground running the family home, the country cottage and a demanding job. On a yet another weekend in the country which, as usual, she has shopped and prepared for during the previous week, Martha finally begins to lose her patience, when her husband and the friends he has invited for the weekend, take her hard work for granted and make her feel that she is making a martyr of herself. But what does Martha do about it?

Then there is 'Out of Love in Sarajevo' where we meet a young woman holidaying in Sarajevo with her much older lover, Peter, a Professor of Classical History, who is supervising her thesis. Whilst Peter prevaricates about leaving his wife of twenty four years, his young lover wonders about the assassin who shot the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914 and "lit the spark which fired the timber which caused World War I." But what is it that lights the spark that enables this young woman to see her older lover in a different light? In the unsettling 'Smoking Chimneys' we meet Ishtar, the rather unreliable narrator of the story who finds herself in a prison cell on a charge of murder. Over the next few pages of this involving short story, we read of the events that took place over the Christmas from Hell and which led up to Ishtar's predicament. But how much of her story is true? These are just a few of the twenty one stories in this collection, but I shall leave the remainder of these for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Finally in the novella 'The Ted Dreams', Fay Weldon mixes science fiction with the supernatural, when we are introduced to Phyllis, mother of identical twin girls, whose husband, Ted, dies suddenly in bed. Before the following year is out, Phyllis has remarried and is now the wife of the handsome American Robbie, who has a rather mysterious job as a psycho-pharma-scientist. But then Phyllis - who is receiving visits from her dead husband, is telepathic, and has indulged in telekinesis - is not without her mysterious side herself; however even she, with her powers of telepathy, is surprised when she discovers there is much more to Robbie and his scientific work than she would ever have imagined.

This beautifully presented collection with its gorgeously decorated and tactile dustjacket is full of stories which feature Fay Weldon's trademark themes of feminism, sisterhood and the role of women in modern society. Vivid, satirical, witty, and often rather scathing and unsettling, these are not comfortable stories to settle down with for a cosy read, but if you appreciate good quality writing and original and perceptive stories peppered with black humour, then this collection should make for an entertaining and enjoyable read for you.

4 Stars.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 10, 2015 7:06 PM GMT


Idioglossia
Idioglossia
by Eleanor Bailey
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Unusual and Involving, 5 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Idioglossia (Hardcover)
Grace lives the fractured life of a schizophrenic manic depressive; she has been incarcerated for the major part of her adult life in a mental institution, haunted by memories of her dead sister, Ruth. Grace's daughter, Maggie, removed from her mentally incapacitated mother, is brought up by her father, an alcoholic second-rate ventriloquist, who takes Maggie with him when he starts working on a cruise liner. Some years later, on the cruise liner, the teenage Maggie meets American comedian, Rudi, who is twice her age and with whom she begins an intimate relationship. When Maggie's father dies and Rudi (due to problems caused by his own tragic past) disappears, Maggie is left pregnant and alone, and with no option available to her other than to throw herself on the mercy of her cold and cantankerous grandmother, the 'psychic' Edie.

Starved of affection herself, Maggie does not find it easy to bond with her daughter, Sarah, or to show her the love that she needs. Thirty years later, Sarah, feeling unloved and unwanted, is finding it difficult to relate to those around her, cannot hold a job down down for more than a few months and spends her time drinking too much and sleeping around. When Sarah makes friends with Alex, a reclusive computer games developer, who lives alone in his deceased parents' large family home, she finally begins to feel a little more settled; however when Alex (who has difficult memories from his own past to cope with) doesn't respond to her the way she wants him to, Sarah starts on a course of self-destruction which makes others begin to worry for her sanity.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, Eleanor Bailey's original and interestingly entitled debut novel 'Idioglossia' tells the story of four generations of emotionally dysfunctional and damaged women, and although I found this an upsetting and uncomfortable read at times, I also found it an involving and thought-provoking one. The author, who has suffered from debilitating bouts of deep depression herself, writes knowledgeably, sympathetically and honestly about mental health issues and of the effect serious depression can have on the individual afflicted and also on those around them. However, this story is definitely not all gloom and doom and it certainly has its humorous and enjoyable moments, and for a first novel, it's a very good one indeed. I have had this book on one of my bookshelves for years and am glad that I finally got around to reading it - I had thought this was Eleanor Bailey's only novel, but I have just noticed another title of hers: Marlene Dietrich Lived Here whilst browsing on Amazon and am now interested in obtaining a copy of that novel too.

4 Stars.


Word for Word: A Memoir
Word for Word: A Memoir
by Lilianna Lungina
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £18.47

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars 'I Think I've Said What I Wanted to Say', 28 Feb. 2015
Lilianna Lungina (1920-1998) was a literary translator who was born and lived most of her life in the Soviet Union, where she translated many authors from their native languages into Russian, including: Astrid Lindgren, Colette, Alexandre Dumas, Henrik Ibsen, Heinrich Boll and Knut Hamsun. In 1997, Lilianna spent a week with film director, Oleg Dorman, who made a film documentary based on her life which, when it was released in 2009, became one of the most popular television programmes in Russia. This book is the transcript of her oral account and Oleg Dorman explains to the reader, in his preface to the book, that he has only added the most minor corrections, which are standard in the publication of any transcript, and added those parts of the story that could not make it into the film; the rest of what we read, is as Lilianna Lungini told it.

Lilianna Lungini was born in 1920 in Smolensk, Russia, to Jewish parents; however, in 1925 her father, who had a degree in engineering and spoke fluent German, was instructed by the Russian authorities to go to Berlin to work. After a time, Lilianna's father decided to return to Russia for a visit, leaving his wife and daughter in Berlin; once in Russia, his passport was confiscated and he was not allowed to return to Germany. Lilianna's mother, afraid to go back to Russia and angry that her husband had returned against her wishes, decided to divorce him and to make a new life for herself and Lilianna without him. In 1930, after experiencing demonstrations between communists and Hitler supporters on the streets of Berlin, Lilianna's mother realised that she and her daughter were no longer safe in Germany and made the decision to move to Paris. In Paris, Lilianna went to several different schools, but she was a friendly and resilient child, who soon made friends wherever she went; however in 1934, Lillianna's mother decided that she still loved her ex-husband and made plans to return, with her daughter, to Russia.

Lilianna had to start yet another new life, in another new school, but again she made friends and enjoyed life as much as she was able. She recalls her memories of those early days in 'old Moscow' with nostalgia, describing the streets scraped clean of snow, iceskating and skiing in the parks, milkmaids delivering milk with their milk cans strapped on their backs, and cabbies and drayman who still drove sledges and carriages through the streets. However, as Lilianna grew older, she became very aware that life in Moscow was very different to her life in Paris and she soon became witness to the oppression and political upheavals of Stalinist Russia. Her friends' parents were arrested for no just cause, family members were coerced into informing on each other, neighbour denounced neighbour, colleagues spied and informed on one another and many people ended up in the Lubyanka - even Lilianna was taken to the KGB headquarters to report on her friends. In 1947, Lilianna met her future husband, Sima, a young director (and later a famous screenwriter) with whom she had two sons and spent the next forty nine years. During their years together, Lilianna tells of the death of Stalin; the revelations that followed his death; of the so-called 'thaw'; the lightening and then tightening of government oppressions; of the leaders who came after Stalin; of anti-Semitism in its different forms; of the literary circle Lilianna moved amongst and of her interesting and important work as a translator.

This well-produced memoir is full of black and white photographs and is presented in an informal, conversational style, where Lilianna Lungini's words are written just as they were spoken, which makes it feel as if she is speaking directly to the reader. Her narrative sometimes shifts about in time and she often mentions something which, she then she tells us, she will return to later, or she makes a point of stopping her narrative to emphasise the importance of what she is about to reveal, just as someone would when they are involved deeply in a conversation. I should perhaps mention that because this book is a transcript of an oral account, the reader is not provided with the context and background that would be included in a conventional biography, and the narrator understandably only reveals what she wants to, and no more. That said, this memoir is full of interesting characters, many of whom we may not recognize, but also many that we will, such as: Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Lilianna Lungini's 'Word for Word' is an interesting account of an interesting woman, who admits that: "Intellectual courage is much harder to muster than physical courage" and where at the end of her story she tells us: "That's all, I suppose. I think I've said what I wanted to say."

4 Stars.


The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell
by Hilary Spurling
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The Girl from the Fiction Department, 25 Feb. 2015
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In her preface of 'The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell' Hilary Spurling tells us that Sonia, the widow of George Orwell, was depicted as "heartless, greedy and manipulative" in Michael Shelden's 'Orwell. The Authorised Biography' - a portrayal which Ms Spurling felt was based on ignorance, misconception and distortion. In this brief, but interesting biography of Sonia, Hilary Spurling has set out with the intention to dispel the myth of the cold and grasping widow Orwell, and also to explain why some people may have found Sonia a difficult and rather daunting character.

Sonia Brownell was born in India in 1918, but was only four months old, and her sister, Bay, only four years old, when their father died from unstated causes (probably a 'hushed up' suicide). Both sisters were marked for ever by this early calamity and Sonia sadly never really bonded with her mother, who remarried one year after her first husband's death. By the time Sonia was eight, her stepfather had become an alcoholic and was forced to resign from his job. The family came to England, but by 1930, Sonia's mother had had enough and she walked out on her husband and filed for divorce. Sonia was sent to the Convent of the Sacred Heart (the boarding school that Antonia Frost attended and barely disguised in her novel 'Frost in May') which, we learn, was "a battlefield for Sonia and she emerged from it with a raging scorn." Sonia left the school in 1935 and went off eagerly to Switzerland for a year to improve her French; however her year abroad was ruined when a boat she was sailing in with three other teenagers, capsized and she was the only survivor. Feeling guilty for not being able to save her companions (one of whom she had to struggle to free herself from his clutches otherwise she too would have drowned) Sonia returned home, where she recovered physically - but emotionally, we are told, nothing was ever the same again.

After taking a secretarial course, Sonia found a room near the Euston Road and became friendly with Dylan Thomas's girlfriend, Caitlin Macnamara, and Augustus John's daughter, Vivien; she also got to know the artists from the Euston Road Art School: Lawrence Gowing, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore and also William Coldstream, with whom she had an affair. Through her friendship with the Euston Road artists, Sonia came into the orbit of Stephen Spender and Cyril Connolly, and when they started a new literary magazine called 'Horizon' in 1940, Sonia helped out by typing and running errands and, later, writing reviews - she did leave to do war work, but returned to the magazine in 1945 as editorial secretary, and she soon made her mark. Intelligent, beautiful and very good at her job, Sonia was soon mingling with well-known writers and artists such as: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Marguerite Duras (who became her friend for life) George Orwell and Ivy Compton-Burnett, to name just a few. George Orwell was so taken with her that he proposed to her and after Sonia turned him down, he used her as the model for the character Julia in his novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four. After a failed love affair with married Frenchman Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Orwell becoming hospitalised with worsening tuberculosis, Sonia agreed to marry the now fatally ill Orwell when he proposed again, believing she could save him. As we know, she could not, and Orwell died shortly after the wedding, entrusting Sonia with the responsibility of his literary estate and the direct responsibility for enforcing his instructions that there should be no biography of him - a situation which caused her huge difficulties and an immense amount of stress for the rest of her life. There is, of course, more to Sonia Orwell's rather turbulent life than I have revealed here, but I shall leave the remainder for prospective readers to discover for themselves.

Although this biography is a brief one, it is a very readable and interesting one and Hilary Spurling does much to rescue Sonia Orwell from the accusations that have been made against her. Ms Spurling, who became friendly with Sonia Orwell in 1970 (when Spurling was writing her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett) admits that Sonia was "driven by demons she could not fully control" and that her insecurity and over-use of alcohol released an aggression that made her many enemies; however, Hilary Spurling also tells us of Sonia's charm, of her generosity, and of her kindness to those in need, especially with regard to the elderly writer Jean Rhys who, almost forgotten after the success of her early novels, had been living in poverty and isolation before the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, and to whom Sonia was particularly kind and helpful. And what is especially interesting about this biography, is not just the life of Sonia Orwell, but the lives of the people who surrounded her and reading this book has made me keen to read (and reread) the biographies of some of the people mentioned, for example: Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett; Francis Bacon: Anatomy of an Enigma; Cyril Connolly: A Life; Marguerite Duras: A Life and Jean Rhys - all of which I have on my shelves and look forward to reading and reviewing soon.

4 Stars.


Van Gogh
Van Gogh
by Steven Naifeh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.86

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Tortuous Life, 23 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Van Gogh (Hardcover)
Following their Pulitzer prize-winning life of Jackson Pollock, authors Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith have aimed to produce the definitive account of the troubled, yet brilliant artist Vincent van Gogh, with this meticulously researched and very detailed 900 page biography. Born the son of a pastor in 1853, in Zundert, Holland, Vincent van Gogh was a difficult, unruly and socially inept child, who grew into an even more difficult and troubled young man and one who became a huge problem for his family, particularly his father and his long-suffering brother, Theo, who supported him financially and emotionally to the detriment of his own life. Even as a young man, employed as an assistant in his uncle's art dealing business, Vincent was already afflicted with bouts of depression that undermined him and would later totally debilitate him. After failing in the art dealing business and alienating not only his uncle, but others around him, Vincent tried teaching, preaching and then, fired by religious mania, living the life of a social outcast, before focusing his attentions on becoming an artist.

Unfortunately, Vincent's unkempt, gaunt appearance, his staring eyes and his prickly, confrontational behaviour, caused others to avoid him and, unable to cope with his tutors' criticisms of his endeavours at art school, and ridiculed by some of the students - who found his frenzied method of working both alien and risible - Vincent set himself up in his own studio and, supported by his brother's earnings, became a virtually self-taught artist, painting pictures that no one seemed to appreciate. Eventually after many false starts, followed by a move to the Yellow House in Arles, a tempestuous relationship with fellow artist, Paul Gauguin, a slashed ear and incarceration in a mental asylum, Vincent began to produce the vibrant, powerful paintings for which he is now well-known and which would earn him the acclaim he yearned for, but tragically did not live to see.

As commented in my opening paragraph this is a meticulously researched and hugely detailed biography, but it's also one with a pacy narrative that enables the reader to become very easily caught up in the life story of this haunted, difficult and self-destructive genius. Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith do not hold back in their descriptions of their subject's confrontational, manipulative behaviour, his over-reliance on alcohol, his use of prostitutes and the effects on his body of the syphilis he contracted as a result; the authors also do not delve too deeply into the medical reasons (a form of epilepsy) behind Vincent's behaviour, but focus on the depressions and the breakdowns he suffered as a result - some of which make for almost painful reading. In contrast, what is enjoyable to read about and also a particularly good aspect of this biography, is how the authors carefully examine and describe the progress of Vincent's artistic development and his commitment towards his art. Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith also interestingly put forward the theory (which has been disputed by experts from the Van Gogh Museum) that Vincent did not commit suicide, but was shot by a teenager who was part of a gang of schoolboys who enjoyed tormenting the artist.

Drawing heavily on Van Gogh family letters, which reveal Vincent's insecurities, his fears, his dreams and his inner thoughts and imaginings, Mr Naifeh and Mr Smith have produced a vivid, poignant and very readable portrait of Vincent van Gogh. In addition the authors have used the letters to show Vincent's admiration for the work of other artists and that, despite his many failures, Van Gogh was determined to learn from others and to progress and develop artistically; mostly, however, these letters reveal Vincent's deep and conflicting feelings for his family and his intense and complex relationship with his much-loved brother, Theo, in whose arms he died and whose last words to him were: "I want to die like this." After Vincent's death, Theo wrote to his mother saying: "He has found the death he was longing for. Life was such a burden for him."

4 Stars.


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