Barnhill by Norman Bissell
After the end of WWII, George Orwell left London to live in a remote farmhouse on Jura in the Hebrides. It was there at ‘Barnhill’ that he brought together all the ideas that had been fermenting in his brain into the book that became 1984. Bissell’s novel tells the story of Orwell’s life from late 1943 through to his sudden death in January 1950 at the age of 46.
While I’ve read Animal Farm and 1984, and have Down and Out in Paris in London on the shelf to read, I knew nothing of Orwell’s life bar the fact that he is buried in Sutton Courtenay (a village near where I live). In this novel, I found him to be quite a quandary. Although he loved his wife Eileen dearly, he had insisted on an open relationship; this became too much for Eileen so he ended his affair with his secretary in spring ’44. During the year after Eileen died in 1945, he proposed to three women! This was as much to have his domestic situation managed and to be a surrogate mother for his and Eileen’s adopted baby son Ricky, as to satisfy his sexual needs perhaps. All three turned him down, although one of them, Sonia Brownell, would later marry him in hospital, which he’d never leave – she was entrusted with being his literary executor. Then there was his sister Avril and his housekeeper Susan. He was a man’s man, but one who liked to be around women!
Certain parts of the novel are narrated by Sonia, looking back on these years, occasionally there are sections which are presented as the imagined thoughts of Orwell, the majority is told in the conventional third person. Bissell’s well-researched novel brings Orwell’s complexity to life. He enjoyed working with his hands at Barnhill growing fruit and veg, he was a devoted father to Ricky too the domesticity contrasting with his political credo and relationships. I actually found the sections set away from Barnhill more interesting, the isolation of that setting on Jura made the rest of his life seem more exciting. Bissell’s afterword about visiting Jura and a timeline for the period of the book give useful supporting material. A bit of a curate’s egg for me, this book, but interesting none the less. (7.5/10)
Close to Home by Cara Hunter
Cara Hunter is an Oxford-based author, whom I met when she came to a crime panel event (here) at my local book shop. I left that evening keen to make the acquaintance of her DI, Adam Fawley; Close to Home is the first in her series of police procedurals. Hunter points out at the outset that she lives in a street, not unlike those featured in the book – not for us the picture postcard Oxford colleges, this book is set where workers live – on estates around the edge of the city, in brick boxed executive homes.
The Masons were holding a party, there was plenty of booze, Barry was on the BBQ, the neighbourhood kids were running around in fancy dress, there were fireworks at ten – Sharon had been planning the event for weeks. It’s two in the morning when DI Fawley and DC Gislingham arrive to start their investigation – Daisy has been missing since midnight, the side gate had been open. Barry is in tears, Sharon by contrast makes the police take their shoes off, and is shirty about having the SOCO touch Daisy’s room or for a Family Liaison officer to be stationed in the house. By three, the news of the presumed abduction is out and media vans start arriving. The next day, they make a TV appeal:
Flashlights, people shift forward in their chairs. They’re not interested in what the family say – everyone says the same things if a kid is missing – but they do very much want to hear how they say it. They want to gauge what sort of people the Masons are. Do they stand up to the scrutiny? Do they sound convincing? Do we like them? It’s about character, and credibility. And, needless to say, that great English obsession, class.
What makes Close to Home unique compared to other police procedurals I’ve read, is the way Hunter incorporates social media into the text – there are pages of the twitter storm and the ‘Find Daisy Mason’ FB page. The trolls, the concerned, the outraged, the I blame the parents… it’s all in there. It really brings the investigation to life, and makes it seem very real. There are also transcripts of interviews, pages from police reports etc. All these along with DI Fawley’s first person narration contribute to the whole picture which gets more an more complicated as the investigation goes on. Interestingly, Hunter told us that when she first wrote the book, she didn’t specify Fawley’s gender, (Fawley is married to Alex). But, she was advised that that would be too difficult to keep up in subsequent outings, so Fawley is Adam, but is in touch with his feminine side!
The only thing that annoyed me about this novel was the scooter on the cover – not in the book! As police procedurals go. however, this was top notch, and I’m keen to see how Hunter develops her style in the following books in the series. (9/10).
Beached in Calabria by Ian Ross
Ian Ross has had an eventful life, co-founding Radio Caroline in the early 1960s, and many entrepreneurial enterprises before and after – from opening the first car wash in England, to opening a roller disco club in Hollywood and then becoming a butler in Beverley Hills, and along the way creating a large family with his wife Bunty.
Looking for the ideal location for a cheap second home, Ross discovers Calabria on Italy’s foot. It’s cheap, it’s totally undiscovered and off the tourist map – but it’s also ‘bandit country’ beloved of the Mafia. Dare the crazy Englishman try to make a home there? Of course! Beached in Calabria is Ross’s entertaining account of how he found a bargain villa to do up on a beautiful bay with a super beach there.
The beautiful empty beach is just a part of it. There’s the whole southern Italian thing that first drew Bunty and me and keeps on drawing us; the people, for a start: warm like the sun, poor, laughing, happy, friendly, for whom chronic historic hardship has evolved into a sense of humour that strangely matches my own. Very few things aren’t a huge joke. I felt it from the start, way beyond mere empathy. It’s Theatre of the Absurd writ large. An Irish friend said it sounds like the west of Ireland only hot.
Agreeing to buy the house is just the first step in a catalogue of minor disasters involving builders, more builders who are usually friends of the first lot of builders, Italy’s labyrinthine planning regulations and disregard for, miscommunications caused by Ross’s lack of Italian, but also good friends made, good food and wine. Ross, who lives there alone while all the renovations are going on, before Bunty and the family join him is a traditional English fish out of water. But his sense of fun nearly always prevails – although when persuaded to buy the most uncomfortable bright orange Italian designer sofa-bed by the daughter of one of the builders, it nearly failed. Still the ‘Crazy Ingleze’ manages to make a place for himself in this sun-drenched sort of paradise. Ross is an entertaining companion, and I enjoyed this fun summer read. (7.5/10)