35. My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

I first read this wonderful novel many years ago, and was absolutely delighted to find it amongst Mums books this week. Daphne Du Maurier is a thrilling author to read, especially for the first time, but in reading a second time I found just as much pleasure in this very powerful book, more so in many ways, I was a teenager the first time around – this time, I found the plot and character development, the complexities, and the emotions affected me on another level altogether. Basically, I devoured it during a bus ride up to London to renew my passport and finished it on the way back – simply couldn’t put it down!

Ms Du Maurier first published My Cousin Rachel in 1951 when she was at the height of her powers as a novelist. It is narrated in the voice of a young man, Philip Ashley, who has been brought up by his older cousin, Ambrose, in a purely male, very dogs and pipe smoking gruff landed gentry type of environment – there are not even any female staff on the estate, and the neighbouring ladies, the vicars wife and daughters for example, are treated with condescension. Although there is no actual time context, it is probably set around the end of the 19th or very early 20th century, definitely before motor vehicles or telephones. The use of the male voice is fascinating when one knows it is a woman writing, and it is done with skill – Ms Du Maurier conveys just the right level of pomposity and arrogance together with a wariness of women and their machinations – which devious and tangled web Ambrose becomes ensnared by in Italy. Philips reaction to the news that his cousin has succumbed to the charms of their cousin Rachel is one of shock and bafflement.

When Ambrose dies mysteriously, Philip is already right out of his comfort zone, travelling to Italy in response to a desperate and bewildering letter from him. He misses the funeral, and his cousin Rachel who has already left – he is told what happened by the Italian servants and Rachel’s ‘man of business’, the enigmatic and slippery Signor Rainaldi. Returning to the safety of his Cornish estate, by now convinced that Ambrose has been poisoned by Rachel, he is shocked to discover that she is on her way to Cornwall.

And now the novel begins to seriously twist and turn, as the older, very exotic and lovely Rachel begins to work her magic on him. From being certain that she is evil personified, he gradually falls under a fatal spell of attraction to her, and the tale of the seduction is told exquisitely – as the reader, we are almost led to believe we can see what she is up to, while poor Philip, completely unaccustomed to the company of a beautiful, intelligent and seductive woman, let alone sex, is soon in up to his neck and ready to hand over his entire inheritance. And then….. well, the plot thickens, and I really cannot say any more without ruining it for you!

The character of Rachel is multi faceted. Her small hands and exotic profile are mentioned often – her ability to charm everyone she meets, the fact that she has a ‘past’ – she has been married twice, miscarried a child, and almost certainly had lovers and lived a shall we say exciting life in Florence – all add seasoning to this seduction. Philips childhood friend, his godfathers daughter, Louise, can only watch in despair as he succumbs. One has to have a degree of sympathy for the character of Rachel – a woman alone with no independent means in those days would be relying on her wits, looks, anything she could use to secure her future. But one also has to feel a little sorry for Philip on whom the tables have been turned when he realises that a night of unbridled passion which he assumes means marriage is not how Rachel views it at all. Classic Du Maurier plot twisting, with a very strong feminist vein to it.

Seriously, this is a brilliant book, I think better and more complex than the more famous ‘Rebecca’ although I adore that too. I have Mums copy here ready to gift forward, so if you would like to add it to your collection, please get in touch either here or on the Facebook page, and I shall send it to you with love. In case after reading this, you’d like to read the book but Mums copy has already been claimed, here is an Amazon link for you to purchase a copy…or go to your library…either way, if you have not read this, do so! A fabulous, strong female writer at the height of her talent. Right up both Mums and my alley!

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13. ‘One night in winter’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

I watched several of Mr Montefiore’s TV series with Mum; we both enjoyed them as we agreed that he, although mildly pompous, was undoubtedly erudite, and presented his topics with an infectious enthusiasm. We especially liked ‘Jerusalem’ – a history of the Holy City, which Wikipedia tells me a film company has bought the option to to turn into a Game of Thrones style dramatic series about the city through the ages. Not quite sure how I feel about that, Mum and I shared a great love for GOT, never mind history – regardless, Mr Montefiore does most certainly seem to know his historical stuff. ‘Rome’ was another great series; I had fulfilled a lifelong ambition to spend time in the Eternal City early in the year this series was televised, and so found it more than usually interesting. However, I do have to say that if history, and more specifically, the history of Rome, appeals then you cannot go past Mike Duncan’s excellent podcast series, The History of Rome. Listening to that while making my own (solitary but no less triumphal) entry into the city on foot from five miles out along the Appian Way contributed enormously to a magnificent moment. And Mum approved my march wholeheartedly when I phoned her that night, whilst wondering how my feet were, bless her! But I digress.

I’d not come across this book before, nor indeed the other two Russian novels he has published, and I have really enjoyed it. It’s set in the post WWII Stalinist Soviet Union, which sounds exactly as I have always thought, a thoroughly scary place to be. There’s an almost seamless blend between a liberal sprinkling of historical events and the people who are known to have figured in them, and a cast of fictional characters to flesh the story out, and whom one can’t help but feel are probably very very accurately representative of the thoughts, feelings and actions of possibly countless unknown real people who lived through this (putting it politely) turbulent time in history. It is the central book of three in a series, and the cover boasts one line reviews from the major papers in the UK which heavily feature words like ‘gripping’ and ‘nail biting’. I read it in one sitting, no nails were bitten, but I did spend a lot of time thinking ‘that’s not fair’. Nothing is fair in here. And I find it interesting that I feel more compelled to write about how vicious this regime was than I’m inclined to write about the novel itself.

Put simply, the book pits the brutal power of the Soviet State machinery against the many forms the power of love can take. And does so rather well. Mr Montefiore tells us in an interesting appendix about the factual event that inspired the book – a case brought after a teenage murder/suicide shooting in Moscow against the children of the Kremlin potentates who attended the same school, obviously not because of any search for justice, but because Stalin realised the power this gave him over the parents, most of whom were members of his inner circle. Twenty six teenagers were eventually arrested, and held in the Lubianka Prison for six months, often in solitary confinement. Interrogated, and forced to ‘confess’, this was horrifying; their families fates were literally in their hands. In the book, the author explores the absolute terror of both the children and their families, neither of whom dared protest against the absolute power of the State aka Josef Stalin.  To quote Mr Montefiore, “what if this interrogation uncovered forbidden love affairs and the darkest family secrets, revelations that could lead to death and destruction?”. (There’s the huge clue to the ‘story’.) But, as the reader, one knows this scenario is set in a country and an era where people genuinely could simply disappear, and no one would dare to ask where they had gone. Even their children. Historians estimate varying quantities, but always in the millions, of people died as a direct result of Stalin, whether through purges, famines, or war. The Children’s Case, unfairly, did really happen.

However. On the bright side, ‘real’ people abound in this book, as we must be reassured they actually did. The love for life, literature, and freedom that motivates the children’s Pushkin teacher to sacrifice himself for them. The love, care and concern of Direktor Medvedeva, their headmistress, that made her secretly pay for the education of the son of a known dissident. The carefully concealed yet eventually foiled love between an American interpreter and a Russian student, daughter of a propaganda film star.

These are people we know must have existed, and these are the characters that bring this novel alive with the human values that ordinary people, not so very different from us, must have struggled with in this period in history. I must add that, as someone who genuinely doesn’t like going out much, and would prefer to be in bed by about ten pm, the idea of being summoned by Stalin to drink with him till daybreak and then go to work early to demonstrate my dedication to Bolshevism, especially when he has just ‘arrested’ my teenage daughter – it’s described beautifully in the book – well. Words, unusually, fail me.

I’m going to say that although it’s not a tough read like ‘Persian Fire’, equally it is not a ‘waiting for a plane’ book like ‘Ghost’. This is much better that it seems initially. It’s quite topical, what with the recent events in Salisbury. I’m going to look for ‘Sashenka’ and ‘Red Sky at Noon’, the first and third books. And, as always, if you would like ‘One Night in Winter’ in your library, please get in touch and I’ll post it to you. I’m pretty confident you will enjoy it, I did.

 

 

6. ‘The Eye of the Needle’ by Ken Follett

I’ve said before, I do love a good thriller, as did Mum, and this one ticks most of the boxes. I read this one to recover from how disappointed I was with Robert Harris the other week, and I didn’t put it down until I’d finished it. It’s a fast, engaging tale of derring do set against the preparations for the D Day landings, with a cold and professional German spy, Die Nadel, murdering landladies and evading his delightfully British pursuers while trying to ascertain where the Allies will launch their invasion of France.

Ken Follett knows his stuff, and as always, adds plenty of human drama and pathos to the mix – who could forget fearless Christine, the plucky ambulance driver and appalling cook, whose death in the Blitz devastates her husband, Bloggs, and teaches him to hate the enemy. Or his colleague, the academic and historian Percival Godliman, who is drawn away from writing his history of the Plantagenets to become a spy catcher with MI5. And there’s the romance of a young bride and her RAF fighter pilot husband whose marriage is fatally wounded almost before it begins.

I liked this. I liked almost all the characters, I loved the descriptions of Londoners in the shelters rallying together, I liked the ending which contained an unsurprising surprise…yes I know that doesn’t really make sense, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for you! It’s not literature as such, but its a well written page turner from an accomplished story teller, and I recommend it.

As always, if you would like this book, please let me know, and I welcome your comments!

EDIT; Snapped up almost immediately by a local reader!

 

4. ‘The Ghost’ by Robert Harris

While Mum was not what you’d call a fiercely political person, she was definitely an Independent reading, left of centre liberal with a healthy mistrust of the Establishment. She didn’t buy into conspiracy theories, but was enough of a realist to recognise that shady dealings, as covered in this novel, certainly happen.

Now, I love a good thriller, as did Mum. But this one honestly left me more than a little cold. Well written if a little ‘clunky’ after the last couple of books I have read, it has a potentially interesting storyline; the clandestine dealings between unscrupulous politicians and governments, their lies and deceptions, the impact of these on ordinary people, and the unsuspecting ghost writer who unravels the web of deceit woven by and around a British ex-Prime Minister and his wife. Unsurprising. Readers who lived in the UK during the Bush/Blair Gulf War period will find it even less surprising. And it certainly raised for me some interesting questions about the ‘Special Relationship’ in our current era of Trumpism.

What I did find surprising was the lack of engagement I felt. Perhaps I too have a perennial mistrust of the Establishment, so that although this is a work of fiction, I find it not impossible to believe things like this have happened and are indeed still happening in the corridors of power. And that as an individual, I can do little to alter the state of things save by exercising my right to vote, or sending off an email to my MP, or signing an online petition. And so, as with most of us, I just push on with my own small life and its demands and daily rhythms, trusting in the politicians to do the right thing, which is what I’m sure most of them went into politics wanting to do in the first place. Or perhaps not, reading this book.

So there you have it. Not perhaps the greatest book I have ever read, but an acceptable way to pass the time – I think this was one of Mum’s holiday reads, and I’d recommend it as a ‘passing the time waiting for a train or a plane’ type of book. Let me know if you’d like it and I’ll send it to you….