What makes a great love story?

a romantic rose... plus thorns
a romantic rose… plus thorns

‘Reader, I married him.’ A great love story can end that way, but only after a load of trouble. As we know from Shakespeare, true love involves a rocky ride, in literature at least. A compelling romance must have drama; someone, or something, has to oppose it and try to stop it happening. And in a truly great love story, the threat to the lovers has to appear insurmountable. We want to believe that love can conquer all, but at some point in the story, it has to look horribly likely that love is going to lose.

In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars the stakes are sky-high from the outset; the forces ranged against the young lovers are depression, loneliness, illness and death. But that doesn’t stop the spark between them at that first meeting. If anything, it intensifies it.

True love is stubborn to a fault, and flourishes in the face of poor odds. It is also not sensible, convenient or rational. I can understand why Charlotte Lucas accepts Mr Collins’s proposal in Pride and Prejudice, I can even admire her pragmatism, but nobody would dream of describing their relationship as a great love story.

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True love changes the lovers; in a really great love story, there will always be a transformation (or several). Take Romeo, who is teased by his friends at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet for moping around and pining for someone who isn’t even interested in him. He believes himself to be in love, but he doesn’t really know what it is. Then he meets Juliet and – kapow! – he is no longer a self-indulgent boy.

He is also no longer unrequited. Great love stories are never one-sided; there may be spells of confusion and separation and alienation – in fact, there almost certainly will be – but ultimately, the lovers will find some kind of equilibrium, even if this is only possible when they have lost their lives (think Wuthering Heights). They might not start off as equals, at least not in society’s eyes, but they have to end up that way, from the reader’s point of view if not the world’s.

Sparring, rivals and secrets

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite love stories, and had such a big impact on me that it crept into my very first novel, which I wrote as a child, without me even realising it. My story featured a burning house and a first wife tucked away somewhere, and it ended with a wedding. (I hope it’s not a spoiler to note that the quote at the beginning of this post – ‘Reader, I married him’ – is Jane’s.)

the end of my first-ever novel
the end of my first novel

Jane is Rochester’s employee and his social inferior, but she is not about to let him get away with anything. This leads to a fair amount of sparring, which he seems to quite enjoy – they are clearly comfortable with each other – but a series of increasingly deadly threats rise up to force them apart. Jane has a love rival: the beautiful, wealthy and heartless Blanche Ingram. And then there is the madwoman in the attic, and the revelation that forces Jane to flee. Lovers do not keep secrets from each other; any attempt to keep the past locked away out of sight is an enemy to love.

cover of After I Left You

In After I Left You, my new novel, Anna last said goodbye to Victor, her university boyfriend, seventeen years ago, and she has never told him the full story of the chain of events that led to her decision to cut off all contact with him. Something has silenced her, and she has lived a kind of half-life ever since.

When they meet again, her old feelings for him begin to return; but if she is to seize her chance of happiness, she is going to have to make the leap of faith that is always part of love, overcome her fears, give up her secret and speak out. Where there’s love there’s hope, and in any love story there is the possibility of transformation, and a question to be answered: will they or won’t they come together in the end?

A version of this post first appeared on the Diana Verlag blog. Diana Verlag is the publisher of the German edition of After I Left You.

Und dann, eines Tages, the German edition of After I Left You
Cover © t. mutzenbach design, shutterstock

Why I love independent bookshops

Books are my bag! At Mostly Books in Abingdon
Books are my bag! At Mostly Books in Abingdon

Do you want to live in a bland, homogenous world where everybody listens to ‘Everything is Awesome’ as they drive into work in the morning?

No, me neither. I love shopping – or at least, I *want* to love it – and I love books. So it stands to reason that I love independent bookshops. They are uniquely good at making browsing and buying books as interesting and satisfying as it can be.

Book browsing is something that I’ve missed as a mother of small children, one of whom has autism and isn’t always great in shops, but now my children are a little older it’s a pleasure that I’m beginning to rediscover. A great independent bookshop draws its character from its owners and from the local community and its setting. It is part library, part haven, part portal to another world. You never quite know what you’re going to find, but the bookseller is on hand to act as your guide if you should want one.

I take my hat off to the people who run our independent bookshops. They’re the experts. They’re immensely knowledgeable, committed and enthusiastic about what they do. They have to be, to continue to thrive in a retail climate that does not always favour the high street. They do so much more than sell books; they reach out to local communities and beyond, and foster and support people’s love of books and reading.

IBW Bookshop Crawl
back at my desk with my Bookshop Crawl sticker on!

Today is IBW Bookshop Crawl day. I wanted to take part, but haven’t managed to venture beyond my hometown of Abingdon – I popped into Mostly Books and The Bookstore this morning. And here I am back at my desk with my Bookshop Crawl sticker on to prove it!

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been to a number of independent bookshops in my local area, popping in to talk to booksellers about my new novel, After I Left You, and, inevitably, coming out with a book or two for myself. If I could have gone to them all today I would have done! If you get the chance, I urge you to check out all these fantastic bookshops.

I also heartily recommend The Book House in Thame. And I haven’t made it to Books & Ink in Banbury yet, but hope to one day soon!

Happy Independent Booksellers’ Week one and all!

Bookshop Crawl Participated HIGH RES

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

the stressed-out reading list
from the stressed-out reading list…

A right hotch-potch, this: a former Spice Girl, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a titled historian, an academic, an experimental novelist and an Irish poet and playwright looking back on his time in Borstal. These are the people behind the books that have helped me through troubling times. I offer this list up to you in the spirit of a mixtape, in the hope that if you pass over one item, another may catch your eye and provide some much-needed distraction or solace when you are suffering from insomnia, anxiety or helpless waiting.

Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan I single this out for the catchy motto: ‘**** the begrudgers’. I find this sentiment helpful.

The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey This is one of my most treasured books. It’s a collection of eyewitness accounts of different moments in history. Chiefly, what comes across is how very uncomfortable it is being there when history is made… ‘May you live in uninteresting times…’ Reading it is a very good exercise in perspective. When I’ve been in a fix, or thought I was, I’ve sometimes found it helpful to be reminded how very much worse things could be.

The Assassin’s Cloak, a collection of diary extracts put together by Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor, is fascinating and restorative in the same way.

Demon Barber and Mostly Men by Lynn Barber You’ll go a long way to find better character studies than these volumes of Lynn Barber’s interviews. Excellent for late-night dipping.

The Weaker Vessel: Woman’s Lot in Seventeenth-Century England by Antonia Fraser I read this when I was in the late stages of pregnancy with my second child, sleeping badly and not much looking forward to giving birth. Worked in the same sort of way as The Faber Book of Reportage, in that it made me think, well – at least I’m here and now, rather than back then. Oh – and you know it’s sometimes implied that women back then, at a time of high infant mortality, were used to the idea of babies or children dying, and somehow became less attached to them, or were more hardened to the idea of losing them than we might be, or less distressed? Not so, according to this book. (Of course not. Why would they have been so different? We’re always closer to the past than we think.)

Remainder by Tom McCarthy I read this when I was staying in hospital with my son, who was three at the time, and suffering from a mysterious and virulent infection (turned out to be a ruptured appendix). It is a strange and strangely compelling book, and helped me to keep from going out of my mind with worry.

Learning to Fly by Victoria Beckham I read this alone in the waiting-room, late in the evening, while my son was having his appendix removed. His was the last surgery of the day and it took a long time. Posh Spice kept the time passing until I was told the operation was all done and had gone well, and I could go in and see him. Sometimes, when the dark is really closing in, you don’t feel like reading at all, and all you want is comfort. That’s when it’s time to watch old episodes of Friends…

Anyway, so there it is, a bit of an odd list! I’d love to know what other people like to read when they’re anxious and in need of distraction.

Women writers who changed my life, part II: teens to twenties

 

Books by Jean Rhys, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith and E. Annie Proulx
Books by Jean Rhys, Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith and E. Annie Proulx

These are the women writers who I discovered in the tricky years between my mid-teens and early twenties – tricky because that’s when you begin to figure out for real what kind of woman you are going to be, and also because, if you aspire to be a writer, you are simultaneously trying to work that one out too.

If you are headed for wifedom, will you be a capricious, dangerous Rebecca, or a good, quiet, jealous Mrs de Winter? Will you end up as an occasionally desired and ultimately abandoned Jean Rhys woman, whose prose is all discipline, lucidity and sensuous clarity while her life is a muddle of drink, lovers and poverty?

Or will you be a social butterfly spinster who chats brightly at parties and returns home resolutely alone, as one imagines the narrator of this Stevie Smith poem might do: ‘The nearly right/And yet not quite/In love is wholly evil…’? (The poem ends, ‘Take my advice/ Shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her.’) And if none of these options appeal… what then?

I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.

Daphne du Maurier. When I was fourteen or so and at my traditional all-girls’ school, which had turned out not to be as much like Malory Towers as I had hoped, we had to pick a book to tell the rest of the class about. I chose Rebecca. I knew it was impregnable; whatever my classmates might think of me, there was no way they could find fault with the book. It was just too compelling. Nowadays I think I might read it differently, with rather more sympathy for Rebecca, and a lot more impatience with Max.

Jamaica Inn also made a big impression, though I was unnerved by it too, and found it sinister – there’s a real sense of lurking menace and threat. Frenchman’s Creek was gentler and sunnier. I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.

Susan Howatch. Aged 16 or so, I loved Penmarric, Cashelmara and the rest – sagas of rich landed families and their love affairs and bitter rivalries, usually modelled on tracts of British royal history, told in a series of first person narratives so you got a taste of everybody’s point of view – both the men and the women.

So I tried writing my own family saga, which featured a country estate and, er, a series of first person narratives. It began with the point of view of the slightly hopeless Casanova heir of the estate-owning dynasty, who falls in love with rogue redhead Clara but fails to marry her. The opening line was this: ‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ The novel petered out and I never finished it, but hey – it was a start.

‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’

Then my English teacher gave me a reading list with things like the Mitfords on it. I stopped writing and started concentrating on trying to get into Oxford to study English, and didn’t really start trying to learn how to write again till ten years later.

Stevie Smith. She’s better known as a poet – ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ – but I loved Novel on Yellow Paper, with its chatty, discursive, distinctive first-person voice (‘I am a forward-looking girl and don’t stay where I am. ‘Left right, Be bright,’ … my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable.’) Over the Frontier, which was written in the late 30s and is partly set in Germany, is much darker and more ominous: you can feel the storm coming.

I read Novel on Yellow Paper at about the same time I read The Catcher in the Rye, and for the same reason; I’d taken to hanging out in the school library at lunchtime. One of the books I found there was a collection of Stevie Smith’s letters, which were terrific (there was one berating George Orwell for constantly telling small, irritating fibs that would make an angel weep – I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) That led me to seek out NYP for myself. Another school library find was The Catcher in the Rye: it was the perfect time and place to read it.

Jean Rhys writes anti-heroines, and that’s why I love her. Her women turn passivity into an art; they are sensitive to everything, they register everything, and yet they are incapable of taking charge of their own fates. Their only power is the ability to bear witness and give in. They are not good girls, or good women. They don’t know how to play the game, and don’t want to. They’d laugh at The Rules and go off and get crazy drunk and do something wild and helpless and stupid.

I was introduced to Jean Rhys by my mum, who bought me Wide Sargasso Sea because I loved Jane Eyre so much. In my early 20s I sought out the four earlier novels: Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight.

Oh, but they are good. They are so pared back. I admire Jean Rhys absolutely. I’m a little scared of her darkness and sadness, though. Could anybody else have written the gigolo scene at the end of Good Morning, Midnight? I think not.

Here’s how Jean Rhys saved my bacon: we were all advised to write an optional long essay, a kind of mini-dissertation, which would knock out our worst mark in our Finals papers. I did mine on Jean Rhys. I ended up staying up all night in the computer room to finish it, my view of the PC screen glazed with tears because I’d just had a big row with my boyfriend. But anyway, it turned out OK, and replaced my Shakespeare mark, which was truly awful. So – Jean Rhys, my champion!

E. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News was given to me by a friend who was also setting off for journalism school in the mid-90s, and it was a very apt present, because one of the things Quoyle, the hero, has to learn to do is how to write a good auto wreck story for the local paper.

I still have the page turned over at the part where someone tells Quoyle (who is a hapless gentle giant hero) that there are four kinds of women in every man’s heart: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman and the Tall and Quiet Woman. Seems like as good a summary of female character archetypes as any. I just found the page turned over for this paragraph, too:

Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?

I guess that sums up the dilemma that Anna Jones is trying to resolve in After I Left You… and what all of us are trying to find, in the end, when we look for love.

Women writers who changed my life, part I: Enid Blyton to Antonia White

Books by Jilly Cooper, Antonia White, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Stewart
Books by Jilly Cooper, Antonia White, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Stewart

This is a list from the heart and not the head. It’s an acknowledgement of the women writers who belong to my own personal canon and a whistle-stop tour of turning-points in my life as a reader.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager down the pub, I had a conversation with a boy who maintained that women couldn’t write fiction. He honestly believed that not a single woman had ever written a novel worth reading. (He liked Thomas Mann.) I failed to change his mind, but I know that if I’d missed out on any of the writers mentioned here, I’d have been the poorer for it.

Inevitably, a list such as this is full of omissions, but I have tried to include the writers who have taken me out of myself, who introduced me to new worlds and gave me new ways to see my own. As Winifred Holtby observes in South Riding – or her narrator does, or one of her characters – ‘We all take, we all give: this is what it means, to belong to a people.’ (I’m paraphrasing. I haven’t read it since I was 17 or so, and don’t own a copy – but as you can tell, it made an impression). Here are some of the women writers I have taken from, in more or less chronological order.

In spite of the omissions, the list is still rather long, so I’ve split it into three parts. To follow: Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith, Jean Rhys, E. Annie Proulx, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Claire Messud and Curtis Sittenfeld.

Enid Blyton's first Malory Towers book
Enid Blyton’s first Malory Towers book

Enid Blyton. For Malory Towers. I was gripped and shocked in equal measure by the scene in the first book in which Darrell pushes Sally over during a fight – she is plagued by guilt when Sally becomes seriously ill afterwards (naturally, Sally and Darrell become best of friends later on). Girls fighting – and then making up! Well – who said we were nice all the time?

I so wanted to go to Malory Towers. I was obsessed. I loved the idea of sitting at a desk rather than a table, and wearing a tunic, and the old-fashionedness of it all. (The red rooftops and Cornish rock pools sounded good too.) When I finally did go to a school that did all that traditional stuff, though, I didn’t love it anything like as much as the Enid Blyton version. Sometimes fiction really does have the edge over life.

Charlotte Brontë. For Jane Eyre, really, which I came across almost by accident. I was quite young (but precocious), visiting my step-grandmother, who had a beautiful flat in Bath with a big bookcase on the landing. When it was time to leave I was found perched on the chair next to the bookcase, completely absorbed in a fine old edition of Jane Eyre – the kind with a frontispiece and pages of tissue paper to protect the illustrations.

The Gateshead and Lowood sections hooked me in – I was into school stories, but Miss Scatcherd/Miss Temple/Mr Brocklehurst/Helen Burns were something else. There’s nothing quite like injustice to pull you into a narrative – and for a child, the figure of the unfair teacher is an especially potent one. The death of Helen Burns was almost certainly the first death I had ever come across in fiction. I still think it is one of the most devastating.

But the whole book sank in deep. Jane is so testy with Rochester, so assertive of her equality. I love the scene where she upbraids him for dressing up as a gypsy and trying to trick everybody, and the survivalist bit where she wanders the moors after fleeing her own wedding,and is reduced to begging for pigswill. (When I read about Katniss struggling to find water in The Hunger Games, I thought of Jane.)

And so my very first attempt at writing a novel was a homage, though I didn’t realise this at the time. The climax featured a dangerous woman setting fire to a house and dying in the blaze. Having got shot of her, at The End there was a wedding.

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Jilly Cooper. I learned a lot from Jilly. For example: that if you go on a boat holiday, someone else will use up all the water and you won’t be able to wash your hair. Also: that animals can be better companions than people. And: a true hero will see your gorgeousness even if it’s not apparent to you, and even if he doesn’t always make it obvious that he likes you. (There are bound to be a few crossed wires and mismatches, and also, some adventurous or disastrous wardrobe choices. And sex. ‘You know how some men maul you for years and nothing happens, and then someone touches you and it’s as if a thousand volts just went through you?’ I’m paraphrasing and I can’t remember which book it’s from, but there it is: the weirdness of chemistry.)

Mary Stewart. There was the trilogy about Merlin, and lots of romances, almost invariably in exotic overseas locations. They were vividly written, escapist and seasoned with literary references. My Brother Michael, which is set in Greece and dotted with quotes from the classics, opens with the heroine sitting in a cafe and writing: Nothing ever happens to me. What better invitation for adventure could there be?

Antonia White. Four brilliant novels: Frost in May, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass. The convent (and the cutting of the novice’s hair), the retreat (the heroine cannot bring herself to write anything about Hell), Les Fleurs du Mal, the consequences of her novel about sinners coming to light, the difficult mother (‘A mother goes down to the gates of Hell for her child’), the father who makes a pass at her friend, the unconsummated marriage, the Chelsea artist who attempts to paint and seduce her, the insanity, Clive, the Hail Marys, the rosary at the end… If you haven’t read them… just do. They were televised in the early 80s, and I read them sometime after that. Trivia fact: Patsy Kensit played Nanda and is pictured on the cover of the paperback I have.

the whole place if not the world

My year of reading: favourite books of 2013

favourite books of 2013
My year in reading: favourite books of 2013

Revenge, injustice, unreliable narrators, psychic powers, power in hands that are good or bad or hapless or downright sadistic; not being able to remember how you got where you are, not being able to find a man because none of them can cope with your son, and having the chance to live your life over and over again. My 2013 has been filled with good books, and as it’s the season of lists and round-ups, I thought I’d return to some of them here.

This isn’t an exhaustive or particularly scientific list and I’m sure that as soon as I’m done I’ll be troubled by what I’ve left out, but over the past year these books have kept me gripped, made me smile, taken me out of myself, shown me the world as I never thought to see it before, and kept me up turning the pages because I just have to see what happens next…

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. Oh! What a weepie. Beautiful, lyrical, elemental, epic. I believe it’s being filmed. A thing of beauty with a small and much-beloved child at its heart.

The Mistress’s Revenge by Tamar Cohen. This was the year I was introduced to the concept of ‘domestic gothic’, which I guess you could argue this and the next four books belong to. Home life isn’t all cupcakes and Mr Right; in this twisty tale of a woman scorned, it’s all about Mr Wrong. Darkly funny, acidic and obsessive, and one for anybody who’s ever been bitter or angry about the end of a relationship.

The Playdate by Louise Millar. How well do you really know your friends and neighbours? A paranoid glimpse of what can happen if those close to you aren’t as benign as you assume. The central character is a single mum trying to get back to work, with a really infuriating ex and a vulnerable child. If you’ve ever had to run to make the pick-up, you’ll find plenty here that’s familiar as well as a few of your worst fears.

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly. So your friend’s child was meant to come to yours for a sleepover… and you forgot, and now she has disappeared. An edgy drama with a heroine who is warm but not always wise, played out against the backdrop of a small community in Cumbria. Expect some jaw-dropping surprises – including a startlingly excruciating dinner party scene – and plenty of menace.

Sworn Secret by Amanda Jennings. A dead teenage girl had a secret – and uncovering it will take her grieving family to the edge in this intense and suspenseful tale of the aftermath of loss. The vulnerability of adolescence is in the spotlight as her sister discovers love for the first time and struggles to make sense of the past. Who can she really trust, and who knows more than they are telling? The family’s ordeal is far from over, and as long as the truth is in doubt, it can’t be the right time to let go.

Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson. The heroine looks in the mirror and sees a middle-aged woman; where did all those years go? She can’t remember, because she forgets each day as soon as she sleeps… unless she writes it down. Can she trust the husband who seems to care for her so patiently? Includes one of the most unsettling sex scenes I’ve ever read.

Books Are My Bag
Outside Mostly Books in Abingdon. Books Are My Bag!

This Boy by Alan Johnson. I’m not one for political autobiographies – but this isn’t at all the kind of book you would expect a politician to write. It’s really a story about women – in particular a mother struggling in a rotten marriage, doing her best to survive, and her resourceful teenage daughter, who later manages to keep herself and her brother out of care.  It’s a tribute to women’s staunchness and resilience in the face of the odds, and a glimpse of a London of another time.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. She is such a good writer. This is one that will keep you on your toes – and up late. The prose is lucid, the people are opaque, and there is no predicting what may be revealed next.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. Twin psychics with very different attitudes to their shared gift. When there are intimations of an earthquake, are they right? A deliciously observed character study of two very different women who just can’t escape their interconnected fates (but can anyone?)

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant study of the aftermath of a brutal crime on a Native American reservation, exploring what happens when justice loses its way on the border between cultures. Evocative and beautifully written.

The Boy Who Fell to Earth by Kathy Lette. Hats off to Kathy Lette for writing a funny, romantic, truthful novel about a single mum who is looking for love, struggling with an awful ex and trying to do her best for her son, who has autism and can’t help but tell her suitors what she really thinks of them.

Anything by George R R Martin. You know nothing, Jon Snow… I’m down to the last couple of hundred pages of the most recent book in the series. I’ll be bereft when I’ve finished. A monumental (and sometimes brutally gory) work of fiction, with a terrific cast of characters. A fully realised world that has plenty of parallels in the history and geography of our own.

The Lessons by Naomi Alderman. Begins with a louty food fight, but will it end with redemption? They say you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, but sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. An Oxford novel that definitely does not romanticise the dreaming spires.

Harriet by Jilly Cooper. My editor suggested I read this when I was working on After I Left You. It starts with an Oxford student whose randy tutor gets her to write an essay on which Shakespeare character would be best in bed. (You’d want to give Hamlet a miss, but Mercutio would be fun for a fling, or perhaps Benedict for a keeper?) After that I read Riders and Polo in quick succession. Robust, naughty fun.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell. Sensuous and sensitive character study of an unravelled family drawn back together by a mysterious disappearance, against a background of simmering heat.

Small Talk by Nicola Lathey and Tracey Blake. Nicola is a brilliant speech therapist who has done lots of great work with my son, who has autism. This is a practical guide on how to help children learn how to communicate. A really useful parenting book, with expert tips presented in a friendly, accessible way.

The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, with an introduction by David Mitchell. Just beautiful. The world seen through the eyes of a boy with autism and translated back to us. Listen: ‘Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travellers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.’

The Reason I Jump
The Reason I Jump

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Deserves to be showered with prizes. Elusive, stark, sharply observed, compelling tale of life, death and chances that are never quite missed, and keep coming around again.

So – what am I looking forward to in 2014? Well – by and by I will read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs and Susie Steiner’s Homecoming. I’m also looking forward to Alison Jameson’s Little Beauty, Sarra Manning’s It Felt Like a KissThe Best Thing That Never Happened To Me by Jimmy Rice and Laura Tait, In Her Shadow by Louise Douglas, Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing and Tamar Cohen’s The War of the Wives. And I have to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes; I bought it as a present for someone and after she’d read it she went straight off to the library to hunt for more.

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I love a bit of Victoriana – see the above illustration from my first ever novel for proof! So I’m keen to get started on Victorian crime mystery Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, described in The Scotsman as ‘fine, extravagant and thoroughly enjoyable’. It’s by William Sutton, who was a couple of years ahead of me at university.

Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square

Plus my friend Neel Mukherjee has a new book out in the spring, The Lives of Others, which I know is going to be brilliant. Here is the cover. Gorgeous!

The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee
The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee

The Brixton bomb and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

I was on my way towards the centre of Brixton when the bomb went off. At first I had no idea what it was. I have no recollection of hearing an explosion. What I remember is the helicopter that almost immediately appeared above the rooftops of Brixton Road.  It was early evening and the sky was tinged with red; the helicopter whirred and hovered, watching, waiting. It looked apocalyptic. It looked like a scene from a war film, and therefore it was also weirdly familiar, like a déjà vu, and I carried on walking towards it.

When the bomb went off I was just approaching the junction with Coldharbour Lane. I was on my way to Brixton Rec for a swim; my route ran right through the blast, and if I’d been a few minutes earlier, I would almost certainly have crossed over and walked into it.

But by the time I approached the carnage there was already glass scattered all across the pavement. I think I remember a double-decker that had ground to a halt, its windows blown out. It’s always a busy thoroughfare, but the traffic had come to a standstill and many people on my side of the road were standing and looking around, dazed and uncertain.

I still didn’t understand what had happened. I thought perhaps a gas explosion? It didn’t occur to me that this might have been deliberate. This was before 9/11, before 7/7; more longstanding Londoners would have remembered IRA attacks, but I did not. This was 1999, and my experience of the city had been peaceful.

When I looked across to the opposite side of the road I was horrified to glimpse someone lying on the pavement, clearly seriously injured, being attended to by somebody else. A man sprinted past me, heading away from the destruction back towards Brixton Hill, where I had come from. He shouted out that it had been a bomb, that we were fools, that we should all get away. For a moment I thought this was farfetched. Then I realised it was not. It seemed to have taken a very long time (though it was probably mere minutes) but the emergency services began to cordon the area off. Somebody was in charge again.

I turned round and began to retrace my steps, heading back towards home. All the way along Brixton Hill people were coming out of shops and cafés, asking what had happened, telling what they knew. Numbers of the injured were mentioned. People were shocked, disbelieving, matter-of-fact. I have never in my life been in any other situation in which every single stranger around me was talking so intently and so urgently about the same thing.

Back home, I turned on the news. The terrible details of the suffering that had been inflicted became clearer, and I began to realise what I had escaped. Later I went out and got good and drunk at my friends’ house round the corner, and I think lots of others did the same; I heard that there was a mood of bravado in the clubs and pubs of Brixton that night.

Sometime in the next few days I saw an image from that evening that has stayed with me, as it must have done for many: the x-ray of the head of a 23-month-old baby injured in the blast. A nail from the bomb had penetrated the child’s skull, lodging in the brain.

I thought of the Brixton bomb when I read Kate Atkinson’s excellent novel Life After Life earlier this year. The heroine experiences her life over and over again, cut short by different combinations of incident and coincidence and reaction. It’s a salutary reminder of how close we often come to danger, and how much of the time we may not even be aware of what we have escaped.

Life After Life made me think of another experience too − not my own, one that was related to me by a friend. One night this friend was out driving with his girlfriend somewhere rural in the US; they came to a level crossing that had no barriers, and only just managed to stop before a train thundered past.

After the train had gone and everything was still and quiet again one of them turned to the other and said, ‘Did you feel that?’ – meaning, did you feel that near-miss, near-impact, that sudden, terrifying proximity to disaster? It was shared between them as intensely as a secret, almost impossible to convey to anyone who hadn’t been sitting in the car at that particular time and place.

This is what Life After Life does. It is a history-melding litany of deaths and rebirths. The heroine goes under time and time again, slipping into darkness, but she always comes back, and the next time it is a little different and there is another ending, and another beginning.

Peril is never far away, but then, that’s how it is for us, too. We are so often just a hair’s breadth from the end; sometimes, we can feel it.

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland and the writer as psychic

Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead
On my desk right now: Sisterland and Negotiating with the Dead

I got into Curtis Sittenfeld because of the cover of American Wife, which featured a nostalgic photograph of a hopeful woman in a skirt, on a bike, against a backdrop of some arable crop – it could be corn, or maybe wheat – and sky. It made me think of Dorothy in Kansas, but all grown up and without the gaudy technicolour magic. I kept seeing that picture in the supermarket until I bought the book.

After that I read Curtis Sittenfeld’s first and second novels, and then I was left waiting for her next, which turned out to be Sisterland, which the postman handed over to me last week, as part of a parcel of books from my publisher. (Thank you Harriet.) I finished Sisterland last night and, as I expected, I loved it.

Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, Sisterland is ostensibly about a story about a unique, even bizarre, situation but also, as if by sleight of hand – or, perhaps, in the shadowy room for manoeuvre created by a really strong hook – deals with something else. So American Wife answers the question, What is it like to be married to the President? And: What kind of woman ends up married to the President? But at the same time it tackles a number of other questions, which I can’t explicitly reveal without spoiling the book for you if you haven’t read it (in which case, get thee hence and tuck in), but which can be summarised as: what if you make a life-wrecking mistake when you are young? Can you recover, and if you do, will it still catch up with you anyway?

In Sisterland, the overt question – the narrative hook – is this: a psychic predicts a major earthquake. Is she right? Is it possible to accurately predict the future? But underlying that – at least, the way I read it – is another dilemma, and this is a much more universal one: is it possible to be feminine, a wife and mother, and also to use your gifts and be free? And if you have a gift and decide not to use it, what happens to you then?

Slippery doubles, twinship and writing

Sisterland sent me back to one of my favourite books about writing, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead, which talks at some length about the use of doubles in fiction, and why writers are so preoccupied by them. (Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is largely about a fraught relationship between sisters – and Curtis Sittenfeld’s The Man of my Dreams also explores this. But to take it further, to make the sisters twins and psychic to boot, makes it ever more apparent that you are dealing with two mutations of one self.)

There’s a passage in Negotiating with the Dead where Margaret Atwood draws a distinction between ‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.’

She goes on to say, ‘I am after all a writer, so it would follow as the day the night that I must have a slippery double – or at best a mildly dysfunctional one – stashed away somewhere. I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person – the one credited with authorship – is certainly not me. She could never be imagined – for instance – turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread, whereas I . . . but that’s another story.’

The twins, or slippery doubles, in Sisterland are Daisy and Violet Schramm, except when Daisy leaves home she decides she wants to distance herself from Violet (and, by implication, from her true self), and changes her name. Marriage helps, and when we meet her, at the beginning of the novel, she has become the altogether less distinctive Kate Tucker, who, as Vi points out, sounds like a Puritan.

Kate/Daisy begins to move away from Vi as an adolescent because they put on a show together and she plays the feminine role, and is afterwards praised for her prettiness. Popularity and acceptability beckon. She doesn’t want to be weird, and she certainly doesn’t want to be like Vi, one of whose gifts is a robust indifference to what other people think. (Also, Vi is overweight, whereas Kate/Daisy is meticulous about hitting the Stairmaster.)

And so Kate/Daisy ends up as a full-time wife and mother who has done her best to abandon her psychic abilities (but has she managed to destroy them entirely? Not quite, as you’ll see – gifts have a way of passing themselves on), a woman who is dangerously flattered, at a crucial point in the novel, when someone tells her how pretty and nice she is. Meanwhile Vi lurches towards celebrity, or notoriety, with her very public earthquake prediction – much to Kate’s embarrassment and fear.

It turns out that writing about psychics is a neat way to allude to the business of writing itself. Writers intuit what might happen to characters as the story goes on, though they don’t know for sure until it happens – and Kate and Vi are in much the same awkward and uncertain position. It made me smile when Vi, having achieved some success as a psychic (though, as it turns out, only with Kate/Daisy’s help), is able to make a living out of her gift, having previously struggled along as a waitress; some of the members of her old meditation group, who have not been quite so lucky commercially, are rather jealous of her. (I was wondering if something similar might happen if one member of a writing group found herself in a position to make the writing pay for itself.)

The art of making it real

Sisterland is unsettling, and creepy and funny and melancholy, and pulls off the coup of being both startling and believable. When I read, I want to be introduced to a new world and recognise it as true, while at the same time knowing that I’m being shown people and places that I’ve never seen before; Curtis Sittenfeld has the requisite twin gifts of truthfulness and originality in abundance, which is why she is one of my favourite discoveries of recent years.

Within the first few pages of American Wife I realised I’d found a new writer that I really liked, which is one of the great pleasures of reading. The best consolation for coming to the end of a book you love is knowing that there are others by the same author that you can go on to; and reading a number of different books by the same writer helps to confirm your sense of what is unique about them, and what attracted you to them in the first place.

It’s like getting to know someone by seeing them over time, dealing with different situations and environments; you can satisfy your curiosity about what this person has done in the past, and if the writer is still going strong, you’ll be eager to find out where they’re going next.

For me, and I suspect for most of us, this doesn’t happen all that often – this finding a book you really like, and chasing up the writer’s backlist. Back in the 1990s, it was William Gibson (starting with Neuromancer ), Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin), Raymond Carver (the collected short stories),  James Ellroy (LA Confidential), Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea), Jayne Anne Phillips (Fast Lanes), and Joyce Carol Oates (Blonde). Those are all terrific books, and if you haven’t read them, I urge you to at least look them up – maybe you’ll get hooked on those writers the way I did.

More recently, there’s been Claire Messud (The Emperors’ Children), George R R Martin (Game of Thrones) and, of course, Curtis Sittenfeld. I guess you might deduce from this list that, on the whole, I love genre fiction and women’s fiction (or rather, fiction by and largely about women), and my heart is unstirred by much else, and you’d probably be about right. Why exactly it should be so I don’t know. What exactly it is that gets me hooked I don’t know. Sympathy for the underdog might be part of it, but only part; I suspect I also respond to writers who let their underdogs bite back.

The two types of love story and After I Left You

love
Aphrodite, by my daughter


Here’s a narrative rule about love stories (but rules are made to be broken) – they usually work in one of two ways:

1.)    The romance. Boy meets girl, or man meets woman, but they are separated by apparently insurmountable obstacles: pride and prejudice, for example, or social inequality and a mad wife in the attic. Eventually the obstacles are overcome and the couple are united. Jane Eyre is my favourite example of this kind of story – it’s my Ur-romance, the one I read first.

2.)    Is the inverse of 1.) The couple come together some time before the end, and the drive of the story, as it turns out, is towards separation, as insurmountable obstacles come between the lovers and force them apart.

It can be (should be?) hard to tell which kind of story you’re reading till the very last page. Both use your uncertainty and doubt, and the suspense that creates, to hook you in and pull you through. Will they or won’t they?

My second novel, After I Left You, uses two timelines to give the same two people two different love stories. In the present, they meet long after the end of their relationship; many years earlier, they encounter each other for the first time. It’s not will they or won’t they, so much as: why can’t she (or shouldn’t she)? It’s not due to be published till January 2014, though, so if that’s piqued your curiosity, there’s a bit longer to wait to see how it turns out in the end.

Love and un-love, from Casablanca to Gone Girl

I have been told that readers, and viewers, like conclusive endings, and I think that is true, but some stories make a virtue out of uncertainty. Gone with the Wind is an obvious example: will-they-or-won’t-they remains as a final hope, a grace note, conferring a tentative immortality on the sparring lovers by raising the possibility that they may one day rebound together yet again.

Here are some other classic films that fall into the second type (where the lovers fall apart rather than together):

  1. Casablanca. Here the obstacle is War, the epic backdrop against which the troubles of three people don’t amount to more than a hill of beans. But as far as we’re concerned, of course, the individuals are epic, and the war is reduced to a horizon line, its details smoothed and miniaturised by distance.
  2. Brief Encounter. Surely one of the most heartbreaking of love stories. Here the lovers are up against not just society and its values, but also their own morality – the imperative to be good and sad rather than bad and briefly, selfishly happy. I agree wholeheartedly with Zadie Smith’s assertion, in a review published in her essay collection Changing My Mind, about what makes this film so distinctively English: when the couple decide they must part, most of their agonising final encounter is given over to politely passing the time of day with a busybody acquaintance. There really is no escaping other people.
  3. Love Story. Girl meets boy, they fall in love; then she gets sick. There is nothing like definitive loss to define what has been lost.

Every love story needs opposition – whether it’s war, ill health, other people, death – to tell us what love is. But love can be so mixed up with un-love (separation, isolation, anger, fear) that it is difficult to tell them apart. Gone Girl (which might more accurately be called a hate story than a love story) gets plenty of mileage out of our instinctive understanding of this: what possibilities lurk in the un-love we might prefer not to acknowledge?

When I studied Romeo and Juliet at school, our teacher pointed out how shrewd Shakespeare was to introduce a Romeo who professed to be in love with some other random girl, and was teased by his friends for being pathetic about it. When Juliet comes along we are in no doubt that this is suddenly the real thing. It’s mutual, for a start. It’s eloquent (it speaks in sonnets). The lovers are inspired, and transformed… but the odds are stacked up against them, in direct proportion to the strength of their feelings.

A blood feud is certainly an unpromising beginning to in-law relations. Not to mention the dawn that brings the lark and not the nightingale, the charm that works all too well, the message that fails to meet its destination, and, ultimately, mortality, the conclusion that waits to sever all lovers in the end (though in art at least, even that can be overcome).

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is a brilliantly concise, and oblique, answer to the questions that all love stories ask: what is love, really, and how do we know when it’s real?  The story introduces two couples, who are going to discuss the subject for us by invoking the stories of other couples, all the while knocking back stacks of booze.

First up is Terri, who is, as her husband Mel says, a romantic ‘of the kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school’. Terri describes an ex who beat her up one night: ‘He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, I love you, I love you, you bitch… what do you do with love like that?’ Terri is convinced this was love – ‘he was willing to die for it. He did die for it,’ but Mel is not so sure: ‘I’m not interested in that kind of love… If that’s love, you can have it.’

So then it’s Mel’s chance to have his say. What does he talk about when he talks about love? Well – I urge you to read the whole story to find out (it’s only 13 pages long), but here’s a taster: ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it… But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did. I know I did… How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone would tell me.’

Also, if you haven’t yet, read (or re-read) James Joyce’s short story The Dead, about another lost love. See where it ends. See where the promise of love can take you. And see if the hairs don’t stand up on the back of your neck.

Five rules for writing an Oxford novel

Ox skylineLabels can be pretty annoying – I’m sure there’s many a female author who grits her teeth when she hears her fiction described as ‘chick lit’, or is simply perplexed, as I would be if anyone referred to me as a chick. (Chicks are young, cute, vulnerable and clueless, right? I guess any of us might fit the bill on the last two counts, but as for young and cute, well, now I’m 39 I think that boat has sailed.)

But… labels are also jolly useful; and perhaps we only really chafe under them when we begin to feel that they diminish rather than strengthen our appeal. And now that I’ve written one, I’m beginning to realise that the description ‘Oxford novel’ is rather handy.

In my last blog post, I explained that I didn’t originally intend to set my forthcoming novel, After I Left You, in Oxford at all… but that’s where it ended up, albeit a lightly fictionalised Oxford, just to stop ye olde dreaming spires from taking over and trying to make it all about them.

Here are five rules that all those who write about Oxford students are likely to find themselves up against, whether they choose to comply or not.

1. Thou shalt have read Brideshead Revisited, and Evelyn Waugh’s novel will engender more Anxiety of Influence than Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, though you’ll have that somewhere in the back of your mind as well.

You will also, more problematically, have vague memories of Antony Andrews and Jeremy Irons looking fetchingly pouty in cricket whites in the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. Which is still blooming brilliant if you catch an episode now, btw. Even after the great Age of the DVD Box-Set, and The Wire and Six Feet Under and Battlestar Galactica and everything.

Because they did make great telly back in the olden days, though not all the time, as you will realise if you ever catch any of old Poldark.

2. Thou shalt find thyself tackling at least some of the subject matter that the mention of Brideshead Revisited evokes.

In no particular order: youth vs experience, privilege, aristocracy, searching for a home and finding it and losing it, drunkenness, alcoholism, addiction, religion, sex, sexuality, the backwards glance, what the passing of time does to people, betrayal, friendship, responsibility for a friend who is self-destructive, love, art, and what it takes to make or recognise good or bad art, and to find the good and bad in both oneself and the people one loves.

What’s that you say? Oxford possibly can’t lay claim to all that territory for itself, because, come on, zillions of novels from all over the world touch on those themes? Quite so. The Oxford novel must always be more novel than Oxford. Otherwise it’s just a tour guide.

A Life Apart by Neel Mukherjee is not an Oxford novel, but a novel about India and England with some early chapters set in Oxford, which it captures brilliantly. This is an Oxford of hit-and-miss socialising, institutional toad-in-the-hole, cold, rain, and cottaging at St Giles’. It is also where Ritwik, the Indian student who has come to Oxford after the funeral of his parents, begins to write his novel, and it is in words, as much as with anyone or in any place, that Ritwik finds fleeting comfort.

‘At the lit display window of Blackwells, a shy, uncertain Mary looks down from her home in the shiny open pages of a luxury art book at some unspecified spot near his feet.’ Mary-in-the-book looks as if she has just finished ‘doling out some grace’; but if so, where has it gone? Ritwik, who has just used a helpline to confess a terror from his past, ‘almost looks around him to see if it is still dispersed in the restless air.’

3.       Thou shalt feature a home, maybe stately, maybe run-down, which the protagonist gains access to because of Oxford. (The stay is not quite free, but the true cost may be unclear.)

 Brideshead’s wartime neglect and decline frames Brideshead Revisited and it is a visit to the house that tugs Charles from the present back into the past. ‘I have been here before…’

Nick Guest (and of course he is a guest) feels he can appreciate the beautiful things in the Feddens’ plushy place in Notting Hill rather better than they can – and I think of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty every time I catch the Oxford tube, and pass those white stucco-fronted houses with their secret gardens. (I’m including The Line of Beauty here as a post-Oxford novel that elides the student bit.)

Naomi Alderman’s The Lessons casts a less than flattering light on the posh and their property, suggesting that people are likely to be as careless with their belongings as they can afford to be. Mark is absolutely loaded, and uses his money to buy himself friends (though he likes to keep them a little bit insecure, too, and deploys sex to help with that). However, the Oxford house that he installs them in is rather grubby and unloved and unappealing. Also, the object d’art that comes James’s way because of Mark, the music box, is a rather hideous thing that no-one really seems to want. Mark’s flaws, and the effect he has on others, suggest that wealth may have a corrupting effect, quite possibly on a person’s good taste as well as the capacity for other kinds of judgement.

Mark’s funds are limitless, and prone to being wasted, as the brilliant opening scene, with a spoilt feast sinking in the swimming-pool of an Italian villa, makes clear. In Brideshead Revisited, by way of contrast, Rex Mottram points out that the Flytes are much less well-off than they appear, and are heading towards financial disaster – though in their different ways Cordelia, Sebastian and Julia all appear to be willing to renounce their riches.

‘Creamy English charm’… and the lack of it

In The Lessons, though his apparent generosity helps, it is Mark’s self-destructiveness that is his most seductive characteristic. He is in many ways a bit of a git, and knows it. From the yobby food-throwing opening onwards, he is generally lacking in the ‘creamy English charm’ that Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited tells us Charles Ryder’s paintings convey, even when Charles attempts to ‘play tigers’. (Charles agrees.)

Blanche describes charm as ‘the great English blight’. Nick Guest has creamy English charm in abundance, but in the end it is not enough to save him.

NB: where would British fiction be, without its great houses? What would Darcy be, without Pemberley? Or Rochester, without Thornfield? Which has to be razed to the ground before Jane can meet him as an equal.

That’s the problem with the property of the wealthy. The act of visiting may close the gap, and marriage can establish the right to remain, but even that falls short of the entitlement bestowed by inheritance.

Ownership can be undone, though. Rebecca does pretty much force the de Winters into exile from Manderley. Popular fiction can be enticingly subversive in fulfilling the fantasy of taking over from the old guard; take, for example, Barbara Taylor Bradford’s A Woman of Substance, in which Emma Harte eventually gets her own back on the Fairley Hall lot after her time in service there ends in her apparent ruin.

4.       Thou shalt also have read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

This demonically clever novel is a very different beast to Brideshead Revisited, though in some ways they are flip sides of the same coin.

Now, if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers, and you’ve never read Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, or Antonia White’s novels Frost in May and Beyond the Glass, you’re going to need to skip the rest of this, because I’m going to talk about endings.

The Secret History is, to me, a truly terrifying novel, a horror story almost, that ends on a note of damnation rather than redemption. Its conclusion reminds me of the end of the film of Carrie, when Carrie’s dead hand reaches up from the grave to grab the penitent, remorseful schoolmate who has survived her.

And yet, how could the narrator of The Secret History have possibly avoided arriving at his final bleak vision? His loyalty is with the lost. His life has been saved – who could forget the scene in which he nearly freezes to death over the course of the university vacation? – but who has he really been saved by, and what for, and at what cost?

The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited is the inverse of this, a glimmer of salvation rather than a glimpse of hell. Brideshead Revisited strikes me as being at least as much a Catholic novel as an Oxford one – but does anyone talk about Catholic novels any more? Perhaps it is a label that has fallen into disuse, if it was ever much used in the first place.

5.       Thou shalt consider redemption, though it is bound to be, at best, ambiguous.

In Brideshead Revisited, God is going to get you in the end whether you want Him to or not, however much you resist, and Charles, the narrator, does resist, as far as he possibly can, but in the end, it’s no use.

The conclusion, when Charles Ryder reflects on the lamp burning in the chapel – ‘it could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians’ – is despairing and sardonic and redemptive in quick succession, and ultimately, I think, cathartic; it certainly lingers in my memory just as much as Sebastian Flyte’s throwing up and teddy bear, and eventual strange fate. And I say that as someone who is not in the least devout, and who likes lighting candles in churches very much and does so rather superstitiously, but has not actually been to church, apart from on obligatory school visits, for a very long time.

Also, who could forget devout Cordelia fretting about her vocation, the deathbed scene of Lord Marchmain, Julia’s decision not to go with Charles, Sebastian with the monks? (NB – Cordelia is thrown out of her convent school for something she is writing, and the heroine of Frost in May suffers a similar fate for a story about a lurid bunch of sinners, though of course her intent in making them so lurid is only to make their eventual repentance the more powerful.)

Brideshead Revisited is a novel in which the religious faith of the characters shapes what they do, and what they choose to deny themselves. When Charles says to Sebastian that Catholics seem ‘just like other people’, Sebastian says, ‘My dear Charles, that’s exactly what they’re not – particularly in this country, where they’re so few.’

The rosary in the hand and the man in the mirror

So, Catholicism is written through Brideshead Revisited like Brighton through a stick of rock… and yet it manifests itself as a source of mysterious comfort as well as playing a part in Charles Ryder’s heartbreak. The conclusion of Brideshead Revisited reminds me of Clara Batchelor at the end of Antonia White’s Beyond the Glass, turning away from the darkness because of the rosary in her hand; faith is something to live for, a reason to carry on when it seems all else has been lost. (That is a heartbreaking novel, too.)

It is a very different matter in The Lessons, where Catholicism is associated with Mark’s mother’s rejection and attempted repression of his sexuality, and with the expectation of suffering. James is not in the least drawn to Mark’s faith, and concludes that there is ‘only one subject on which life’s lessons are in any way informative’ – the ‘man in the mirror’.

So who is the man in the mirror? At the end of The Lessons, James is free to be who? What? He hardly knows, although he has decided what he is not willing to be. Like Paul at the end of D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, it is in moving away from the past, alone, unmoored and insubstantial as a ghost, that he is finally able to save himself.