Tag Archives: Simon Mawer

a whole pile of books

I have been reading a lot since the bad weather started and three books were literally un-put-downable, such that I was still reading at 3AM. Which is fine, but I realise rather indulgent.

The Collector

So for the serious one first. The Collector is a translated recollection (in a very real sense) of the life and collections of a Russian family called Shchukin, but particularly Sergei Shchukin, by Natalya Semenova and André Delocque, translated by Antony Roberts.

The Shchukin family were immensely wealthy Russians, they had a near monopoly on fabric manufacture, and interior fabric items such as curtains, bed linen and bed covers and other designer accoutrements of the bourgeoisie.

There were several brothers who collected: Petr whose interest was mainly in Russian artefacts of all sorts, a John Soane of Russia you could say; Ivan, who collected paintings and Sergei who collected specifically French Impressionists.

André Delocque is Sergei’s grandson and helped with the material and research. Sergei was a man of extraordinary vision, buying paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Whistler, Puvis de Chavannes, Cottet, and a great many more. Sergei went regularly to Paris and met most of these painters, particularly Matisse and Picasso, whose pictures he bought long before either of them were famous.

Even before the Revolution in Russia, this outstanding collection was willed to the people of Russia together with the impressive Trubetskoy Palace, Moscow, for which many of the paintings by Matisse were commissioned and in which they were housed.

This I followed with a wonderful new historical novel by Victoria Glendinning about a group of nuns in Shaftesbury Abbey in 1535, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The Abbess was confident that such an Abbey would not be targeted, she was Dame Elizabeth Zouche and had influence in high places. How wrong can one be?

The main character, Agnes Peppin, has been sent to the Abbey by her parents because she fell pregnant. Obviously, unmarried and now spoiled, her only recourse was to take holy vows. Actually, this never was fulfilled as the Abbey was destroyed, stone by stone before her novitiate was completed.

So she was out in the world again. But her life, and her observations, since this is a first person narrative, give us a very complete insight into the gentle, and not so gentle life of a community, followed by its exceedingly painful exodus. More painful for the elderly nuns and for the Abbess herself.


It is both a gripping look at the times and an affecting story of the strong and the weak, and the powerless. Agnes lives to see Thomas Cromwell executed, Henry VIII dead and her own lover, Thomas Wyatt (son of the poet) imprisoned and executed.

This reminded me very strongly of HMF Prescott’s A Man on a Donkey, but The Butcher’s Daughter is much more concentrated than this older novel, though the earlier book remains one of my favorite historical novels of all time.

The other three by Simon Mawer, AN Wilson and Louis de Bernières were all of a completely different sort. And these were the ones that I read through at one sitting each.

So Much Life Left Over has characters that appeared in a previous novel, The Dust That Falls from Dreams; though cleverly it is a stand-alone novel and not having read the previous book would not detract in any way from this emotionally taxing story. In fact, my tears streamed through the first three chapters and then the last three, but that says more about me than maybe anything about the book.

Rosie and Daniel have moved to Ceylon with their daughter Esther to start a new life after the horrors of World War I, in which Rosie had been a VAD and Daniel a fighter pilot. Daniel loves everything about the life they lead there, but Rosie finds herself increasingly bored and dissatisfied, a personal loss which has affected them both drives a wedge between them, and eventually Rosie insists that they return to England.

This is a love story as much as anything, but also has humour and beauty; the characters of Rosie’s family in particular are uniquely individual and unusual; her mad mother and strangely peripatetic, golf-loving father; her sisters and their wonderful partners and then Daniel and his friends. It is all captivating and brutally sad, as the end comes as World War II starts in all its forbidding darkness.

Prague Spring has one of those giveaway titles that tells you where you are and when. Two rather feckless university students decide to hitch-hike around Europe together in the long vac of 1968; but lacking a definite destination and due to a lot of arguing and finally, decisions made at the toss of a coin, they end up in Dubček’s Prague.

Having got through the Czechoslovakian border, they are trudging along the road hoping for a lift, when the diplomatic car of the First Secretary to the British Embassy draws up. Simon Wareham, with his girlfriend Lenka, have returned from a visit to Munich and thus accommodated they all arrive in Prague.

Lenka is living, unofficially, with Simon in his embassy flat so Ellie and James go to live in her apartment. And so there they all are, with the nemesis of the Czechoslovakian dream hovering on the borders…

Aftershocks was a very strange novel for me to read.  In a preface, AN Wilson writes very firmly that this is not a book about the earthquakes in New Zealand. Now, I have been to Christchurch both before and after the earthquakes, and so although this novel is set in an imaginary island in the Pacific, I could not but read it as if, in spite of what Mr Wilson said, it was about New Zealand.

His discretion lies in the knowledge that he was only a visitor to Christchurch, that therefore he could not possibly know what is was  like to live through such a traumatic experience – but at the same time, he fills the novel to the brim with what amounts to an hour by hour description of those events.

All that said, the novel is seen with a perceptive and kindly eye upon a number of characters who for one reason or another will turn out to be closely related. It has a first person narrative of a slightly different complexion, since much of the time this “voice” is more that of the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, rather than the straightforward narrator.

To the extent that I accept his disavowal with a pinch of salt, this novel touched me deeply and was read in a single day. It is a beautiful story, not least because it captures something of the distance that there is, emotionally, between families that are left behind in England when, say, a beloved daughter takes up a job, in this case Dean of Aberdeen Cathedral in the far-off Pacific Island.



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Turn Our Captivity, O Lord

This comes from Psalm 126. Some may think this oddly inappropriate? But here goes…

The GFSSimon Mawer has followed up his Second World War Resistance novel, with a new book about the same woman. In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky we follow the wartime exploits Marian Sutro, part English and part French who is recruited to the SOE, though most of the time she seems too naive to have worked that out. She has some well trodden fictional paths to follow and one extremely unusual one, she is recruited by a rival secret operation to persuade a one-time friend to leave France and come to England.

It is this adventure that makes this an interesting novel. The Resistance work, the drop over France, the clandestine meetings and messages are covered elsewhere, not better probably but more of the same. Marian’s other adventure and her time in Paris doing it, is both more exciting, more edge of the seat and slightly less likely, but nevertheless gripping stuff.

As with all his books, Simon Mawer keeps his hand well hidden and the gradual reveal is all the more telling with the final shocking denouement. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky does not match his previous hauntingly beautiful book The Glass Room about an architect’s dream project in Germany and the people who lived there, but it is a page turner.

The new novel, Tightrope, Tightropereaches another level all together. Once again, Marian Sutro is our heroine, this is her life after the war. She is trying to settle down, she is trying to forget and she has drifted into an unsuitable marriage. Unsuitable because she is much cleverer than her husband, she married on the rebound and anyway life in peacetime simply is not as vivid, nerve-stretching or interesting as her time in the front line. How could it be? In a book like this? Very interesting indeed.

These are both very unusual novels, but exploring the life after seems to be a richer seam, partly because it is a road less travelled – though one that is being travelled more and more frequently by others, Kate Atkinson for example, but also Sebastian Faulks.

Wolf BorderThe other book that I read along the same lines is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall.  What?! I hear you cry…bear with me.

The heroine of this book, Rachel Caine, is also recruited, this time by a wealthy landowning aristocrat, Earl of Annerdale, with a plan.  He wants, as one of his playthings, a pair of wolves and as she has worked on an American reservation protecting wolves there, she seems the best target for his operation.

At first reluctant, Rachel then finds herself in an awkward situation and so opts out of the wild wolf project to start a captivity project for a pair of Grey Wolves, to be imported according to all the strictest laws and restrictions. from Europe.  This beautiful pair, who will live, she supposes, on the Earl’s estate (which seems limitless) in a magnificently, expensively constructed enclosure with every modern security system available. are an experiment in controlled reintroduction .

Apart from some serious animal rights protest, some anxious neighbours and some angry farmers, what could possibly go wrong?  The Earl is boundless in his enthusiasm, then seems to lose interest; his daughter uses this as her gap year project, about which Rachel has serious misgivings, but is won over; apart from one break in, luckily before the pair are released from their quarantine enclosure, everything goes like clockwork.

The pair are released after being carefully monitored and having GPS chips inserted under their coats.  A wild-life photographer sets up his hides and all is set.  Wonderfully, the pair like each other and in the absence of any alpha-females, they breed successfully in the first spring, producing four beautiful wolf-cubs…Rachel, who has also been breeding, could not be happier.

This all sounds very fanciful. Actually, it is as much about family life as about the wild. The manifest tensions around sibling rivalry and how it can be resolved, its causes and the lasting damage.  Rachel has been away for years, estranged from her rackety mother and distant from her brother, returning to England she is able to resolve some of these issues.  The Earl. too, has parental problems resulting from an accident in a plane which caused the death of his wife.  This does not seem to have prevented him from flying, however but has caused near-permanent estrangement from his son, who will eventually inherit, though the daughter seems to care more about the land and its attendant responsibilities.

Sarah Hall has a good eye for landscape and she is in familiar territory here as most of the action takes place in and around the Lake District.  Previous books have been selected by the Man Booker judges for the Shortlist, but she has yet to win.

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