‘Blooms of Darkness’ by Aharon Appelfeld

At the age of eight, with the German invasion of Romania, Aharon Appelfeld was deported with his father to a work camp in the Ukraine. His mother was killed in the invasion. Separated from his father, Appelfeld escaped and survived by his wits for more than two years.

Regarded until his death in 2018 as ‘fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust’ (Philip Roth), Appelfeld frequently revisited his own childhood experiences in his novels and short stories – and Blooms of Darkness is no different.

In an unnamed Ukrainian city, with Jews being randomly rounded up on a daily basis from the ghetto, 11 year-old Hugo is taken by his mother, at the dead of night, through the city sewers. Their destination is The Residence, home of childhood friend Marianna, who has agreed to hide the boy. At their separation, mother and child are destined never see each other again.

Hugo is to the spend the next two years essentially living in the closet in Marianna’s room, a room where by night she entertains her (mostly German military) clients. With his father and uncle having disappeared months earlier, school friends sent in hiding to the mountains and the random violence towards Jews by both Germans and Ukrainians, Hugo has already “learned not to ask” but “to listen instead to the silence between the words.” And so it is with his early days in The Residence, where Marianna keeps to her promise, feeding him and sheltering the boy from harm.

Hidden away, Hugo invents a world filled with people of his past – his mother and friends Anna and Otto in particular. But Marianna’s daytime world slowly replaces this memory and, over time, the boy is seduced by the, to him, sensual world of perfumes, brandy and sexuality.

The Russian victory in the east over the fleeing German army after nearly two years of hiding brings with it unexpected concerns – Marianna (and all the other women in the brothel) is labelled a collaborator. As they flee the city into the mountains, roles are reversed and Hugo finds himself the protector.

Blooms of Darkness is a deeply moving novel, a deeply individual perspective of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, a perspective away from the death camps. Loss and loneliness remains writ large as events beyond the boy’s understanding unfold around him. Returning to his home at the end of the novel, Hugo discovers that much is familiar and little has changed. Except the haunting absence of its pre-war residents. His parents’ pharmacy is a grocery, their home occupied.

“The house stands where it always was. On the pleasant, broad balcony that looked onto the city hangs blue laundry. The windows on the side are bare, and people can be seen inside. The big chandelier in the living room still hangs from the ceiling. For a long time Hugo stands there and looks, and what he had felt upon arriving at the city centre now hits him with full force: the soul has fled from this precious place.”

Published in 2006 in Hebrew, Blooms of Darkness was translated by Jeffrey M. Green and was awarded the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

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‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

A series of five stories connected by place but with a separation of almost one thousand years, Storyland is the ambitious tale of a country, a continent, a history, a prophecy.

In 1796, young cabin-boy Will Martin finds himself on a proposed short journey of discovery – to find a fresh-water river believed to be a few miles down the coast from Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney). Travelling with (the non-fictional adventurers) Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass, the two men and a boy find themselves on uncharted waters full of hope and adventure. A thousand years later, Nada is questioned of her survival from Frank, the gargantuan storm that has left most of Australia permanently underwater.

A woven tapestry of history and future, of hope, love, friendship and potential but simultaneously of violence, greed, misunderstanding and sadness. The brutality of ex-convict Hawker (1822) towards the indigenous aborigines is mirrored in Bel’s story (1998) where the (white) dealer in indigenous art is not only stealing from the artists, but is violent towards his girlfriend, Kristie, a distant relative of Mary and Lola (1900).

In telling and connecting the five stories (Storyland takes place around Lake Illawarra and modern day Wollongong), Catherine McKinnon has produced a haunting narrative of what was and what might be – a telling of the effect humankind has on the land and what might yet come with climate change. In its telling, she has chosen to focus on ordinary people – an interpretation of recorded events as seen from the perspective of Will Martin rather than Flinders himself: the half-sisters Lola and Mary, both of indigenous descent, faced with overt and covert racism in the running of their dairy farm: Nada and partner Ben’s despair in surviving the disease-ridden after-effects of the storm.

In its telling, McKinnon uses the dramatic technique of leaving the first four stories at a crucial moment before moving on to the next: she reverses the order of their conclusions, resulting in Will Martin’s adventure as both the first and last of her narrative. The result is that Storyland is a real page-turner.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, Storyland lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.


‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

A brilliant, emotionally exhausting journey of a tale, Lincoln in the Bardo is an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love.

The death of 12 year-old Willie Lincoln from typhoid in the middle of the Civil War sends his father, Abraham Lincoln, into a tailspin. Grief-stricken, it is reported that the president returns to the crypt several times over the ensuing days as the ravages of the war are ignored.

From this kernel of historical truth, Saunders has woven an extraordinary tapestry as the boy finds himself in ‘the bardo’, the Buddhist intermediate state between death and reincarnation, an afterlife populated by ‘spirits’ or ‘ghosts’ who are unaware they have died: but it is also an amalgam of the catholic purgatory, where souls await their judgement and subsequent fate.

Children usually pass through the bardo quickly. But with the frequent visits by Lincoln, Willie becomes the centre of hope, such is the power of the bond between father and son as the inhabitants become convinced the boy will return to the land of the living and help them do the same. His guides are Hans Vollman, a 46 year-old printer killed in a workplace accident, the Reverend Early and young Roger Bevins III, a suicide.

The novel’s synopsis does the final work little credit as we slip between consciousness and dreamlike states, spirits flitting between the tombstones and marble crypts, souls revealing their sad stories that have led them to the bardo. These polyphonic narratives are interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day referring to the mental state of the president at the time. Some are sympathetic/supportive, others critical. It’s a cacophony of opinion and gossip as Lincoln comes to terms with his loss and Willie recognises, with the help of his three guides, that he will not be returning with his father to the home on the hill.

With humour and pathos, Saunders, in his first full-length novel, deploys a panoply of historical and fictional voices in a theatrical tour de force, an enthralling invention. It was understandably awarded the 2017 Booker Prize.

‘The Time We Have Taken’ by Steven Carroll

The third and final instalment of the Glenroy novels by Steven Carroll, The Time We Have Taken is the strongest of the trilogy. But it remains an essentially suburban story, an evocation of a time long past (the trilogy covers the 1950s through to 1970) where Carroll looks for the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

There are no major surprises in The Time We Have Taken. Much of the development of events has been scaffolded in the earlier novels. Thus, Vic has upped and left Rita and the suburb, settling into a town a thousand miles to the north. Their son, Michael, has completed his university studies and is in his first year as a trainee teacher – at his old school. It’s only with Rita there is a significant (and unexpected) change. She has given up her travelling sales job and has become the cleaner to Mrs Webster at the large house. It’s 1970 and progress marches on. The suburb celebrates its centenary and a committee is formed. Michael discovers the awkwardness of first love; Mrs Webster, having taken on the business, confronts the mystery of her husband’s death and Vic takes his regular beer, knowing that his time is limited. 

The first book in the trilogy – The Art of the Engine Driver– is a semi-autobiographical narrative (Carroll’s father was a steam engine driver and he grew up in 1950s Melbourne suburbia) but, as the storylines develop with The Gift of Speed and The Time We Have Taken, so the nature of the characters become more and more fictionalised within a generic time and place. 

It’s a time of change yet many of his characters remain anchored to the past. Rita maintains the family home as a monument to something that never was, Vic awaits the occasional letter from her. Michael is scarred by family life that never communicated; Mrs Webster comes to terms with never really knowing her husband. It is through such characters that Carroll has created the minutiae of suburban life in Australia in the 1960s/70s – a lack of worldliness, a lack of ambition, a lack of anything much. Change is a threat – as represented by future Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a figure who looms large in the centenary celebrations.

Carroll assuredly captures the rhythm of suburbia. The Time We Have Taken unfolds with more than a hint of nostalgia, the characters finely drawn, the narrative (purposefully) slow: a meditation. Carroll writes beautifully but the inertia of suburban life subsumes – even the revelation of Mulligan’s town hall mural depicting a very different history to the one expected causes only ripples of consternation.

As the final book in a trilogy of novels each shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, it was no surprise that The Time We Have Taken collected the 2008 Award.

‘Washington Black’ by Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan’s latest novel is a thought provoking and intriguing narrative, but not one that I found particularly engaging. The Canadian author’s distant, almost objective matter-of-fact approach created a distance, a cold veneer to the story that left this particular reader strangely unmoved by much of what unfolded over its 400 plus pages.

Barbados, 1830 – and Washington Black is a 10, or possibly 11, year-old slave boy, working the fields of the Faith Plantation. Eighteen weeks after the death of his first master, the cruel Erasmus Wilde, a man ‘…[who] owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much’ arrives from England. What follows is a period of terrible cruelty, chilling and unsparing in its randomness and seen from a child’s-eye view. But Washington Black does not dwell on the horrors of colonial slavery: its scope is broader, its ambition wider.

Instead, Erasmus Wilde’s brother, the eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, chooses the young Black to be his personal assistant. Naturalist, scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist, Titch wants the boy to help him perfect the perfect aerial machine. But a terrible accident leaves Wash permanently scarred – and as witness to another event, he and Titch flee the island. The two are plunged into adventures on the high seas, the southern American states and the icy wastes of the Arctic and which take in London, Amsterdam and Morocco along the way. And it is Washington Black who rises to the challenge with his imagination and intelligence, even when he is at his lowest ebb. His talent with paper and pencil and the 19thcentury demand for science, illustration and drawn studies attract others to him.

Scientific discoveries, engineering feats, bounty hunters, freezing temperatures, love, destitution, joy, disappointment all follow – elements of a 19thcentury swashbuckling adventure story. But Black is also invested in knowledge, thoughts and interests beyond his background and education – a precociousness that jars but allows the narrative to develop, stylistically enabling Edugyan to increase that searched-for scope of the novel. But it is also this mechanical approach that, for me, placed Washington Black as interesting rather than engaging. It jarred a little too much, putting it beyond the believable and more into a fervid ‘message’. Storyline after storyline is introduced. And whilst Wash is a unique character, restless, bought alive by his connections to people – from Big Kit, his powerful protector at the plantation, Titch himself and, later, Tanna – and the opportunities they provide, there’s something that does not quite gel. And that, sadly, undermined Edugyan’s third novel for me.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize but lost out to Anna Burns and Milkman.


‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Set in the south London working class suburb of Fulham in the 1960s, Poor Cowis the story of Joy, a young woman with plenty of dreams but few opportunities (Whole lot of longing what never comes true.). A reluctant mother at 21, a husband in prison and, following a short period of luxury on the proceeds of one of Tom’s jobs, is now back living with her Aunt Em in a one-bedroomed flat in Fulham.

It’s a poignant story of a train-wreck of a life, a life determined predominantly by the choices of others (Tom; his mate, Dave, with whom Joy finds some happiness until he too is put away in the nick) and the system. But Joy herself also makes some pretty ripe choices.

Yet, somehow, Joy seems to muddle through it all – modelling (nude), as a barmaid or taking money for sexual favours (but never on the game). Her ambitions are limited – she hated the life of luxury with Tom in the soulless suburb of Ruislip –and she’s determined to wait for the release of Dave (12 years). Only trouble is that Dave introduced Joy to the joys of sex… 

But her biggest (unexpected) love is her son, Jonny. No matter what, Joy tries to be there for him (by today’s standards, her efforts would be far from enough) and many of her decisions are made with Jonny in mind. Even agreeing to live with Tom on his release is based to some extent on a level of security for both her and her son.

Semi-autobiographical (author Nell Dunn lived in Battersea – the next suburb along from Fulham – throughout the 60s), Poor Cow is a knee-length boots and mini-skirted tale of life, love, survival and young motherhood in the 1960s. Dunn captures the sense of place and time through the use of language and a real sense of Joy’s personality is achieved through her letters to Dave (a naïve innocence mixed with a steely resolve written in a terribly spelt south London vernacular). It’s a fascinating slice of life from a very different perspective to that of Swingin’ London and its youth-driven cultural revolution. And at 141 pages, it’s short!

‘Innocent Erendira (and Other Stories)’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I’ve never been a great fan of short stories. The lack in depth of narrative or characterisation results in a shortcoming, a dissatisfaction. Yet in 38 pages of Innocent Erendira(or, to give it its full title, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother), there is depth of narrative and characterisation by the bucket load – and a great deal more. It is the story of a young girl who accidentally burns down the desert home of her obese grandmother – and, as a result, is forced into the life of prostitution and slavery to repay her debt. It’s a magical story – a larger-than-life grandmother who builds her retinue and revenue on the basis of Erendira’s earnings as they move from isolated town to isolated town across haunting desert landscapes. But eventually, Erendira meets the young Ulises, and they plot to kill the grandmother.

Written in 1972, The incredible and sad tale of innocent Erendira and her heartless grandmother is the longest (and newest) of stories in the Picador 1982 publication – with other stories from as early as 1948 and only a few pages long. True magical realism, which juxtaposes the mundanity of reality alongside the fantastical and magical: folktale magic and the supernatural, qualities that make disturbing subjects more palatable. The abuse of Erendira by her grandmother: the beautiful Laura Farina dispatched by her own father to bestow sexual favours on Senator Onesimo Sanchez (Death constant beyond love).

Marquez, in his stories, is not condoning but highlighting the plights of young girls within the sex trade – the abuse is part of the patriarchal establishment, from family to politics to church. But his focus is much wider – the oppressed, the dispossessed, the powerless. Identifying as both a native of Colombia and South American, Marquez is only too familiar with a history that is full of bloody doctrines and dictators – and his short stories poetically but critically highlight this. Erendira is beautifully accessible – unlike many of the other stories contained within this compendium. Prime examples of magic realism they may be, but my personal preference lies with the novels of Marquez, where time spent allows more immersion than a five-page story such as Eyes of a blue dog (1950).

‘The Woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins

Commonly regarded as one of the first ‘mystery novels’ and an early example of detective fiction, Collins’ The Woman in White is a true nineteenth century literary classic.

First published in serial form in 1859 and set in Victorian England, the story examines the twisted circumstances surrounding the arranged marriage between young, innocent heiress, Laura Fairlie, and the older Sir Percival Glyde.

It’s the tale of social mores, class, gender inequality, love, treachery, mental illness, fraud – and a murder conspiracy investigation that made it so popular in its day. And it being written by Wilkie Collins, it’s also a prime gothic melodrama!

A young, handsome art teacher, Walter Hartright, is appointed tutor to Laura and takes up residence at the isolated Cumbrian estate of Limmeridge. A ward of her invalid (hypochondriac) uncle, Frederick, Laura lives a sheltered life with her half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unencumbered with wealth, looks or social expectations, Marian is intelligent and feisty – and almost immediately befriends Hartright. 

Love develops between teacher and Laura – socially unacceptable in Victorian England – and he is forced to curtail his three-month appointment. His departure is made more crucial by the imminent arrival of Sir Percival Glyde, a man betrothed to Laura at the wishes of her beloved father on his deathbed. A charming aristocrat who wins over the Limmeridge household, he is, of course, not what he seems. A dastardly, short-tempered older man in severe financial trouble is his reality, with creditors queuing for their monies – and a grand conspiracy unfolds with Laura, now Lady Glyde, the innocent victim and Marian, by her position as a woman in Victorian England, almost equally powerless. It’s only on the return of Hartright from self-imposed overseas exile that justice can move forward. 

Told by a series of narrators central to the events as they unfold, The Woman in White stands out from novels of the time in that Collins has written complex, spirited and believable female characters. Whilst Marian Halcombe herself may talk of her limitations as a ‘mere woman’, it is unquestionably ironic, as Collins has created a woman of action who is not afraid to say what she thinks. 

True to its time (and the fact it was published in serial form), The Woman in White is drawn out, verbose and occasionally pompous. It takes more than 600 pages to tell its tale as Hartright, Halcombe, family lawyers, doctors, housekeepers, maids all have their say and contribution to the narrative. Interestingly, the fraudulent conspiracy and its reveal take up only a little over half the novel: the social unmasking of the complexities of the dastardly deed take up a great deal of planning and careful scrutiny in the latter part of the novel.

It’s an entertaining and involving read, if occasionally long-winded. And whilst gender politics may grate by today’s standards, for it’s time The Woman in White is remarkably forward thinking (as well as an insight into English attitudes towards foreigners! Judging by comments proliferating social media today regarding Brexit, little has changed in more than 150 years…).


‘Panther in the Basement’ by Amos Oz

It’s 1947 and, with British soldiers patrolling the streets and imposing evening-to-early-morning curfews, Jerusalem is a city on the edge.

As the British Mandate in Palestine draws to its inevitable end and the battle lines between Jews and Arabs slowly come to the fore, 12 year-old Proffy is caught up in the fervour and unrest – and dreams of adventure. The nearby hillsides echo with the sounds of bullets and explosions and the silences of the family apartment are occasionally interrupted by fervent knockings and hushed whispers late into the night.

Amos Oz’s wonderfully vivid novella (a mere 122 pages) is a rites-of-passage story of a teenage boy growing up in a troubled city. Semi-autobiographical, the bookish Proffy spends the summer with friends Ben Hur and Chita as members of a fictional underground group fighting the British. He is ‘an excited panther in the basement, seething with oaths and vows, knowing exactly…to what he will dedicate his life, for what he will sacrifice it when the moment of truth comes.’ But then he is accused of treason by the movement, spotted in a café fraternising with the enemy, one Sergeant Dunlop. Appeals of counter-espionage fall on deaf ears: Proffy is forced to understand the true nature of loyalty and betrayal.

In this short novel, Oz beautifully captures a pivotal moment in the life of Proffy, his family and his about-to-be country. It’s the last days of an occupying force and a time of many questions. The boy is young but not purely innocent: those questions of himself and the world around him need to be asked – and preferably answered. But it is only as an adult 40 years later that understanding, to some degree, can be achieved.