Spring Reading (In Lockdown…)

So, here we all are – still in lockdown and looking for a way to escape into another world. No? Well, if not, I’d definitely recommend doing so, pronto.

Having said that, this year’s spring reading isn’t all happy stuff but it’s interesting – and there are plenty of different worlds on offer. Read on…

The Binding by Bridget Collins

This book caught my attention with its premis. Once upon a time, in the days after the Crusades when books were illicit and frowned upon (in this fictional world) there were people born to be ‘binders’ who could – with a person’s permission – ‘bind’ them by listening to and writing down their memories. Somehow, in this intuitive and slightly magical process, the person would ‘lose’ those memories; they would only be once again accessible if the book were to be destroyed. Books were kept by binders in safety vaults, but naturally, some would fall into the wrong hands and people’s secrets (that they no longer remembered) would be revealed. Some people considered binders a help to humanity since they allowed the bound person to forget their pain and suffering, some saw it as cowardly, others used the process to aid their own corruption. Novels were ‘fake’ since they were imagined rather than real memories…

It’s such a brilliant idea and I wish that the author had explored in more depth the theory that we grow as human beings through our pain and suffering; that without these experiences we may fail to develop our full potential; life’s rich tapestry and all that. The book is well-written though slightly laborious in the first half and slow to pull the reader in.  However, about half way through, I was completely drawn into the love story, the strength of which overcomes the ‘binding’ of the two individuals concerned. It’s dark, atmospheric and truly mesmerising in places; a fascinating read.


On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This haunting memoir has been described as being a love letter from the author to her mother and certainly it is her mother’s life – which includes a mystery, a kidnap, and the silence of her community – which Cumming explores. The author is also an art expert and she uses pictures (both paintings and photographs) to illustrate her points and to represent parts of the story. It is a story which weaves and rambles (but in a good way). I love the language and style with which she describes the area in which her mother grew up; her prose is vivid and compelling.

The downside of the memoir for me, is that its personal nature makes the story seem a bit self-indulgent at times. However, Cumming does often make her personal observations universal and the existence of ‘family secrets’ is a compelling idea for many of us. It is a slow story too but every time I wanted to put the book down, there was a little twist to keep me interested. Perhaps sometimes the use of the art world is a little overdone, and the story does become repetitious at times. Nevertheless, I was drawn into the emotions of this family and fascinated by the intimate portrait of a closed community that it presents. The story is thought-provoking and inspired a fascinating discussion about personal memories in our book group!


The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

I was inspired to read this book, having seen the high number of glowing reviews and by the fact that it has been a huge best-seller. I expected it to be a hard read and disturbing, because of the content, but I was prepared for this. Yes, it was disturbing, but I also found the story-telling somewhat distant and strangely emotion-less (given the traumatic content), because of the ‘reported’ nature of the narrative. Only when I came to the end of the book did I realise why. Yes, it is one man’s story of his time in Auschwitz, but it is his story as told (apparently) to the writer Heather Morris, who has then re-told his story from his perspective, but not fully in his perspective i.e. she has – for whatever reason – maintained an emotional distance; we are told of his emotions but not shown. It’s reported. The same applies when Morris moves into the viewpoint of Gita the girl Lale falls in love with in the camp. This means that the reader, while naturally horrified at the facts presented, might also not fully engage with the characters’ emotions.

I have also since read that the Auschwitz memorial society has questioned many of Morris’s ‘facts’ concerning this time at the camp and even that Lale’s son was upset by the fact that his name was wrongly written. His father’s name was actually Lali. I am left confused. Is this story intended to be Lali’s story or is it Lali’s story fictionalised? Is this made clear in the book and does it even matter? These are questions for every reader to answer for themselves. And who is profiting from this story of human misery? Are some of the profits from the sales of this book being given to war survivors or to the family – and if not, should they be?


Jackie and Maria by Gill Paul

I enjoy fiction that has been written around a real life story and this is a good example. Jackie Kennedy, whose husband Jack was famously assassinated in 1963 and who went on to marry the billionaire Aristotle Onassis, and Maria Callas, the famous opera singer who was his lover for many years, are both strong characters who have been in the spotlight of publicity and celebrity throughout their lives. The third character of this story, the link between the two women was Ari himself, and although Gill Paul does not write from his viewpoint, nevertheless as a character he still features in a larger than life way.

Their story is an eventful and emotional one. The author explains in her notes at the end of the book where she has taken dramatic license with the true historical facts and I think this is a good thing as it is tempting to believe every word of this captivating story and to forget that it is in fact a fictionalised version based on the truth as we know it.

These three are all charismatic characters with powerful personalities and all have a different way of dealing with the publicity they inevitably attract. I was fascinated to read about them and found their story played out against an intriguingly political and glamorous backdrop both dramatic and compelling.


The Dream Daughter by Diane Chamberlain

When Carly discovers that the baby she is carrying has a serious heart defect that will be fatal, she is naturally devastated. It is the 1970s, she has recently lost her husband to the Vietnam war and now it seems she will lose her baby too. But her enigmatic brother-in-law Hunter knows a way that Carly can save her daughter. All she has to do is make a huge leap of faith. Can she trust him and how can his plan possibly work?

This unusual story is packed with interesting characters, an unlikely premis and plenty of dramatic twists and turns which make the story both compelling and original. The structure of the novel is fascinating – it has been cleverly plotted; every small detail is there for a reason. Diane Chamberlain writes with great warmth and emotion while a fast pace keeps the reader gripped and the pages turning. Highly recommended.


A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier excels at evoking the kind of fine detail that creates a strong sense of authenticity and realism in her books. And this is the perfect vehicle – a novel about the ‘broderers’ who make kneelers and tapestries at Winchester cathedral in the 1930s.

In particular, the novel features Violet Speedwell, one of the so called ‘surplus women’ surviving the losses of the first world war – Violet’s brother and fiancé were just two of the casualties. Her mother is embittered and domineering, whilst Violet just wants to get away and have the chance to lead a satisfying and independent life. This desire takes her from Southampton to Winchester where she becomes one of the famous ‘broderers’. She meets two women, Gilda and Dorothy, also searching for some acceptance outside social conventions and forms a potentially dangerous liaison with the older but charismatic Arthur, a bellringer, whose wife is still suffering from her wartime losses.

The novel shows us how difficult it was for women to find and sustain an independent life in this time. Independence comes at a cost – Violet may be pitied by her married female peers but she is judged by men, very few of whom understand how difficult it is merely to pay the rent. Men also pose a threat, especially to a woman who dares to stray outside the boundaries of those acceptable social norms.

This then is a book about loss. It is also the kind of book that embraces the reader and pulls them into Violet’s life and time. It is also about creativity – the descriptions of the embroidery and the bellringing are just wonderful. And it is about feminism too. I loved it. Highly recommended.



© Rosanna Ley
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