I read five or so books in September.
Bought in Christian Aid Book Sale. This is a book like no other I have read.
It’s partly a memoir of Keggie (Kathleen) of growing up with her three siblings, her mother and her larger-than-life father, Tom. (Both parents had extraordinary family histories – and later, after they divorced, there was the much-hated Stepmother.)
And it’s partly her piecing together Tom’s time as an undercover agent with the Jedburghs, a branch of the Special Operations Executive, in the Second World War and afterwards. She vividly portrays his time with the Resistance in France, and in Burma helping to conspire against the Japanese oppressors.
That aspect is not just the work of her imagination; she did a massive amount of research and also spoke to some of Tom’s colleagues who survived from those days – because, sadly, when she began to want to write this book her seemingly invincible father was suffering from dementia and unable to contribute meaningful memories.
Keggie Carew’s writing is fab – this is as gripping as any war-time thriller should be and as poignant as any family memoir should be, with large helpings of black humour and clear-eyed insights. With its different time frames it can’t have been an easy book to construct but it works brilliantly.
English Passengers by Matthew Kneale
Has been on my shelves for years; a current interest in Tasmania made me pick it up now.
First of all, a quiz question: Who is Matthew Kneale’s mother?
Ans: none other than the amazing Judith Kerr, famous for creating The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog stories, among many other wonderful books.
However, English Passengers is rather more wordy than those, weighing in at 470 pages including an Anglo-Manx glossary. It’s set in 1857 and has thirteen viewpoint characters.
A motley collection of passengers, brought together in various ways, are on a ship bound for Tasmania, that shield-shaped island below Australia, thought by at least one of those on board to be the true site of the Garden of Eden; plus we also hear from several people already on the island who include the natives who are literally being hunted to extinction, the colonial rulers and a chain-gang of convicts.
Every one of the voices ring true; these all seem like real, individual people. Inevitably some of their stories are the grimmest possible but there is much humour to be found too. The main character is the ship’s captain, the insouciant and wonderfully named Manx smuggler, Illiam Quillian Kewley.
I loved it.
After those two corkers I had a blip, reading-wise. I just wasn’t in the mood for getting to know new characters so I fell back on faithful standbys: three O. Douglases.
‘O. Douglas’ was the pen name of Anna Buchan, sister of the more famous John. Her domestic novels, several of them thinly disguised autobiographies, were very popular in their day, in the early decades of the 20th century. They won’t be to everyone’s taste now but I know I am not their only fan (there is a Facebook group devoted to her). I have been reading them over and over since I was about ten so they are like family members – you know them so well and recognise that they have faults but you love them very much anyway.
And I enjoyed these latest additions to my collection of girls’ annuals.
Normal service will be resumed – I have some new books I am looking forward to reading in October. Watch this space.