Archive | October, 2015

Van has finished reading…Early One Morning by Virginia Baily

21 Oct

There’s a line Jimmy Stewart delivers in the wonderful film version of Harvey: ‘The evening wore on. That’s a very nice expression isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again. The evening wore on.’

I lost count of the number of times Virginia Baily produced in me the Harvey effect, where I stopped as I was reading just to savour a sentence and read it again. I’m not fond of the term beautifully written. I think it’s overused and more often than not misused. For me, with this book I think it fits. Rather than trying to ladle on the emotion, she allows the natural tension of the situation and the almost febrile state of mind of her protagonist to infect the story. Even when moving from the oppressive wartime atmosphere to the Seventies, I was never in any doubt that the threads holding Chiara’s world together could give at any moment.

The characterisation is subtle and superb. We are left to imagine for ourselves the lilt of all those Latin tongues through the scenes in the forties and all the way up to the point where conversation finally crosses the language barrier. Introducing a nuanced pattern of speech at that point works superbly, further highlighting that sense of brittleness, of fragility.  As for Daniele, it’s hard to think of another character who says so much without words and the dynamic between him and Chiara is captivating. Who do you feel for most? It would be enough I think with just these two but then Virginia gives us Maria, and just when you thought there’d be no more room, Simone too. But don’t even think of uttering the word incidental. In these characters there’s a veritable lesson in making the cast work for their place.

As for the story itself, it’s a deceptively simple premise that could be summed up in a few sentences. There’s no reliance on gimmickry or pacey action, no mind-bending plot twists to make you gasp. It’s a line of stepping stones wherein cause and effect are treated with honesty. It’s a story that could easily be true. The quietness of it, the sensitivity with which Virginia Baily presents these events gives it a confessional feel. We’re in on the secret and it’s something we mustn’t ever tell. All you need to do is take Chiara’s hand and follow.

I must express my thanks to Isabel Costello and her Literary Sofa ( – if you’ve not been you should definitely go and have a look) for arranging this copy, and to Little, Brown for sending it. There’s every likelihood this book will be in the top five I’ve read this year come December. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen since I finished it. And I’m recommending it to you now. If it’s a thing you like to do I can say it’s also a joy to read aloud. I read it to Mrs Van. The night we finished it she even dreamt beyond the last page!

Early One Morning was published by Virago on 23rd July 2015 ISBN: 9780349006482

You can find Virginia on Twitter @VirginiaBaily

Van has finished reading…Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

15 Oct

Sorry, Jeet.

Van has finished reading…The North Water by Ian McGuire

7 Oct

What a cast of characters! Historical fiction this may be but don’t expect to find any Mr D’Arcy rising up out of the drink. Even in the more ‘respectable’ roles – the ship’s captains, the merchants, the medical professionals – there’s a distinct sense of decline rather than aspiration. There’s a very modern sensibility about the book too in that it’s undoubtedly the sweariest thing I’ve read in a very long time. The sheer frequency of it jars at first though in point of fact it doesn’t feel out of character at all. There’s very little pandering to the peculiarities of olde-tyme diction that can so easily hamper the telling of the tale.

To say I enjoyed reading Ian McGuire’s North Water wouldn’t be quite the right word; it’s not that kind of story. Don’t doubt that it’s a deeply engaging read. It starts low and rather than rising does its level best to deepen the well. Through the entire cast of characters there are very few redeeming features, and those present are far outweighed by the darker balance of everyone else. It’s actually quite refreshing in a strange way, and likely befitting what was essentially frontier territory where the usual rules should apply but rarely do.

It would be fair to say that it’s easy to lose yourself in the story. The writing flows and there’s a genuine captivation in wondering just how far these damned souls are prepared to go. Although it’s the bleakest of landscapes McGuire’s sense of scene renders it deftly. There is power as well as beauty in his description, the backdrop working to enhance the sense of danger, of claustrophobia, of inevitability.

It is dark and it is dangerous, an unrelenting arctic night of a tale that might just leave you feeling grubby, but for my money it’s definitely worth the fare.

The North Water will be published by Scribner in February 2016 ISBN:9781471151248