Book review – Cat Jarman – “River Kings”


We’re back to the Nordics: this is my fifth read for Annabookbel’s NordicFINDS challenge, and I’ve actually now finished reading six of the ten books I selected for the challenge: as this challenge runs until the end of Sunday, I’ll finish and review Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “Heaven and Hell” trilogy in one go later in the week, and hope to get through the short book of Reykjavik stories, too.

This is one of the books I acquired in December when I really shouldn’t have been going around acquiring books, thanks to my lovely friend Gill’s “book token” for a local indie bookshop. I have now actually read three of those (one for another challenge, one for Shiny New Books and this one), which gives the lie to my claim I read in strict acquisition order, doesn’t it! I’m very glad this lovely challenge gave me the chance to pull this off the TBR and read it.

Cat Jarman – “River Kings: The Vikings from Scandinavia to the Silk Roads”

(12 December 2021, using Gill’s Bookshop on the Green book token)

… surprisingly, it’s only relatively recently that the Viking woman has been given much attention; now, in the twenty-first century, she seems to have come back with a vengeance. (p. 135)

It’s generally been assumed that, while the people we know as the “Vikings” travelled both west, to the British Isles and Iceland, and east, to trade or work with communities as far away as Constantinople, they didn’t do both. Taking as her seed of inspiration a little carnelian bead found in a mass burial in Repton, Derbyshire, and using very new archeological methods and reports as she goes, Jarman, a Norwegian bioarchaeologist, traces the routes of the Vikings back up across rivers (portaging between them) to the east coast of Britain, across to Scandinavia, through Russia and down to the Far East and the Silk Roads. She’s always really careful to explain what’s conjecture (not much) and what’s backed up by evidence (although see below) and even extends things right into India in the epilogue, although that’s more of the former.

The sections are named after artefacts found on the way and have an illustration of each plus a good few maps. At the start of each section is a little vignette around the piece, maybe about the maker or wearer or someone around it, sometimes Jarman herself on a dig. She does warn us that these are sometimes invented, and I bristled at that a little, but then remembered that I’d coped with the creative writing bits in Thomas Williams’ “Viking Britain” and they were in fact just little, quite charming, moments in the text reminding us of the human side of all these skeletons and ship-burials.

As we move east and encounter the theory that the Rus’ of (broadly) Russia were easily conceivably Vikings under another name (Jarman fleshes this out and makes it likely while acknowledging other political and historical ideas), she does the interesting thing of looking at Scandinavian accounts of going east and contemporary Muslims’ accounts of the tall, blond travellers who come into their territories. This is fascinating and gives a great, rounded picture. And she finishes where she started, with a carnelian bead, close to what might be its home, far from her own.

There’s lots of good stuff really interrogating how we and previous generations of archeologists and historians have thought about topics like how high-status items got into graves (were women’s items always presents from their husbands?); who were in the graves in the first place (there’s an assumption that someone buried with a sword must be a man which is quite easily disproved); how enslaved people fitted into the equation; and what sort of autonomy and agency women had and where they were. This, along with the advanced scientific techniques described, makes it a really modern and fresh read with underpinnings you trust.

An excellent, approachable and clear text, highly recommended and a book of the year for sure.

This was my fifth NordicFINDS read and touches down in Norway and Sweden as well as mentioning Iceland; the author is also Norwegian!

Monthly run down / why I love volunteering


[Photo courtesy of Paul Roberts, with permission]

The lovely Kim at Running on the Fly and Deborah at Confessions of a Mother Runner run a Weekly Run Down catch up for fitness bloggers. I take part monthly, as my running just isn’t interesting enough to sustain a weekly update! But I’ve had a good running month and a great volunteering month so I wanted to share a bit about running then a bit about volunteering.

Running round-up

It’s so nice just to run, as far as I’m concerned. Not training for anything, a vague plan to up the distances now I’m back on my usual schedule after the difficulties of the autumn, just going for pleasant canal runs with Claire and Trudie, bits and bobs on my own or with other friends around the area and club runs one evening a week. I have run 91.7 miles in January, and that’s just fine, averaging just over 20 miles a week, which is my sweet spot for feeling well mentally and physically. Talking averages, though, this amused me. I did run almost the same distance every week for the last four weeks, but really?

Black dots represent runs, green lines and numbers represent the time I spent running that week …

Volunteering fun

I volunteer for my running club, taking a run leader role at our weekly evening club runs, which involves booking in and turning up, therefore triggering 12 places on the run to become available for non-run-leaders, and covering roles administering the runs such as announcements, warm-ups and tail running. I had stepped aside from this while I got over my fall and cold and got my nerve back for running in the dark; it’s lovely to see other club members and meet new runners, too, and feeling I’m doing something for the club that has helped my running so much and introduced me to so many lovely friends.

I also volunteer at Oaklands parkrun, and I’m on the core team there. I am the volunteer coordinator during the week, sending out requests for volunteers on email and Facebook and responding to emails that come in about volunteering, slotting people into the roster and sometimes shuffling them about, in consultation with the Event and Run Directors. I then volunteer on the day – yesterday, we didn’t have quite enough volunteers so I suggested I cover one of our marshal points the first time round (the first runner through was a regular who knew the route, phew) then nipped back across the park to do barcode scanning as people finished. I often timekeep, and did that on New Year’s Day …

Avril, Rachel, and me on timer in action [Photo courtesy of Avril with her permission]

… and on 8 January I did my 150th stint of volunteering (photo at the top of this post). I was a marshal and the Run Director, Helen, kindly made an announcement that it was my 150th at the start – loads of the participants cheered me or otherwise said kind words, and it was so lovely! I’ve only run about 33 parkruns but the volunteering numbers and t-shirts mean more to me, I have to say.

I love volunteering at club and parkrun because I can give something back to the running community; it gets me out and about; I get to see lots of different people; I get to make a difference; I get a huge sense of well-being from helping others. Volunteering at our parkrun is always supportive and I enjoy training people on timekeeping as well as doing it myself, and the team is very kind and helpful. I love that I can support our still newish Event and Run Directors, as I have quite a lot of experience with most of the roles, and it just warms your heart of a Saturday morning!

In running and reading overlaps, Rachel kindly picked up a copy of “How parkrun Changed our Lives” by Eileen Jones from the Running Show last weekend – Eileen attended our parkrun on the morning of the Running Show and Rachel got her to sign it for me. Here it is, at Oaklands parkrun!

Special birthday book incomings!


I’ve been lucky enough to make it all the way to my half-century, and although I also asked people to make a donation to Fareshare Midlands if they wanted to mark it, and I was also the lucky recipient of Kiva loan vouchers, book tokens, lunches, meals, a chunk of money to spend through the year and other lovelies, my main gifts were these lovelies.

Henry Eliot – The Penguin Modern Classics Book – a massive book all about these truly iconic volumes from the lovely Meg.

Maya Angelou – Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now, Even the Stars Look Lonesome and Letter to My Daughter – it’s been so lovely reading Angelou’s volumes of memoir over the last few months with Meg and Ali, and I’m so pleased to have these volumes of her essays from Ali.

Lars Mytting – The Bell in the Lake – could I resist adding a Nordic book about a bell in a lake and the community around it to my wishlist a while ago? No, and thank you Sian for picking it from the list!

Molly Clavering – Susan Settles Down and Touch Not the Nettle (a pair that go together), and Love Comes Home, and D. E. Stevenson – The Tall Stranger and Anna and her Daughters – a super selection from Dean Street Press given to me by Emma on our day out in Oxford.

Helen Taylor – Why Women Read Fiction – a lovely-looking book from Gill; she also added to my Christmas bonanza with David LodgeQuite a Good Time to be Born (the first volume of his memoirs) and Stuart Hall – A Life Between Two Islands (his memoir!) as we hadn’t been able to meet up for a while.

Tom Nancollas – Seashaken Houses (history of lighthouses), Deborah Frances-White – The Guilty Feminist (the book of the podcast) and Nefertiti Austin – Motherhood So White (class, race and gender in perceptions of motherhood in the US) made their way to me from Cari, spreading the birthday joy across the world!

Have you read any of these? How well do you think I did fitting them on my bookshelves? Have I, indeed, rejigged my whole TBR shelf? (you’ll have to wait to see until Tuesday …)

Book review – Daphne Palasi Andreades – “Brown Girls”


I had seen and heard a lot about this book already when it popped up in my NetGalley emails and I was very pleased to win it back in November. I thought it would be an interesting companion piece to “Wahala“, with the latter about young women of colour in London and this about young women of colour in New York, however, although they are both fresh, new and atmospheric, they’re nothing like each other. I did love them both, though!

Daphne Palasi Andreades – “Brown Girls”

(15 November 2021)

We have been admonished to Study hard! yet have also been told Don’t go far, stay close, stay near, aren’t we good enough for you? We long for more, but keep our dreams to ourselves.

Have you ever read a book that’s written in the first person plural? Nope, me neither. The whole books is written in this way, so cleverly. What a stunning way for a writer to put together her debut – it’s so technically accomplished as well as authentic-sounding, raw, emotional, real and brilliant. When the experiences of the “Brown girls” divide, you might have a few names then we … a few more names, another we … she does not put a foot wrong the whole way through and this is not an easy thing to do (note, I wrote my review of “Open Water” in the second person singular it was written; I couldn’t do the same for this one!).

The Brown Girls of the title are a loose friendship group in Queens, New York (“The dregs of Queens”), starting aged ten around, presumably the turn of the millennium (their mothers are described as having come there in the 1990s) and then presumably stretching into the future, although this is not explicitly described. Where are their families from? Well, when they go to their “motherlands or fatherlands” part-way through the book, they …

… purchase flights to capital cities: Dhaka, Port-au-Prince, Malia, Kingston and Santo Domingo. I n a week, we will fly to Mexico City, Islamabad, Accra, Caracas, Seoul, Damascus, Bogota. Soon, with our own eyes, we will see San Juan, Cairo, Tehran, Beijing, Panama City, Georgetown, New Delhi, and many more places.

They do interact with White people, particularly men, idolising boys like those in White boy bands in their youth, marrying interracially but then maybe drifting back to the boys who look like their first male friends and brothers, and all the microaggressions are detailed, whether from posh families who think they’re charming then ask about the causes of poverty in their country or from lower-class parents who have fought in “Korea, Vietnam, Gulf wars” and want to talk about it; microaggressions about race, about class, about gender. Some of them experience racist or gender violence; they share tales as they still go out into the world, determined not to become trapped like their mothers, getting trapped like their mothers.

There’s a contrast between who leaves and who stays behind, and with one girl who stays behind forever, always her age at her death but present in everyone’s dreams. They start to interrogate colonialism when they visit their parents’ homelands and find hospitals and schools “named after people whose life missions, they believed, were to uplift savage nations”. And all life is covered – life and death, for while I will admit I found the opening chapters with the young women finding their places in the world, working out their sexualities and their genders, daring to dare, the book goes on beyond their deaths, more and more lyrical and beautifully written, looking to their daughters and granddaughters.

Although Andreades is the product of writing courses, her work doesn’t read like an exercise, a particular bugbear of mine. Yes, it reads a bit like autofiction, but so many different lives, cultures and experiences are described, it’s not just that. It’s fresh, exciting and moving, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Thank you to 4th Estate for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Sara Wheeler – “The Magnetic North”


We’re back to the Nordics: this is my fourth read for Annabookbel’s NordicFINDS challenge, and I’ve actually now finished reading five of the ten books I selected for the challenge: handily, this challenge lasts until 6 February, so I have a chance to finish. I might review Jon Kalman Stefansson’s “Heaven and Hell” trilogy in one go, and I don’t think I’ll get the huge book of sagas finished but I have almost got one saga within it done, at least.

This is one of the eight books I bought in September last year when I wandered into the local Oxfam Books to see what there was (out of those eight, I’ve now read three and discarded one, so not doing too badly).

Sara Wheeler – “The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic”

(08 September 2021)

At half past three, the sun vanished. It was the cuspy season between white nights and darkness at noon, the period in which the Arctic turns inside out. (p. 1)

In this excellent book, Wheeler makes a circumnavigation of the Arctic regions, from Asian Russia round through America, Canada, Greenland, Svalbard and the lands of the Sámi people back to European Russia, with an excursion into the Arctic Ocean to look at the North-East and North-West Passages. She covers both the history of exploration and displacement of peoples into (Siberia, gold-rushes) and out of (Indigenous populations) the regions and contemporary visits to locations within them. The book was published in 2010 and most of her journeys were from the previous decade; she also details how she met some of the people she visits earlier in her travels.

Although Wheeler is clearly a White British woman explaining Indigenous issues (and climate change and environmental sciences), she does so clearly, compassionately and carefully, including direct quotations and discussions with people where she can. She definitely seeks to highlight the awfulness that has been perpetrated upon people, also celebrating those who have managed to cling on to their traditional ways while embracing useful new technologies. She’s pretty scathing on pollution, too, noting that the people and animals furthest from the highest users of plastics and pesticides are the ones who end up with them embedded in their bodies. Embedded in communities of scientists, she links human and technical stories, and she is a good storyteller. She’s funny, too, often wryly, caught off-guard when all the women whip headscarves out of their string bags on a Russian ferry in order to participate in a service on the way to an Orthodox monastery, or describing the often-failing Arctic explorers as shoe-eaters.

Maps help us round her journey, photographs are printed on the paper pages so a little indistinct (and their captions are in a separate list at the front) and there’s an enticing bibliography. Although now a little out of date, it’s clear on the dangers of climate change and pollution and strong on the treatment of Indigenous peoples (she originally preferred the Antarctic for its emptiness but took to the North when travelling among the Sámi with her small son). It took me a while to read as it’s quite dense and small-printed with 326 pages, but very worthwhile reading.

This was my fourth NordicFINDS read and covered Norway (Svalbard), Denmark (Greenland is one of the three consituent countries that form the Kingdom of Denmark), Sweden and Finland (both in terms of the lands of the Sámi), which means I’ve read something about each of the FINDS.

This was TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 2 Book 3/53 – 50 to go.

Book review – Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish)”


Aha – see the plethora of post-it notes in this book back at the beginning of the month! This is my latest readalong with my best friend, Emma – we’ve been reading it since October, and I have now created a category so I can find all the books we’ve read together easily (of course I now can’t remember what they all are). Anyway, we enjoyed this look at Hirsch’s discussion of her dual-heritage experience and her call for open discussion on race and heritage; published in 2018, I had been aware of it since then but only bought it in July 2020 (it went unavailable for a bit when all the Black Lives Matter booklists came out) – I’m happy to say I have read and reviewed all the books I bought in that batch!

Afua Hirsch – “Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging”

(20 July 2020)

Perhaps Sam is right – I have no idea what it’s like to be a dark-skinned black man. And perhaps he’s also right that it’s a strange thing to do, to write a book about being black. But I’ve written from this perspective only because it is my perspective, not because I think my identity is more important than anyone else’s, or that people from my background have more to say than those from any other. It’s just my experience. But I do believe that, as an example of an intense, unrelenting search for a kind of Britishness I can belong to, my experience may offer an insight into where we are headed as a nation. (p. 23)

This provocative and personal book opens with Hirsch gathering with a group of friends, having just returned from a couple of years living in Africa, having gone there to “begin the journey into my new, African identity” (p. 3) but, like herself and her friends in the UK, not quite finding herself fitting in. Her boyfriend Sam, who grew up in Tottenham, is shocked by her privately educated, Oxbridge friend circle, not taking the opportunities his friends would have grasped to generate wealth: “He sees musing about belonging and identity as a luxury for someone who is pruivileged enough to not worry about where their next meal is coming from” (p. 6) whereas she sees him as having the luxury of a solid heritage behind him, of knowing who he is. Interesting stuff that prefaces what is to come.

I have to say here that the gulf Emma and I felt between ourselves and Hirsch wasn’t one of race particularly, but of education and background. We’ve found it easier somehow to read about working or middle-class people than someone who will go off to Ghana and immediately run into someone she knows from Oxford who is running an NGO (both of us went to university in London, although we come from solid middle-class backgrounds; I can only think this dislocation is a product of the class-ridden nature of the UK and Hirsch writes in depth about the intersection of race and class here).

Anyway, she goes on to discuss lots of different aspects of British culture while outlining her own experiences in Africa and the UK and her family background (we both got a bit confused by all her grandparents and their stories, possibly because we read it in half-chapters over an extended period of time). She covers the history of black people in the UK, the relationship between Empire and now (although making the point that none of her ancestors were related to enslaved people in Africa or the Caribbean, when talking about reparations), the unpleasant history of racial stereotyping and putting people in actual exhibitions, the fetishisation of black women’s bodies, the racism of feminism, colourism, claims of colour-blindness and post-racism, the actual segregation we claim didn’t happen, and socioeconomic aspects around race in Britain among other topics. She also interviews Tommy Robinson of the EDL, to get balance, which we found faintly shocking.

She does dart around topics and returns to family issues, which gives a very dense (but very valuable) book that uses her journalistic skill and passion about the topic to show points clearly and deeply. And what can we actually do? At the end, she does call for “addressing the root causes of prejudice and the unfairness at the heart of our national identity” (p. 316) rather than simply “tinkering” with quotas and projects. She asks us to begin a conversation to start that process, and of course this book acted as a gateway to many of the others that have been written and published since. I thought this book was going to give me a mirror to Akala’s “Natives” in terms of gender; it also gives a contrast in class, and it’s important to read several of these memoir/analysis books from different authors to remind us that race is not monolithic.

Book review – Nikki May – “Wahala”


I requested this book from NetGalley back in August as it looked intriguing – a variation on the theme of “three women meet at university; we look at their lives since”, this focuses on three women of mixed British-Nigerian heritage, a firm friendship group, but the cover makes it clear this is going to be something of a thriller, and it was definitely a page-turner!

Nikki May – “Wahala”

(18 August 2021)

It wasn’t until Bristol (chosen mainly for its distance from home), where she met Ronke and Simi, that she started to feel comfortable in her skin. They were the first mixed-race people she’d ever spoken to and to them, being brown was an asset, not a liability. It meant you could always fit in – with black people, white people and all shades in between. They pitied the poor souls with one solitary culture, who used fake tan (or worse – bleaching cream). They were proud of being half Nigerian and half English. They loved jollof rice and fish finger sandwiches. They had two football teams to support.

Ronke, Simi and Boo have been a strong friendship group since they met at university and each found someone with a similar heritage to bond with. They have had various experiences of their dual heritage, some of them feel more linked to Nigeria than others, and they have different lives now, one young, free and single but wanting to settle down, one very settled into a domesticity she resents, one a high-flyer with a high-flying husband who wants to keep her career and NOT settle down. Two are with White men, one wants to find a good Nigerian man. But they’re all close, don’t share their grievances with each other and are getting along quite nicely … until Isobel comes along. She comes from Simi’s past and definitely Ronke is not keen as she tries to work her way into everyone’s lives. What does she actually want? Different people are told different things, and she has a subtle or not-so-subtle effect on each other their lives and all of their friendships as life progresses. Do older relatives hold the key or are they prejudiced by Isobel’s family background? And what’s with the first scene, showing a woman who has clearly just been attacked – we’re told we’re going four months back but there are so many clues and you really wonder.

As well as the compelling storyline we see what it’s like to be a mixed-heritage Black woman in modern London, a world of microaggressions and obstacles, of being brought in when something’s “urban”, of being assumed about and bossed around, but of finding solace in a Nigerian restaurant that’s almost like being in Nigeria itself. One Black book blogger and her commenter have made the point that the racism and microaggressions the women experience are brushed over somewhat – not something I can really comment about as a White woman but at least, I think, they were there and highlighted and other White reviewers have commented that they learned from them. Mainly this is an excellent story set against a great, believable background, with characters who are all rounded and flawed, with fabulous recipes in the back of the book for jollof rice, etc., and I’m very much looking forward to what this author does next.

Thank you to Random House UK for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Wahala” was published on 6 January 2022.

Book review – Sofi Thanhauser – “Worn”


A book from NetGalley which I spotted and downloaded in January, also published in January. I was intrigued by its division into chapters based on types of fabric, and by the fact it was a “people’s history” and I’m very glad I downloaded it.

Sofi Thanhauser – “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing”

(12 January 2022 – NetGalley)

Unerringly, cloth tells the story of the rise and fall of our societies and our cultures. And, perhaps, it does so more accurately than any words can.

Using main section headings of Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics and Wool allows the author to take a historical view of the emergence of different fabrics and technologies (both to make them and to make things out of them); but she also takes a view based around gender, race and class, which makes it more interesting and valuable. She constantly points out how developments in markets and technology end up with women or Global Majority People being exploited and driven into poverty and despair while the administration and the White men end up with the profit and little of the work. Interestingly, this is sometimes cyclical – the downtrodden seamstresses in the 19th century have more in common with garment factory workers now than with the unionised specialists of the 1950s, for example.

After charting her own interest in fashion and clothing, via learning how to sew herself and realising – as many don’t – that someone has to create and make our clothes, Thanhauser weaves (sorry) a fascinating history of clothing types and their construction and materials, moving from individual crops and making clothes for the household to the international garment trade today. She also weaves in the ideological movements contemporary with these developments and changes, from the construction of race to the assumption that women didn’t need to earn as much because there was always a man to bankroll them (in slavery times, it was cheaper to have teams of women making clothing for slaves than it was to have slaves make them!). She has a worldwide focus, bringing in people and practices from America to Russia via England and Asia, and visits a lot of locations, talking to workers and, more often, business owners. Health and safety and care for workers, and the accompanying attempts to unionise, are highlighted throughout the book, and modern “feminism” is critiqued as being about a few exceptional entrepreneurs rather than the still horrendous lot of women in the clothing industries.

The last section, on wool, takes a different approach, and looks at the revival of crafts, including within Indigenous American communities, talking to a variety of practitioners including a transperson who is reviving a tradition whereby they will form a backbone in their community for telling stories and keeping crafts going.

The severe and prolonged violence that has annihilated the world’s weaving traditions cannot be seen in isolation from the destruction of agricultural systems, sovereignties, communal values, and identities. Neither should the resurrection of weaving traditions be seen in isolation: cloth cannot be viewed separately from the entire material and social basis from which it springs.

It’s a book that finds a lot of problems and doesn’t have a huge lot of solutions, apart from trying to keep things local, recycle, buy second-hand, mend clothing and maintain traditions. But that’s a start, in this deep and wide-ranging book that has an awful lot to recommend it, interrogating intersectional inequities while engaging in historical work.

Thank you to Allen Lane for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Worn” is published on 27 January.

Book review – Larry McMurtry – “The Last Picture Show”


Well, it’s time to start my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project, and I decided to kick off with the Duane Moore series, tracing the fortunes of a small Texas town, Thalia, and its inhabitants; it’s also third in the Thalia trilogy which were the first three books McMurtry wrote. Although I love McMurtry, I haven’t read him since 2012, when I last did the whole Thalia series, so he was ripe for a revisit. Here’s what I thought last time and the first two times – did I change my mind this time around? This is the US-published copy I read the last two times; the first read was from the library.

Larry McMurtry – “The Last Picture Show”

(09 April 2000)

We have the classic small-town-America coming-of-age story, with Duane and Sonny living in a rooming house, sharing a car, working in night jobs and studying at school, and hanging out at the Picture Show and the pool hall, both owned by Sam The Lion, a grandfatherly figure to the boys. Duane is going out with the girl at the top of the social and sexual scale, Jacy, though she is looking further afield for experience and notoriety and straining towards college. Sonny has a lacklustre relationship before he’s drawn to an older woman. We complete the set up with Billy, a lad with a developmental disorder who’s been taken in by Sam, and a cast of cafe wait staff and high school teachers and pupils who act as a kind of chorus to the action. Events push on through senior year, life drags on in the town, people are bored and do not-entirely-nice things and there’s an air of ennui, of bursting to get away yet always failing.

The development in the book is less in plot than in character, although the plot does move forwards, too. Sonny finds himself turning against popular opinion as he matures, and even arguing with his best friend. The chorus of the town is made of popular and not decent opinion and he needs to learn how to deal with that, too – older characters know to step out of line when they need to, and how to do that.

In a way, it’s a twist on some Anne Tyler – the small town, the wayward kids, the need to just get out of the place. It’s more graphic; it’s about teenagers so there’s a lot of jostling for attention, clumsy attempts at sex, etc. I did find it noticeable this time around that the portrayals of women are quite misogynistic – there are a lot of sex workers who are not attractive, and townswomen portrayed horribly, too. But then everyone is – it’s equal, the men aren’t great, either, and there is I felt a concern to portray the difficult lives of both housewives and sex workers with sympathy. I’ve read a few comments that women use sexuality as currency and that relationships are transactional rather than loving – but isn’t that one way to get out of a small town, to use what currency you have?

The read was made more poignant by knowing what is coming in the sequels. But it’s still a good book, on its own or in the series. It’s of its time again, though with fewer slurs (there isn’t any direct racism, although characters display overt racist characteristics: in the trip to Mexico, the local people are distinguished and not stereotypes, and really when the two American lads end up with no money, they were asking to be fleeced).

Book review – Rumer Godden – “Black Narcissus”


Rather fortuitously, Ali passed me a copy of this book recently, just as the LibraryThing Virago Group we’re both in was planning a year of themed reading, with Teachers or Nuns as the first theme. So I picked up this novel about nuns with its fantastically gothic cover (and somewhat gothic events) and it was a good read, as Godden reliably is, with some reservations around language and terms (as you’d probably expect in a book set in India by a British author, published in 1939. I thought this was the only challenge this fits in with, and it’s a slightly odd contrast with all the Nordic stuff I’ve been reading recently, but astoundingly, it fills in one of the remaining years in my Century of Reading!

Rumer Godden – “Black Narcissus”

(05 December 2021 – from Ali)

A group of nuns from a fictional order with its Mother Convent in Surrey travel north into the very edges of Darjeeling to set up a convent, school and clinic in a disused “palace” half-way up a hill, looking over the Himalayas to Kanchenjunga. Their only help is The General, a man living in the shadow of the memory of his more exciting father and, more practically, Mr Dean, said to have “gone native” (more on terminology later) and able to get things done either himself or with the help of the local people. A group of English nuns, between the wars, stuck on their own in a slightly peculiar ex “house of the women” where concubines used to live, thrown on their own resources with one reasonably fit and healthy man going in and out (I don’t want to subscribe to stereotypes about nuns, but if you put a man in a nunnery, he’s going to be a Chekhov’s Gun of a man, isn’t he?) and with one among them who is likely to be trouble, and is from the start – throw in a creepy Ayah who is used to having the place to herself and mourning her dead mistress, the flamboyant son of the General who only wants to learn, and a ripe and luscious local girl, and a sort of amorphous mob of public opinion and you’re asking for something melodramatic to happen.

We see things through some people’s eyes more than others, and Sister Clodagh, the Sister Superior in charge, gets to show us her reason for becoming a nun, having flashbacks of memories of a lost love that she thought she’d tamped down. The local town acts as a sort of chorus, sardonic Mr Dean as a warning and recording angel, and the mysterious holy man who lives above the convent a sort of immovable figure, showing that everything will go on as it has been before when the nuns are inevitably thrown off the mountain. The psychological stresses within and between the central characters are subtly done and draw us on through the narrative as things wind up to their conclusion – whatever that might be.

It’s an entertaining novel and well done – but of course there are colonial attitudes to get through (although to be sort of fair on Godden, she praises her characters when they start to see the “natives” as individual humans). There are comical and naive locals, superstitions that the nuns try to stamp out, and while they’re seen as being inflexible and not seeking to understand, but to impose their standards on the village, and that this is not a good thing, there is also some really regrettable language that causes the modern reader to wince. An interesting period piece that needs to be read with an understanding of the context and the change in how we would interact with these Indigenous populations now.

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