Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Henry and Cato” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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“Henry and Cato” is the later book I remember least, even though I have to have read it at least four times now. I always remember there’s the dodgy character of Beautiful Joe and a rather sulky inheritor, but the details had once again escaped me. Once I’d re-read it, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think. Is it actually a thriller? Does it work as a thriller? Does it work better than “The Nice and the Good” which is the other one with thriller elements? I’ll try to unpick my thoughts and many, many post-it notes, and look forward to hearing everyone else’s reactions.

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “Henry and Cato”

(08 January 2018)

We open so memorably (OK, I will admit to always recalling this scene when crossing Hungerford Bridge myself, but never quite remembering which book it’s out of) with someone called Cato dropping a gun into the Thames, in a bit of a state. And of course in a lovely echo and doubling, he’s popping back over the bridge with something else bulky in his coat in the closing moments of the book. In between he goes through an ordeal which he survives but doesn’t feel he acquitted himself well in – his father certainly doesn’t think so, but did he?

We are then introduced to Henry, a bit spoilt, a rubbish academic, coming back to the UK to claim his inheritance after his loathed brother has died. He considers his mother, then we cut to her and faithful retainer Lucius, and Cato’s father John, disappointed in his unacademic daughter, all concurrently – which I think is a masterful stroke that shows IM’s confidence and technical ability as a novelist (something I’m not entirely certain the book shows off all the way through). IM gets into her element describing Laxlinden Hall – has she had a lovely big house to dwell on quite so happily since “The Bell”? Henry will decide what to do and bend everyone to his will before curiously giving up. Cato will stick to his principles until he suddenly doesn’t. Everything will be changed but still somehow the same, and two people will die, only one violently. Oh, and there’s a faithless priest in an abandoned house in an East London wasteland, which we’ve definitely had before, haven’t we.

We have the usual Murdochian themes and echoes of other books. Themes-wise, we find out very early on that Henry is writing a book on an artist, John Forbes intends to write one on Quakerism, and Lucius is also writing a book, which is getting shorter and more personal as he approaches the end of his life. The theme of ageing women comes in again, with Gerda coming in for a hard time, Lucius wondering if she dyes her hair, and noticing, “Of course she was faded and her features were less fine” (p. 10) (that “of course” is harsh, isn’t it?). Women’s lots are discussed – John Forbes has always “fought for women’s liberation” but sees women as having an “invincible stupidity” which somewhat undermines that (p. 20). Stephanie is described right from the start in fairly disgusting/disgusted terms, with her moustache and her greasy nose, her fat and her unflattering clothes, and her ageing is pinned down cruelly, too:

How strangely and mysteriously evident was the ageing of the body. A weariness in the breasts, in the buttocks, a certain coarsening and staleness of the flesh, proclaim the years as much as lines and wrinkles can. (p. 166)

Siblings abound, of course, and they either complement or are wildly contrasted – “really Sandy was just a big calm relaxed man, unlike dark manic Henry” (p. 16). We climb over a wall with Henry, notably at the start of the book but then also over the gate between Laxlinden and the Forbes estate. And of course we also find ourselves looking at people standing outside windows (Henry, seen by Gerda), looking through windows (on Henry’s first arrival, peering at his mother), trailing across gardens (Henry seems to be forever running off down the terraces) and indeed following people, with Henry following Colette through the bamboo (as one does; and she comes back, which is unusual: does this signify that she’s more his equal?). Colette is the one with the hair, apart from Henry’s dark curls and Joe’s weird blond bob: she even has straight and flat bits of hair that frame her face, although they’re not metallic like some people’s. She looks like her hair has been cut when Henry visits her after her injury (although it hasn’t been: she has remained whole (see below)). Gerda also stands with her “pale, broad face thrust forward” (p. 109) which is a common Murdochian way to arrange oneself.

There are flashes of humour in this odd book with its large themes. When Henry thinks of his brother being dead, he is said to have “flexed his toes with joy” (p. 3) The descriptions of Lucius’ creeping age, “a kind of itching ache was crawling about his body, making it impossible for him to find comfort in any position” (p. 10) shouldn’t be funny but is in light of his fussiness, and he’s a creature of arrogance who we laugh at – and also produces that dreadful poetry that so upsets Gerda in a very funny scene where she’s found it in his room: “Clump, clump. The old girl” (p. 201). The sentence, “He had lived on talk and curiosity and drink and the misfortunes of his friends” seems perfect. There’s also the lovely detail of the different kinds of holy men, with Cato finding Father Thomas dull and Father Thomas thinking he’s a “frivolous amateur”:

Of course, Cato and Father Thomas, being decent sincere men of God, recognized their prejudices as prejudices. But this did not stop them from quietly feuding. (p. 34)

I really giggled at the description of Henry, having met Stephanie for the first time: “As he began to calm down he bought himself four very expensive shirts” (p. 104) and he also has a very odd scene playing with hats.

We have one of our mysterious figures who moves the plot along in certain ways (near the end in her case) in Rhoda, whose speech is unintelligible to everyone except for Gerda (was she given to her like Biscuit was to Lady Kitty). She doesn’t run her errands for her, but a mystery hinges on her. What an odd character. Along with the mystery, fate leans and breathes heavily over the action as often seems to happen (c.f. all the portents in “Sacred and Profane”: “[Henry] felt panic, terror, a kind of nebulous horror as if he were a man destined by dark forces to commit a murder for which he had no will and of which he had no understanding” (p. 59) – although of course he doesn’t, and this is probably something about accepting contingency which I’m trying to grasp to understand myself.

Seeing and attention, which IM is obviously famous for talking about and which slip into the novels more and more as time passes, are prominent here. Beautiful Joe says early on, “You’re the only one who can really see me at all” (p. 38). Gerda mentions that Henry cannot see his future wife (Stephanie) when she’s met her and observed them. Gerda herself is described as having “attended carefully to Stephanie” (p. 315) and reaches an understanding with her (in the literal and figurative senses, it turns out).

There’s a very odd quirk in the language – did anyone else notice this? We have “adjective Henry” all over the place, as well as bird-headed Rhoda and philistine Sandy: changeling Henry, much-travelled Henry, etc., etc.

The portrait of Gerda’s grief is very moving, as she tries to hold herself together and not make a fuss. I didn’t much notice her as a character originally but I feel she’s very brave, actually. An almost feminist point gets made about a certain kind of woman at a certain point in time and society:

I suppose that women … learn pretty early on that they’ve got to be alone and bear things alone, even when they’re in the bosom of their family. (p. 196)

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Henry seems to enchant Stephanie but then she’s looking for an owner to create (“You needed me and you invented me” (p. 264)) and he wants to keep her submissive rather than being created as an enchanter figure. They enchant each other, “So it turned out that in an upside-down way, he was her captive, not she his” (p. 165) but then Henry also admits that, having been bullied, maybe he was looking for someone to bully (certainly thus not doing the absorbing of pain that IM espouses).

Cato tries to be a hero and maybe even though he commits a crime in truth, it’s more like when Tallis drives the assailant away in the Chinese restaurant in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, as he’s doing it to protect someone weaker. He also has a revelation when imprisoned, but his this the kind that is had in “The Unicorn” or a lasting one? He also finds he has to “hold onto myself” – is this the opposite of unselfing? Father Brendan has too fancy and well-arranged an apartment to be a saint (Cato lives in a smelly state). Or is it Colette, who restores order and knows her own mind, but is fearless in protecting her brother? She has her own trial and comes through wounded but stronger, and gets what she always wanted. Is that the reward of a saint, though or something else? She certainly doesn’t pass pain on, as she knows about the lack of accomplices but doesn’t tell Cato. She tries to even love her enemies, saying of Joe, “you must try to love people even when it’s hard or awfully odd” (p. 286)She’s also used by Henry to give himself courage, “the thought of her wholeness and her courage entered into him like a spear, like a hard line of pure non-Henry in the midst of the humiliating jelly of his personal terror” (p. 260). And I’m glad that her father sees her as “the heroic one” in the end, although he’s too hard on Cato, perhaps. Could Gerda be seen to be a saint, absorbing her own suffering (although she does impose it on Lucius, doesn’t she?). She does have some netsuke, always a good indication of Good, although she happily parts with them (in a Buddhist way?).  In the end, maybe it’s Colette and Cato’s dead mother who was the saint, described as such by her children:

She was the sort of saint that no one notices or sees, she was almost invisible. (p. 335)

In a nod to “A Severed Head”, Henry, Bella and Russ have discussed Henry’s affair with Bella with their analyst. John Forbes buying Oak Meadow echoes Monty wanting to buy his end of the garden in “Sacred and Profane”. The mention of John’s engagement with Quakerism reminds me of N and his community in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. Surely it’s a hat-tip to “The Black Prince” when Henry randomly sends Russ a postcard of the Post Office Tower? Cato mentions the underground warrens underneath government offices that play such a part in “The Nice and the Good”.

I’ve not even mentioned the religious aspects: I found them interesting and the network of religious sponsors and mentors fascinating. I loved how Father Brendan described priesthood as being like a marriage, long-term and needing to be worked on after the first excitement of love. But I’ve written a lot and if you’ve got this far, I salute you!


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Sara Marcus – “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution” #amreading

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A bit of a late review here as I’m over half-way through my next two books (“Henry and Cato” and “The Library of Ice” – about 60% of the way through both!) but a great read that my lovely friend Sian gave me for my birthday in 2018 – she always gets it spot-on with booky presents and in fact I’m going to be lending this back to her now! This one came under my “oldest on the TBR” category and I can confirm I’m enjoying dotting back and forth between new acquisitions and old favourites from the front left!

Sara Marcus – “Girls to the Front”

(21 January 2018)

Undermining the subtitle, the author makes it quite clear in a number of places that this is A history of the Riot Grrrl movement rather than THE history, although it’s as meticulously researched and referenced as any work of academic history. I came to Riot Grrrl a bit late (in the late 80s and early 90s I was more of a goth then a grebo when I couldn’t be bothered with all the hair and makeup, being briefly vaguely trendy when I was into the Madchester stuff and sliding back into dark and noisy obscure stuff and twee pop with a side serving of Erasure and The Men They Couldn’t Hang) and although I was already a strong feminist, I was more aware of the music side. So this was a revelation to me and a great read that made me wish I could rewind a few decades.

So it was much more than a music genre, starting in a DIY movement which was about art and music and feminism, about teenage girls joining forces against a society that was trying to shape them and an art scene that was seemingly for the boys. These teenage girls were encouraged to talk about their experiences, raise their consciousnesses and find safety in numbers, thrillingly getting to know about each other through secret signs drawn on their arms in marker pen or shrinky-dink pendants. As well as sharing stories and organising chapters, they were encouraged to form their own bands.

Marcus introduces her own experiences in the introduction then goes on to chart the movement from its beginnings to its fading. She carefully uses women and girls’ own words, including texts and images from zines either reproduced or typed out in courier font – a nice touch. She explains how Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill became the movement’s de facto leader because she saw the need for it and “knew that feminism could save lives,” but never wanted to be a leader and moved back from that position, how the next short generation took it on, how the local then mainstream media examined and distorted it, and how the movement reacted, charting dozens of lives and experiences as they interwove and somehow keeping track of them all.

The twin centres of Olympia and Washington DC are documented as well as smaller mid-West chapters (and the reaction to Riot Grrrl in the UK, briefly), and the book discusses who wasn’t Riot Grrrl (Courtney Love, famously, apparently) and why, and where all those cute hairslides came from (reclaiming lost childhoods). The differences between this movement and 1970s and early 90s adult feminism are drawn out interestingly – there are fewer position papers and resolutions, more forums, zines and, to an extent, group voices, although a hegemony does arise over media interviews and the like. There are also different views on the fractured and fractious issue of sex work. It also addresses what we’d call intersectionality and the role and part-exclusion of working class women and women of colour in the movement.

Marcus ends by exhorting readers to “tell your own stories. Tell what I left out” wherever they are and whatever position they’re in, being carefully inclusive, and following the DIY ethic to the end. there’s then a useful round-up of what many of the women featured did next, although it’s worth bearing in mind this was published in 2010.

A great and fascinating read with much to learn about and some familiar stuff.

Shiny Linkiness and book review – Elizabeth Emens – “The Art of Life Admin” @ShinyNewBooks @ElizFEmens

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This was the last book I read in March: I left my review at the end of the month sitting in the Shiny New Books publishing queue and here it is, published today.

Elizabeth Emens’ “The Art of Life Admin: How to do less, do it better, and live more” takes as its topic the office-type admin you have to do AROUND chores (so choosing a new dishwasher but not loading it; arranging play dates but not overseeing them), how people face them, and the different styles people have around life admin and how we can learn from these styles. It’s well-researched and referenced and has a list of handy hints at the end to save the admin of marking them up and noting them down: a nice touch.

Oh, and it made me Say Something to my husband!

Read more.

Thank you to the publisher Penguin / Viking for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review in Shiny.

Book review – Jennifer Niven – “Holding up the Universe” @jenniferniven #amreading

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A foray into YA today, an age group I’m not averse to, although I’m not keen on vampires and the like and keep it to the more real-life stuff. In the case of this book, I came to it via the prosopagnosia group I’m in, because one of the two central characters has proso (or face-blindness) just like me (read about my experiences with it here on my professional blog). I have to admit to a little trepidation, because would she get it right? Reader, she did: very, very right. And it was a good read it in its own right, too.

Jennifer Niven – “Holding up the Universe”

(13 March 2019)

A marvellous YA novel with its central characters a fat girl (who used to be America’s Fattest Teen, and has lost enough weight to be able to run and buy clothes at the mall but no more with no plans to lose more) and a boy with the best-described (OK, only) case of prosopagnosia I’ve seen in fiction.

Libby is going back to high school after a couple of years of hiding away and home-schooling, and Jack’s trying to keep an eye on his younger brothers, especially Dusty, who’s just started carrying a handbag around, although this is tricky when he has to constantly recalibrate who they are (he has it worse than me, knowing someone is his mum because it’s a woman in his house and he can extrapolate from there). Libby’s weight loss doesn’t win her a boyfriend, as some more conventional narratives would have it: working on herself and going back to school with her head held high give her friends, and if it’s a choice between losing weight and losing one of her dreams, well, you trust the author on this one. She’s her own authentic self, even when that brings her into the public eye – although the first spotlight on her is not exactly her fault.

The two teens meet when Jack does something disrespectful to Libby but with good motives, to prevent he from having someone more malevolent target her in a new craze (there is no animal cruelty (in fact the elderly cat makes it through to the end) or hazing, as some reviews have mentioned a shocking incident: it is shocking, but not gratuitous). They reach an understanding and start to fall in love with one another, in a nicely believable, supportive and respectful way (sometimes this seems a bit twee in YA books but then the young adults I know are pretty respectful and open-minded, so …).

But the best bits are the bits describing prosopagnosia. Niven has done her research (and thanks those who helped her) and it shows, but is put in naturally. There’s such a good explanation that I will try to remember and use myself:

“So you can see my face, but you can’t remember it.”

“Something like that. It’s not like faces are a blank. I see eyes, noses, mouths. I just can’t associated them with specific people. Not like how you, as in Libby, can take a mental snapshot of someone and store it away in your mind for next time. I take a snapshot, and it immediately goes in the trash. If it takes you one or two meetings to be able to remember someone, it can take me a hundred. Or never. It’s kind of like amnesia or like trying to tell everyone apart by their hands.”

She glances down at her hands and then at mind. “So when you turn away and then you turn back, you’re not sure who I am?”

“Intellectually, I get that it’s you. But i don’t believe it, if that makes sense. I have to convince myself all over again.” (p. 145)

Like the rest of us, he uses signifiers, the way someone walks, the shape of their nose, the colour of their hair, the sound of their voice, to identify them.

And then look at what happens when Jack is asked to hand out test results to the class:

The class is looking at me as I look at them. There are four kids who are definite IDs. Three, I’m fairly sure I don’t know and am not supposed to know (but I’m not completely, totally sure). Eight are in the gray zone, better known as the danger zone. (p. 43)

It even has one scene where, panicked, Jack only sees blurred disks rather than faces with features – this has happened to me very rarely and is very uncomfortable. Libby gets it and announces to Jack who she is when she comes up to him (hooray for friends who do this!) and when he finally “comes out” about it, some friends laugh, some get it wrong, “I heard you went blind,” and some research it and arm themselves with the facts – pretty representative of real life, where it’s always better to tell people, I’ve found.

Libby is comfortable with who she is: “Why should what I weigh affect other people?” she asks (p. 310) but she’s worked hard on herself to get here and shows that’s something people can do. And she’s a powerful force for good in Jack’s life, but also seen as attractive in her own right. A good read and one I will be telling the proso groups all about!


Do feel free it you want to ask me anything about prosopagnosia in the comments!

Book review and GIVEAWAY – Anja Snellman (trans. Timo Luhtanen) – “Continents” #amreading

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Do you like reading books by Women in Translation? Do other people’s relationships fascinate you? Do you like reading about exactly what life is like in other countries? Do you make it an aim to support small presses?

If so, this book is for you, and there’s a copy as a prize for one lucky blog reader!

About the author, from the back of the book:

“One of the leading names in contemporary Northern European fiction, Anja Snellman has authored 25 novels, with translations into more than 20 languages. Her debut, “Sonia O. was here”, remains the highest-selling first novel in the history of Finnish literature”.

You can find out more about the publisher, New Terrain Press, here.

Anja Snellman – “Continents”

(24 March 2019, kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review)

First of all, this small paperback is a lovely, well-made object and the cover excellent. I’m glad I was sent the physical object as well as the e-book. Impeccably translated, it takes a forensic view of a couple’s journey through what the impulsive, artistic Oona describes as “the continents of love”, from sultry Asia, where it’s mostly about the bedroom and you learn a lot of information, not all useful, to, perhaps, the threat of Antarctica.

Originally published in Finnish in 2005, it feels like a very European (both in its general feel and in its openness to discussing matters of a sexual nature) and modern (the pulls that all couples feel come to the fore) and can be devoured in a couple of sittings or savoured. It’s highly competent and well-written and there’s not even a hint of the noir about it, which is refreshing for this reader!

The couple’s social milieu as they grow and age is gently but expertly skewered: Oona’s friends are described, for example, as people

who were always on their way to or from the opening of a performance art event or an art exhibition, who had a hammock in their bedroom, who cut their own hair, and whose T-shirts proclaimed Feminist Fatale. (p. 54)

As they travel through Australia, the land of small children and discovery, and Europe with its new hobbies and redecoration projects, Oona’s cartoon couple, whose books she lives off, Rainbow and Scoop, echo her and Alex’s journey, their cats pass through their lives (this is sensitively done and not too massively upsetting) and their children grow up and react to them, in a skilful interweaving. Oona wants a room of her own, and Alex grows a beard in some desperation: you root for them but also enjoy their life being exposed in this clever and highly technically competent novel with a warm heart.


Would you like to win a copy of “Continents”? It’s a quick read and a good one and the publisher has kindly offered a copy to one of my readers. Simple post a comment making it clear you’d like to win and I’ll pick a winner at random on 15 April and contact you for your address.

(Comp small print: you will need to give me your address to pass to the publisher, this will not put you on any tricky mailing list and you can rest assured they will delete your address once they’ve sent out the book. If you really don’t want them to have your address, you can give it to me and I’ll post your copy on, but I do know and trust the publisher!).

Book review – Ayisha Malik – “This Green and Pleasant Land” #GreenAndPleasantBook #NetGalley

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This lovely novel was written by Nadiya Hussain’s ghostwriter, who has also written two previous books under her own name. The blurb talking of a man labouring under a deathbed request to build a mosque in an English village, and indeed the cover image, appealed when I was sent details via NetGalley and I immediately requested it. I was not disappointed, and this book will interest anyone who enjoys reading culture clash (or mix!) books and those exploring faith and duty.

Ayisha Malik – “This Green and Pleasant Land”

(12 March 2019; published 13 June 2019)

Bilal and Mariam moved from Birmingham to a quintessentially English village eight years ago and he’s on the parish council while she freelances and writes articles for the local paper. Then “Bill”‘s mum dies, and her dying wish is for him to reconnect to Islam and particularly to build a mosque in the village (she doesn’t ask him to dig a grave in his back garden and give lying in it a whirl, as she did a while back, but he picks up that idea and runs with it). He pushes back against the idea for a bit then has a bit of a religious epiphany, has a chat with the lovely local vicar, and starts to look into what to do.

Soon the village is divided, although along strangely fractured lines in places: will the support of the liberal vicar and their neighbour Margaret (in whom, with her over-enthusiasm for learning about other cultures and beam when she manages to greet a Muslim in Arabic, I rather uncomfortably saw myself), be enough to see them through? Will Aunty Khala, with her English learning and salwar kameez stuffed into wellies and Bilal’s best mate Vaseem, with his call-to-prayer app, startle the sleepy village into tolerance or help build more barricades?

There’s a lot in here about language and identity – Bilal is “just not myself in Punjabi” but sees Selly Oak through a lens of Muslim life (as I know Selly Oak really well, this was a fascinating passage for me, seeing it through someone’s very different eyes) and Khala and her natural enemy reach a truce in mutual incomprehension.

I loved the layers of characters in the village, the visiting Aunties, the touching relationship between Haaris and his great-aunt and Mariam’s pull between self-help videos and her over-religious ex-husband and Bilal’s gentle character. I especially loved the sneaky Goodness Gracious Me reference, which had me hooting out loud with laughter! A great read with a lot of depth but still entertaining and even silly at times (in a good way).

Thank you to publisher Bonnier Zaffre for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Janet McNeill – “The Maiden Dinosaur” #readingirelandmonth

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reading ireland 2019This book was read for Reading Ireland Month (read about it at 746 Books here) and in fact came from Cathy at 746 books last year: she reviewed it here and then had a competition to win a copy, which I won! So it seemed only appropriate to read and review this book for this year’s month of Irish literature. I started it before I went on holiday and finished it on my return, even though it’s a slim volume, but I picked up the threads just fine.

Janet McNeill – “The Maiden Dinosaur”

(25 May 2018, from Cathy at 746 Books)

50-year-old Sarah Vincent lives in a flat in her old family home, with two old school friends occupying other flats and the daughter of another, a young mum with a flighty husband, in the stable block. One of her contemporaries is a resigned wife, the other the brilliant, fragile and beloved monster, Helen, whose every whim must be attended to. Yes, she has had her tragedies in life, but she’s from a guess not an ask culture and poor Sarah spends a lot of energy guessing what she wants from her, while watching her go through other people’s husbands. Oh, also living in the house are the ghosts of Sarah’s parents, but not of her governess, who still holds on and has to be visited in her nursing home. School pupils of Sarah’s come to special teas or lessons and thoughtlessly trample her smallish life.

Sarah is a Good Woman, a devoted, dowdy teacher, visitor of the afflicted, listening ear to her cousin, and never thought of as having her own life or emotions. She’s beautifully drawn and you do root for the worm to turn. Her life and those of her old friends are skillfully interwoven and described, with the layers you see of the schoolgirl in your old friend, the tiny triumphs and rivalries of ageing, the terrible indignities of trying to buy a decent dress, and the karmic kindnesses returning to you.

There’s something of an experimental form in this quiet but not predictable novel, with shifting locations, all presided over by the Irish landscape and narratives from the point of view of other characters every now and again. One character hears a phone ring three times but it’s ringing in three different places for three different people, something that unfolds until you remember that sentence about Addie hearing the rings as she settles into bed – beautifully done. And is that a glimmer of hope at the end?

 

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