By , on 29 January 2019
My application to the UCL DIS Strategic Fund 2017-18 was due to my research interests in oral history, community archives and migration studies, and my aspiration to work in digital humanities projects documenting the lives and histories of the African diaspora. With the success of my funding application, I was able to take two external oral history related training workshops delivered by the Oral History Society. The first training, ‘Introduction to Oral History’ (held in June 2018), provided a general overview and practical tips in conducting and documenting oral history. The second training session, ‘Lives in Focus: Recording: oral history interviews on video’ (held October 2018), equipped me with an understanding and skills to conduct oral histories and interviews on camera.
After the training, I felt more confident to develop a small project exploring the history of the current Sierra Leonean commmunity in London. Working with Hannah Isalem (DIS PhD candidate), and with encouragement from Dr Andrew Flinn, Hannah and I submitted an application to the UCL Beacon Bursary in 2018. This application requested funds to deliver a public engagement, co-production and reflective project on the techniques in community archiving, and an opportunity to record personal accounts of Sierra Leoneans who have made London their home. This application was successful and as a result we are currently delivering the ‘Creating and Finding Voices: the role of oral histories and community-led archives in the African diaspora’ project.
The ‘Creating and Finding Voices’ project has two primary aims:
(1) to increase the awareness and uses of oral histories in historical research and studies, and
(2) increase the number of personal accounts based on the contemporary history of Sierra Leone and its diaspora.
Following on from this project, the next stage is to widen the project’s remit to include working with Sierra Leonean communities outside of London, so to document the accounts of Sierra Leoneans living there.
Many thanks for the support!
Nenna Orie Chuku
2nd year Digital Humanities postgraduate student
By , on 24 January 2019
This blog post is about my entry to the University of London Anthony Davies Book Collecting Prize 2018, and about my experiences having won the prize. Hopefully it might inspire others to think about their books in a different way, and to enter the prize themselves.
As part of my MA in Archives and Records Management, I took Anne Welsh’s course in Historical Bibliography — the only ARM student who did, the other students were all from LIS. It was a great course, and because of it I received an email from Anne advertising the Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize run by the Senate House Library. I decided to submit an entry of books which I had been accumulating over many years. These books were loosely based round the theme of Household and Domestic management, and ranged in date from the mid eighteenth century to the mid twentieth.
The details about the Prize were a little sketchy, but the deadline for the entry was fast approaching, so I listed 12 books from my shelves and wrote a short essay and submitted them to the Library. I was very pleased to hear a couple of weeks later that I had been shortlisted and that I was invited to make a presentation to the judging panel. I was assured that the judging would not be an intimidating experience. Despite this, when I arrived rather nervously at the Senate House on the appointed day, clutching a box containing some of my books, I was ushered into the Durning Lawrence Library, a beautiful and imposing room. Ranged along one side of a long wooden table were five august judges.
Quickly, however, they put me at my ease and I talked to them about my books. I didn’t have a slick presentation, I just talked about my favourite things about my books, what it is that makes me love them. Many of the things I like about my books are not the sort of things that most book collectors like, particularly signs of use such as grease-spatters or smoke-stains, or annotations made by previous users. Some of my books are not published works but are handwritten account books, including one of my favourites which was written by Mrs Eliza Blackmore, housekeeper, for the year starting 16 July 1767. Most of them were written by women, and were aimed at women, and I like the social insights they afford us into women’s lives over the last 250 years.
The judging panel asked a lot of questions, especially about my collection parameters, and buying strategies, which I answered as best I could, although it did bring home to me that I didn’t really have much of a strategy, I just buy books I like which are not too expensive.
The interview passed very quickly, and I left having enjoyed myself but convinced that I would not have won because of my very non-theoretically based approach to collecting books. I was delighted to receive an email a couple of weeks later telling me that I had co-won the prize, together with Musa Igrek from Goldsmiths College.
For the prize, as well as money (£300) I was given the opportunity to put on an exhibition in the Senate House Library, which was on display in October and November 2018, and Musa and I had a display case each. I enjoyed the experience of picking which books to include, writing the labels and liaising with the curators about making the stands for the books to display them. The publicity was a little slow to come out, but finally it did.
Another part of the prize was to choose an addition to the Senate House library within the scope of my collection. Together with Dr Karen Attar, Rare Books Librarian at the Senate House Library, I decided on a manuscript book, because I am an archivist, and my collection includes manuscripts, and Karen found an 1802 Account Book from a London based household, which was purchased for the Library.
I was asked to give a seminar as part of an Institute of English Studies Seminar Series, and also to take part in a Panel Discussion run by the University of London Society of Bibliophiles. I found the experience of both of these very enjoyable, and it was especially good to hear my co-winner, Musa, talking about his collection, and to meet finalist from the Cambridge University Rose Book Collecting Prize, Julie Blake. Her exhibition at the Cambridge University Library runs until 2 February.
The best benefit of the Prize has been the way it has caused me to re-think my collection. Indeed, to think of my books as a collection at all instead of just the result of a slightly random book-buying habit. I have thought carefully about the parameters of the collection and about the areas I might expand it in the future, (mainly 20th century ephemera, but also more manuscript books, both of which are strangely affordable) and have also dipped my toe into buying from booksellers catalogues rather than just from actual physical bookshops. Furthermore I have met some fascinating people and learned a lot about books.
If you are a member of the University of London and have books, think about whether a selection of them may actually be a collection. Like me, you may be book collector without knowing it. The details of the 2019 Anthony Davis Book Collecting Prize will be announced soon — consider entering!
By , on 16 October 2018
As part of my dissertation for my MA in Archives and Records management, I decided to research and write my thesis on language in the archive profession with a specific focus on Arabic. My aims were to highlight the ways in which language, a system of signs, impacts how we perceive ourselves as archivists, how we ‘dress’ ourselves with these signs, and how in turn this may mean others perceive us too.
Upon discovering the UCL branch in Doha, Qatar, with a department related to archive studies, I took the chance to apply to the Dean’s Fund in hopes of potentially covering my travel expenses and this leap of faith definitely worked in my favour! I was able to travel to Doha and meet various professionals in a variety of settings.
My first stop was at the Qatar National Library (QNL), which has recently opened a heritage section. Various professionals have been working towards setting up an archive that will hopefully set a precedent for a high standard of archiving in the country. The library itself is magnificent, utterly brand new, and the tools and equipment being used for the growing archive is of excellent quality. The current exhibition of Qatar’s history is definitely an amazing site to see – especially the records and documents relating to pearl hunting, one of main forms of income of the Qatari economy in the first half of the twentieth century (See: left, a thesaurus of the different types of pearls). My visit to QNL meant I was able to meet all those on the archive team and see how their roles fit into the expansion of the archive and its progress. This trip to the QNL helped me understand the struggles that the institution is still facing and how the team at QNL are working hard to overcome them.
My second visit was to the UCL branch of Doha and I was able to meet the head of the archives course, Dr Sumayya Ahmed, and discuss not only my own dissertation ideas but also the ways in which the region of the Middle East is coming to grips with archives and the various archive legacies that have existed in the region prior to the contemporary ‘version’ of the role of archivist. Dr Ahmed kindly advised me to visit a nearby mosque that was utterly breathtaking and definitely worth taking time out to walk around and experience myself, even in 45 degree weather! (See: left)
My third visit happened entirely by chance due to the friends I already knew in Doha and their connections with others – I was able to have my own personal tour of the Al Jazeera media network! Not only was I put in touch with the longstanding head archivist there, but I was also able to spend an entire morning with the news media archivist and was given the chance to see their bespoke Collection Management System that is accessible and used across the globe for all other Al Jazeera archivists working in the News department. In addition to this, I was also able to visit their onsite storage and see how a news channel works in tandem with archive material on an almost hourly basis. While not necessarily related to my dissertation, this trip meant I was able to see how much an archive is valued from a corporate and business continuity perspective, and utilised at a much faster rate and in a much more busy environment. It was an invaluable experience and I’m extremely grateful I was given the opportunity to walk around and see an archive support an entire organisation in order for it to function.
My trip to Doha, Qatar was an incredible and eye-opening experience. I’m eternally grateful that the fund was able to help support this goal of mine and I am extremely glad I took the opportunity to apply. Thanks to this visit I was able to reposition my perspective on the archives in the region of the Middle East, shift my academic lens that may have otherwise have been quite limited, and was able to meet a whole spectrum of people related to the archive profession.
By Hannah M Smith, on 2 October 2018
My dissertation gave me the joyful opportunity to visit exciting, innovative, passionate bookshops in the UK, all initiated and run by local people. In the process of my research, I have become fascinated by, perhaps obsessed, with the wonders and intricacies of community businesses. I travelled the country to find out more about each of these bookshops and to pick their brains about what makes them tick, why they began in the first place and how they fit into their local community, and into the UK’s book industry.
First up I visited the bookshop that inspired my dissertation: Crediton Community Bookshop. This bookshop is situated in a small market town in Mid Devon and serves the town and surrounding rural area. A bookshop bought by the community in 2012, CCB has come a long way: they have bought a new premises, created partnerships with many local organisations, and have won awards for their wide-reaching schools programme. They have exciting plans to expand their team and services – so what this space! (Well not this space, but their website!)
Next up, I travelled to the beautiful Malvern Hills to Malvern Book Cooperative. MBC is a co-operative society and have over 100 members. The shop is run by four part-time staff who are passionate about different areas of the business. MBC have a café – in the three hours I was in the shop it was lovely to see so many members, locals and tourists pop into the shop, enjoying the tasty cake and browsing shelves filled with beautiful books. They also have an impressive events programme featuring a wide variety of authors.
A few weeks later I visited October Books, a 40-year-old bookshop in Southampton. One of the longest-running UK community bookshops, OB were part of a pioneering collective of cooperative societies in Southampton at the end of the 20th century. OB are proud of their diverse, eco-friendly products. Alongside books, OB sell fairly-traded products, eco-friendly toiletries and organic food. October Books began as a worker’s coop: the staff own the shop. They have a large volunteer support network, which provides opportunities for many of Southampton’s students. OB have also just purchased a bank…
Whilst staying with my Gran, I took a day trip to the Norfolk town of Wymondham to visit Kett’s Books. KB is a Community Interest Company, a company created to benefit its community. KB serves a wide range of customers, supports and hosts numerous book groups, has a thriving schools programme and a large focus on ensuring their volunteers are utilised and nurtured. You can find out more about KB by checking out this lovely little report they produce every year.
At around this time I was offered my first publishing job (yay!) and so the time available to finish my dissertation interviews disappeared. One day in May I managed to visit two: Clevedon Community Bookshop and Dartmouth Community Bookshop. ClCB is the only second-hand community bookshop in the UK (or at least it was when I visited; there is now another in Glossop – George Street Books). They have an overwhelming amount of stock and incredibly dedicated staff who manage, catalogue, move and rebind their books. Due to the high value of many of the books they sell, ClCB have a thriving online business. They also host writing groups and local author events and have even published a couple of books of their own!
After a speedy (but not too speedy) journey from North Somerset to South Devon, I arrived at Dartmouth Community Bookshop. DCB sits nestled in the cobbled streets of the seaside town and fits the atmosphere beautifully. The bookshop opened when the Harbour Bookshop (founded by A. A. Milne’s son) announced its impending closure. Locals didn’t want the town to be without a bookshop and so gathered together to create a community bookshop. Dartmouth have a symbiotic relationship with the local library and, with their one paid manager and team of volunteers, have ensured the presence of a bookshop in Dartmouth.
In the two working days before I started my new job I managed to finish off my interviews. Due to Moon Lane Ink’s recent launch, it wasn’t possible to meet with the manager. I was, however, able to grab her for a 20-minute phone call and chat about all the exciting things they’re doing. MLI came about when Tales on Moon Lane, an innovative, award-winning bookshop in London, wanted to expand their social enterprise activities. In order to do this, they set up a Community Interest Community that aims to raise equality in children’s publishing. They achieve this by taking authors into schools, organising book fairs and class visits to the bookshop, and encouraging families in their reading habits.
My last visit was to BookTrust, a children’s reading charity whose programmes aim to inspire reading for pleasure and ensure all children have access to books. They do this through gifting programmes and curating suggested reading lists across a variety of categories. Whilst this charity obviously isn’t a community bookshop, it was fascinating to hear about the positive social impact they are having on children throughout the UK.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit News from Nowhere (a radical bookshop in Liverpool) but if I ever have the opportunity to expand on my dissertation research they will be my first stop!
These shops are all run by members of the local community and reflect the individuality of each location. If you ever get the chance, pop into any (or all) of them and ask about their story!
By , on 18 June 2018
In the next few days I will be travelling to Athens with fellow LIS student Justine Humphrey to volunteer with the ECHO Refugee Library. As Justine has eloquently written in a previous post, this wonderful mobile library project aims to ‘nurture a space of learning and creativity, a place to cultivate the mind – that one part of us that can never be held captive.’
Like Justine, my involvement in this project came about in an equally serendipitous way. In April last year, just before a volunteering trip to Thessaloniki for the charity Help Refugees, I was thinking about the need that refugees in Greece must have for books as a vital way of stimulating their minds and escaping their difficult circumstances. The next day I came across a blogpost by a volunteer who had worked with ECHO and luckily, on my final day in Greece, I was able to meet with Esther and Laura, the inspirational co-founders of the library, who had run the project full-time for several months. I went away determined to do what I could to support them in their work. In August I embarked on a 5-day fundraising walk from the Bodleian Library to the British Library, and in November was privileged to ‘host’ the mobile library outside the Bodleian as well as attend a talk by Esther and Laura at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford as part of their advocacy trip around the UK.
In the meantime I had started the MA in Library and Information Studies at UCL and met a like-minded individual in Justine, so it was only natural that we organised a volunteering trip ourselves to work with the project on the ground. I am grateful for the solidarity and support shown by our department in the generous funding that has been given. My desire to help with the ongoing refugee crisis, finding the ECHO Refugee Library, and starting my librarianship qualification, have all combined to steer me in the direction of studying the vital role that libraries can and do perform for society, marginalised groups, and for those who find themselves in crisis situations. Like Justine, I hope my experiences and studies will provide a foundation for a dissertation within this area.
Why a library for refugees? I am reminded by what Simon Schama said in the final episode of the BBC series Civilisations, that refugees are the “shipwrecked of civilisation”, who are “cast adrift on an infinite ocean of terror and despair.” I returned to this thought due to the recent story of the rescue ship Aquarius, laden with migrants but sailing aimlessly at sea when no country would open its ports. This perfectly captures the refugee’s state of wandering and waiting: sometimes they cannot even find dry land, let alone a permanent new home. Having read much literature over the past year and having talked to people on the ground, it has struck me that there is minimal provision given to help refugees, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, ‘build a life beyond mere survival.’ Basic humanitarian needs of shelter, food, water, and medical care, are the priority of the major aid operators—and quite rightly so, even though these are sometimes woefully inadequate themselves. But beyond this, essential services that help motivate, educate, entertain, and maintain a healthy mind, are often only found where grassroots volunteers have seen a need and independently acted—like Esther and Laura. And the longer refugees are forced to wait, the more vital these become. Boredom, anxiety, depression and, tragically, suicide are on the rise. The recent insightful book Lost Connections by Johann Hari talks about the need to be connected to various things to maintain your mental health. I have realised that refugees are disconnected from so much: home, family, friends, work, and a secure and meanignful future.
Access to a library is not, of course, a panacea. But the service that the ECHO Refugee Library provides is one important way in which a refugee can reconnect to reading, education, interests, and community, and to mentally start to build a future even if the physical reality of that future is still a long way off.
Simon Cloudesley, Library Assistant
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
Please show solidarity with us and the ECHO Refugee Library by going to:
By , on 16 May 2018
By Justine Humphrey, MA student on the Library and Information Science programme
At the end of May I will be finishing my library job for the summer, but just in case I miss the library environment I shall be working for ECHO Refugee Library http://echo-greece.org/projects/ in Athens, Greece. Together with, Education, Community, Hope and Opportunity (ECHO) the aim of the library is to nurture a space of learning and creativity, a place to cultivate the mind – that one part of us that can never be held captive. It is a place where goals and ambition can be worked towards, regardless of the grim reality of the present. The library space provides the following:
- Books and a quiet reading space
- Access to online learning and information on educational opportunities
- Language learning resources and informal small group tutoring
- Advice on university and job application processes
- A space for community-led creative workshops
Back last September I discovered the project from a poster in the staff-room at work giving details about Simon, who was walking from the Bodleian to the British Library to raise awareness and funds for the project. It caught my eye and I immediately thought about volunteering, but as I had just returned to work for the new academic year and was about to embark on a Masters in ‘Library and Information Studies’ I decided now was not appropriate, so I put it to the back of my mind and decided to wait for the right time to make contact. I started my course at UCL in early October and within two weeks I discovered that my fellow student was the Simon in the poster at work. This brought the project to my full awareness again and I started to wonder if I might be able to focus my dissertation around it.
Soon after this I had a meeting with my supervisor where I discussed the possibility of working as a volunteer for ECHO Refugee Library and using the research to write my dissertation. I expressed my concern around the sensitive nature of the refugee situation and how I did not feel comfortable using interviews and questionnaires under such fraught circumstances. My supervisor suggested I approach it as an auto-ethnography; with a degree in anthropology this was music to my ears.
With the coincidence of meeting Simon and the support of my supervisor it was confirmation that I was meant to volunteer and work for the project. So, plans have been made and both myself and Simon have committed to spending initially three weeks in June as a volunteer team to operate and support the mobile library in Athens. The cherry on the cake was when we both bid for UCL’s Dean’s Funds of £200 and were offered the full £700 for travel costs and expenses, I was blown away. Apparently this is unprecedented and confirms the commitment from UCL and their support for this unique project.
So the plan is to travel to Greece, work with ECHO Refugee Library and write about the experience as an auto-ethnography for my Masers dissertation. Along the way I hope to support and raise awareness of both the refugee’s plight and the importance of a mobile library. On my return and having lived the experience I will share more of my travels with a mobile library.
Justine Humphrey, Library Assistant
Oxford Brookes University
If you would like to support ECHO and help them keep ‘dreams and drive alive’ go to: https://chuffed.org/project/echorefugeelibrary
By Hannah M Smith, on 29 April 2018
“Grantwood House is a place for marvels and magic and for radical prose.”
The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks is an enchanting, magical tale about the most disturbing and depraved elements of human survival. Taking place a couple years after the first world war, the story follows several characters that have been drastically changed by the conflict that gripped England for so long. Haunted by the challenges presented with trauma, the characters are drawn together through their search for survival and desire for a future.
Lucy Marsh and her brother Tom are orphans of the war effort. Sent to live with their grandparents in an economically failing bar, Lucy and Tom lead average childhoods. That is until one Sunday evening Lucy is invited to the woods for a fantastical meeting of the Funny Men. Lucy, along with orphans Winifred, Jon, and Edith begin meeting with the Funny Men every Sunday evening in exchange for a small monetary stipend paid to their grandparents. A point that Lucy is very proud of. Each of the Funny Men, named after Dorothy’s companions from The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, are residents in the Grantwood Estate charitable foundation for wounded soldiers, and suffered extreme disfigurement during the war. Lucy and the other children perform tasks for the Funny Men that they regard as only mildly distasteful but overall they value the small pleasures afforded to them by the outings. When tragedy strikes the orphans and Funny Men, the activities are forced to end.
However, both Winifred and Lucy contrive a way to continue their enterprise with the Funny Men, becoming increasingly involved with the Grantwood Estate. As the girls are given access to the estate they are pulled into a world of spiritualists, camels, lavish parties, eccentric house guests, trays of cocaine, expensive gowns, and ever flowing alcohol. Grantwood House becomes their world filled with boundless adventure and mysticism. But beneath the surface lies even more terror and danger.
Brooks expertly uses beautifully constructed prose to contrive experiences that are just beyond belief. The humor and happenstance is enthralling and charming which only adds to the horror experienced by the reader as the story slowly reveals the real activities of the Grantwood Estate. The house, just as the novel, possesses a gorgeous exterior that is quickly dispelled for anyone who occupies the space. While Lucy is first enamoured by her work with the Funny Men, that too, loses its appeal with time and experience. Brooks does an excellent job at playing with his readers, ensuring that the characters and activities of the story are never what they initially seem. Furthermore, the story ambitiously tackles themes of poverty, class, war, nostalgia, and disillusionment. Each character’s moral standards are constantly in flux with very little self acknowledgement of contradiction on their behalf. While the novel is written to emulate the style of simpler fairytales, there is nothing simple or pure about this story.
Often, it is the Funny Men, who are called monsters for their appearance. However, Brooks’ characters are all monsters at one point or another, as they blur the lines between wants and needs, survival and desire, choice and entrapment. The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is an utterly magical read that will enrage and disgust readers beyond their wildest imagination.
The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times was published by Salt Publishing
By Jessica B S Brotman, on 28 April 2018
Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, published in 2017 by Galley Beggar Press, has one of the most unique literary foundations that I have come across in recent years. The debut novel is a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and while this in itself is not unusual, the way in which Taneja reimagines the story of King Lear is. Set during India’s anti-corruption protests of 2011, We That Are Young explores Indian culture from the perspective of a group of privileged men and women, all of whom share deeply complicated relationships with the fictional and inherently corrupt organisation ‘The Company’. Run by Devraj Bapuji, a mentally deteriorating man who steadfastly adheres to the principles taught to him by a disgraced Maharaja father, The Company (the title of which is always capitalised) is a corporate monster with connections to seemingly every aspect of Indian infrastructure.
The undoubtedly tragic plot is driven by the fallout of Bapuji’s sudden decision to retire and to split his shares of The Company between his three daughters: Gargi, Radha, and Sita. All three women desire different things for their father’s organisation, but all three are prevented from acting on their own behalves because of their identities as women in an elitist subsection of Indian culture where outdated principles still apply. Their stories intertwine with those of Jivan and Jeet, half-brothers who have grown up under the guidance of The Company’s right-hand man, and who offer opposing perspectives on the insecurities and cold ambitions that exist within the organisation’s masculine figures. The narrative is largely told from the perspectives of these five characters, although there are odd moments where the narrative voices are wrestled back under the control of Bapuji. All of the central characters act to give the reader access to necessarily complex views of the entitled world in which they operate but while all are well-written the three sisters are the most fleshed out characters; rarely have I read a narrative with such unflinchingly human portrayals of women. Gargi, Radha, and Sita are deeply flawed and often stunted by the misogynistic landscape that they have grown up in, a culture where inheritance law requires a male to dictate how much each women should receive, where even in a 2011 setting all faults can be blamed on gender and hiding identity through technology is the only way to make sure that their voices can be heard. Yet all three sisters make choices that contribute towards their tragic downfall, and while the variety and range of abuses that they suffer at the hands of the public and by the men that are closest to them are deeply shocking, the women are so thoughtfully written that they can be seen as more than simply victims. Jivan and Jeet also face abuse and discrimination, the former for being the illegitimate son of a high-ranking official, the latter for his sexual orientation. However, the difference between them and their female counterparts is that while the men struggle to reinvent themselves to impress their superiors, the women go through a narrative of constant oppression in an attempt to simply discover an identity outside of the male gaze. Following along as the three sisters are punished for daring to attempt to grow makes them infinitely more sympathetic as characters.
We That Are Young is in no way an easy book to read. Taneja presents the reader with a version of India that does not pander to Western expectations, and that is more interested in human complexity than in portraying easily understandable protagonists. Her writing style is stunningly descriptive and often loaded with unusual metaphors; there are times when she forces you to look deeper into her word choice in order to comprehend what a character is actually doing in a scene. As with the original Shakespearean play there are instances of extreme violence, and again Taneja is not interested in signposting how the reader should feel or approach those moments, although it is safe to say that they are both extremely graphic and shocking. There are several occasions where conversations in Hindi remain untranslated, and it is clear that parts of the novel are not meant to be understood by everyone. Preti Taneja offers an vision of India that is rich and colourful, but also one with deep-rooted issues that cannot be explained or fully comprehended in one reading of her novel. At 553 pages this is not a light read, but for those who are willing to take on the challenge it is an incredibly rewarding, if emotionally affecting experience, and one of the strongest narratives that I have read in a long time.
We That Are Young is published by Galley Beggar Press
By Hannah M Smith, on 26 April 2018
What should we do? Reinforce our walls or tear them down?
Lucy Hughes-Hallett, the Costa Award-winning author of The Pike, poses this question in her beautifully-written and engaging debut novel Peculiar Ground. She tells the story of Wychwood, a great house and its surrounding park which was enclosed by a wall in the 17th century. We trace Wychwood’s journey from its inception in the 17th century, when it was designed by the awkward, reticent landscape-maker Mr Norris under the orders of the ambitious and troubled Lord Woldingham who now chooses to enclose himself and his family in Wychwood after being thrown out of his ancestral home during the English Civil War. The restoration of Charles II leaves the inhabitants of Wychwood uncertain and afraid; these turbulent emotions continue to blur the boundaries between security and confinement, between ‘prison’ and ‘paradise’.
We do not only meet the initial inhabitants of Wychwood but return to the great house nearly four hundred years later to meet a new lively cast of characters. I was initially disappointed when Mr Norris’s narrative seemed to end and we skipped forward to 1961, as another wall goes up in Berlin, but I recovered from that quickly we I was introduced to the innocent yet perceptive voice of Nell, the eight-year-old daughter of Wychwood’s land agent Hugo Lane. As strange and contradictory as it sounds, it is walls that both divide the inhabitants of Wychwood from the outside world but join them together with its past inhabitants. Christopher Rossiter and his wife Lil, the new owners of the grand house and park, along with a plethora of frustrating, comic and overall secretive guests, have built their own personal walls and seem to have forgotten how to let people in. Indeed, the Rossiters in particular seem to be unsure of whether it would be worth it to bring down their walls.
We learn that tragedy precedes enclosure as throughout the book we gain glimpses into a tragedy that revives itself nearly four centuries later and joins two very different families in their immeasurable grief as well as adding an element of melancholic magic to a book otherwise focused on realism. The reader follows the Rossiters, the Lanes and the other guests of Wychwood until 1989. I must admit that it was delightful to meet a grown-up Nell and Flossie.
Sometimes the narrative can seem a little crowded but even then, the writing is engaging and thoughtful. Hughes-Hallett displays a writing style that shifts effortlessly between perspectives and mediums, smoothly switching from the main narrative to letters and newspaper articles. It was easy to become wound up in her characters’ lives. My reactions to her diverse ensemble ranged from wanting to have a long chat with Flossie to the urge to yell at the immensely frustrating Benjie. Peculiar Ground is a large novel and I did not initially expect to get through it as quickly as I did, but the narrative is so vibrant and pulsing with energy that you find yourself compelled forward, forgetting the fact that it is long past midnight and you have to get to work the next day.
Peculiar Ground is published by Fourth Estate
By Hannah M Smith, on 25 April 2018
“A story is like a net: you have to make your own; you have to throw the loops just right; you have to be careful what gets in and what gets out, what you catch and what you keep.”
Carmen Marcus’s semi-autobiographical debut follows ten year old Ellie Fleck, a fisherman’s daughter growing up on the Yorkshire Coast. Ellie doesn’t understand why her mother has disappeared, but finds comfort in the stories that her father tells her of sea-gods and the ocean. As the world around her becomes ever more strange and uncertain, the lines between the real and the unreal begin to blur.
Ellie is a deeply compelling, delightfully strange child with a wild imagination. Her voice is utterly unique; it comes as no surprise to learn that Marcus is an acclaimed poet. Her use of sound and rhythm creates a stream-of-consciousness narrative which carries the reader along like a current. The author is at her strongest when she evokes the world of Ellie’s childhood, using incisive details like the netting needles that “hang like wooden fish from the wall” of her father’s Baithouse. Her characterisation of the ocean itself is complex and affecting; its draw hangs over Ellie and her father throughout the novel. From the rituals and superstitions of fishing life to the atmosphere of a small, claustrophobic community, Marcus creates a setting that feels grounded and utterly real, with deep roots in personal experience.
The author also does an excellent job of developing the novel’s secondary characters. The narrative is primarily told in Ellie’s voice, but is interspersed with short chapters focused on her parents and other key adults in her life. Marcus deftly uses these instances to shine light on the depths and vulnerabilities of these individuals. While Ellie begins the novel as a child, over the course of the narrative she starts to glimpse her parents as the complex, damaged people that they are. While her prose may be lyrical, Marcus does not shy away from the difficult and often brutal experience of growing up. Ellie’s struggles at school will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider.
One of the most innovative features of the book is Marcus’s use of magical realism to explore societal perceptions of delusion and mental illness, although I would have liked to have seen this integrated from an earlier stage. The novel occasionally struggles with pacing: at points, the plot veers between sluggish and hurried. However, this is compensated for by Marcus’s expertly written prose and beautiful world-building. How Saints Die is not a novel to be devoured in one sitting — it should be savoured and lingered over.
Overall, Carmen Marcus has written beautifully evocative exploration of mental illness, alienation and belonging through the eyes of a child. The characters and stories within it will cling to you like sea salt on your lips.
How Saints Die is published by Harvill Secker