Review: Larchfield by Polly Clark

What I thought:

This beautifully and poetically written book is set in the small town of Helensburgh, Scotland in the dual time-frame of now (Dora) and 1930 (Wystan). Dora Fielding is a newly-married poet from Oxford and moves to the rather insular town of Helensburgh for her husband Kit’s job, while pregnant with their first child. Thrown into motherhood, and newly jobless and friendless in this small town by the sea, that seems to treat newcomers with not just suspicion but utter contempt, Dora finds herself becoming so isolated that she fears she has lost all sense of her former self and struggles to work out who she really is now. However, when she learns that famous and respected poet W.H. Auden (Wystan) also used to live in Helensburgh, Dora becomes fascinated by finding out more about him.

Back in 1930, Wystan is having his own problems with being an outsider when appointed as a teacher at the school Larchfield in Helensburgh, and worse than that an English one who dresses eccentrically and attracts rumours of being a pervert (or, homosexual to you and I) which is something that Wystan himself is trying to come to terms with in an age when it was not only not acceptable but illegal. Preferring a pen and paper to racing around a rugby field, Wystan is ostracised by most of his peers and finds solace in the friendship of a dying middle-aged woman and a private affair with a local man.

It isn’t clear, other than the themes of loneliness and unacceptance and survival, how Dora and Wystan will be thrown together until about half way through the book. Forced into her own fantasy to escape the reality of bullying neighbours and her loss of any sense of who she used to be, Dora forms a friendship with Wystan that allows her to escape her stifling and frightening reality. Apparently, the author based Dora’s experience on her own, having also relocated to Helensburgh with a small baby and anti-English feeling following her around and the isolation and frustration could be clearly felt through the pages.

It was obvious to me, reading this book, that author Polly Clark is a poet as the narrative is lyrical and tender and what felt, for me, a gentle and quiet read despite the themes: loneliness mental health, courage, bullying among them. It certainly didn’t feel like a debut novel and it captivated me from the start with its strong sense of empathy and humanity.

Verdict:

Larchfield was a book I felt I wanted to savour and not attempt to read quickly due to my ever-increasing TBR pile. It was a book I looked forward to getting back to when I wasn’t reading it, not because it was a great thriller or mystery and I needed to know what was happening, but because I was happy in the company of the characters and the gorgeous prose.

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Have you read Larchfield? What did you think?

Review: The Vanishing by Sophia Tobin

vanishingWhat I thought:

I really don’t like posting negative reviews but I do feel it’s important to be honest about a book. After all,  one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and all that (not saying that this book is trash, it just didn’t work for me).

I thought I would love The Vanishing. I wanted to love it. The blurb and the reviews I had seen made it sound like it had almost been written for me: Bronte-esque (massive tick), historical (tick), set in Yorkshire (tick – I live there), not just in Yorkshire but on the bleak Yorkshire moors (massive tick), gothic (tick), mystery (tick), drama (tick). So why then did I struggle to even like this book, let alone love it?

The Vanishing started out so well. From the prologue and the first few chapters I really thought I was going to enjoy this book. It almost felt a little du Maurier – sneaking out of an inn in the dead of night, into a waiting carriage; what or who were they running from and why? Gothic and mysterious, it grabbed me and threatened not to let me go. But then it did. And not just lightly; I felt I had been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road and was left wondering what the hell happened?

Here are my problems: Although clearly set in the past, it really could have been any time. References to bonnets and cloaks and candles obviously point to a previous time in history but I was told these things, rather than made to feel them. There was not enough imagery that enabled me to imagine the smells, sounds and atmosphere of either Yorkshire or London. I live in Yorkshire and one of my favourite places in the world is the Yorkshire moors – bleak, open, beautiful, rugged, wild. While I could certainly get a sense of place, it didn’t seep into my bones, and that’s what a really well-written book does for me: makes me believe I am right there in the thick of it.

I have read reviews that liken the writing to the Bronte sisters. Maybe that is unfair to even try to compare, as nobody can surpass the Brontes as far as I’m concerned, but even so, I really couldn’t even draw any real parallels other than the location, time period or attempt at what appeared to be trying to recreate elements of some well-known characters from their books. The characters were mostly never more than two-dimensional for me, although I did really take to Thomas Digby who was really one of the few likable characters in the book. I was constantly perplexed by Annaleigh (the protagonist) from her apparent falling in love with Marcus Twentyman, a character who had barely touched the pages at the beginning and appeared to have no redeeming qualities at all (certainly not in a brooding and aloof Mr Rochester or Mr Darcy way, but also in any way that I could fathom to cause Annaleigh to fall for him), through to her increasingly violent actions that felt more psychopath than revengeful. The other characters were never fully fleshed out enough for me either also seemed to blow hot and cold depending on which direction the author wanted to take the book at that time rather than for any discernable reason for their change in behaviour.

There were things that I liked, however, and I think it’s important to mention these: the sense of claustrophobia and isolation was palpable and I liked the brief respite that Thomas Digby and his family brought to the book. The cover is gorgeous too.

Verdict:

I am left with a feeling that is somewhere between perplexed, disappointed and scratching my head with incomprehension. Unbelievable motives, unconvincing and clichéd characters and a feeling that I have wasted several hours of my life. Every now and then I would have a moment of hope / joy when I thought the book might just get back on track again but unfortunately those were all too infrequent and brief.

A massive disappointment for me, but hey, each to their own and there are plenty more positive reviews of this book than there are negative and anyway, no press is bad press if it gets people talking, right? I am really keen to hear what others think of this book as there seem to be largely polarised views between the lovers and haters with little in between.