Suffering from WWII fiction fatigue, I approached Madeline Martin's novel with trepidation, fearing more of the same variations on wartime themes of love, loss, and horror. All of these facets are there, but the book's overarching theme is a sense of a community brought together by the enduring power of literature.
Having left her broken life in Norfolk, Grace Bennett, accompanied by her best friend Viv, arrives in a somewhat broken London - a city on the verge of war. With signs of the coming conflict everywhere, London is not the gem they expected.
They lodge with Grace's late-mother's widowed friend, Mrs. Weatherford and her gentle son, Colin. Mrs. Weatherford is a force to be reckoned with and soon inveigles Mr. Evans, the curmudgeonly owner of Primrose Hill, a dusty and cluttered bookshop, into employing Grace. When Grace sets to work cleaning and organizing the shop, Mr. Evans begins to mellow toward her. With little knowledge of books and literature, she gratefully accepts the advice and friendship of book-loving customer George Anderson. When George joins the RAF, his parting gift to Grace is his much-read copy of 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' which begins her journey of discovery of books and their power to provide an escape from the horrors of war.
As the Nazi aerial onslaught of London increases day and night, Grace finds solace and hope in stories such as 'South Riding,' an empowering tale, set after the Great War, about people who overcome whatever life throws at them. In the public air raid shelters and later in the bookshop, Grace reads stories aloud, helping to not only block out the sounds of bombs exploding, but bringing respite from listeners' own worries and sorrows.
'The Last Bookshop in London' is a timeless tale of hope and survival, and sends a much-needed message to us all during the current pandemic.
#TheLastBookshopInLondon #MadelineMartin #TheWeakAgainstTheStrong #JosieMounsey #HistoricalFiction
THE PULL OF THE STARS
BY EMMA DONOGHUE
As in her 2010 novel, 'Room,' Emma Donoghue's latest offering, 'The Pull of the Stars,' is set in a confined space where life and possible death reign together. In 1918 Dublin, a city already ravaged by war and poverty, the Influenza pandemic hit hard, and the story follows the travails of nurse Julia Power as she struggles to provide medical help and comfort to expectant mothers who have contracted the disease and are quarantined in a tiny former supply room in the hospital.
Relief arrives in the form of young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, a 'freckle-dusted' redheaded 'skinnymalinks,' whose cheerful demeanour provides much-needed lightness to the story. Casting Bridie as an orphan, enables Donoghue to exemplify all that was wrong with the Irish Catholic child care system, where institutions profited from looking after orphans and babies born out of wedlock, and where abuse was rampant.
Similarly, the character of Dr. Kathleen Lynn (a real historical figure), who is on the run from police for her part in Sinn Fein's 1916 uprising, highlights the lack of women physicians and the limited opportunities for women at that time. Lynn's comments have an eerie ring of truth today as she likens the Influenza virus to 'A creature with no malign intention, only a craving to reproduce itself ...'.
The scenes outside the hospital insert the reader into a dirty, dismal place, where workers risk infection as they are crowded together on trams festooned with notices warning, 'Cover up each cough or sneeze ... Fools and traitors spread disease.'. Although much in society has changed since the 1918 Influenza virus ran rampant, the current Coronavirus pandemic shows that those hardest hit are still the marginalized members of so-called civil society, who have had disproportionate rates of job loss, infection, and death.
Donoghue started writing this novel in 2018 to mark the 100th Anniversary of the Influenza pandemic. For me, although reading this book in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic was difficult, it also caused me to recognize that history tends to repeat itself. Donoghue's story is a timely reminder of how seemingly well-ordered societies can be disrupted by unforeseen events. It also emphasizes our good fortune in having more effective tools available now to combat disease. In the current uncertainty surrounding various vaccines, at least we have choice.
Although Donoghue's narrative style was difficult to get used to initially, after a few stumbles I found the story flowed well. As Julia, Bridie, and Dr. Lynn, were the heroes of the novel as they tried to do the best they could in almost impossible circumstances, we don't have to look far to find our own unsung heroes of the current world crisis.
A salutary story for our times and one well worth reading.
#EmmaDonoghue #ThePullOfTheStars #historicalfiction #CanadianAuthor #BookAddict
IN EXTREMIS - THE LIFE OF WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN
BY LINDSEY HILSUM
'It has always seemed to me that what I write is about humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.'
Marie Colvin wrote those words in 2001, the year she was injured in Sri Lanka, embedded with the Tamil Tigers. Although journalists were barred from entry, she crossed into the war zone to report on the plight of civilians. This same compulsion took her to the core of conflicts in the most dangerous places on earth, where she stopped at nothing to find out the truth. Not even losing the sight in her left eye, or PTSD, could keep her away for long.
Colvin courted danger, rushing at life with compassion and honesty, be it in her job, her love affairs, broken marriages, hard-drinking, or battling storms when sailing. Conflict spilled through in every aspect of her existence.
In one of her first stories for the London-based Sunday Times, she and photographer, Tom Stoddart, risked their lives to get into the Bourj al-Barajneh Refugee Camp in South Beirut, alerting the world to the plight of 15,000 Palestinian refugees besieged by the Shi'ite militia, Amal, backed by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. Colvin's description and Stoddart's pictures of the killing of a young woman by Amal snipers as she ran to buy food for her family, led to the end of the 163-day siege.
Colvin's career is chequered with front line stories highlighting the human impact of political and military decisions. She gained access to world leaders, gaining the trust of Yasser Arafat and audiences with Muammar Gaddafi. Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Kosovo ... the list goes on ... wherever there was conflict, she was there. In Chechnya, escaping Russian bombardment, she trekked through the frozen Caucasus mountains for four days, blasted by snow and strong winds, before reaching safety in Georgia.
Using comments and stories mostly culled from family, friends, colleagues, and Colvin's own dispatches, fellow-correspondent Hilsum tells it as it was, from Colvin's childhood on Long Island, to her targeted death in 2012 in Homs, Syria, where the civilian population of Baba Amr was under constant daytime bombardment by the Bashar Assad regime. Colvin broadcast to the world the scale of human tragedy and of how the regime was attacking innocent citizens not terrorists. To silence her, the regime traced the broadcast to an unofficial Media Centre and blasted it with rockets, killing Colvin and Remi Ochlik (a young French photographer) and badly injuring Paul Conroy, the photographer who had accompanied Colvin.
Lindsey Hilsum does an excellent job portraying the complexities of Colvin's character and relationships which led her to attack life full on, whether in theatres of war or in her personal sphere. A well-written biography of a courageous woman.
#MarieColvin #LindseyHilsum #TheWeakAgainstTheStrong #humanrights #BookAddict #JosieMounsey #InExtremis