Reading Diary: Jan. 21-Jan. 27

41klibrdf1l-_sx307_bo1204203200_I’m not certain why the cover design for Christie Watson’s memoir The Language of Kindness is so abstract; there is certainly nothing abstract or theoretical about the endlessly challenging work of nursing that she describes in this book. Falling into the profession as a seventeen-year-old, Watson bounces all over the place through the course of her career: from mental health wards to geriatric care homes, to working with learning-disabled adults, to oncology and paediatric intensive care. She writes with great tenderness and insight about the toll that the job takes on you; about nursing children who die, and what it is like to wash and prepare their bodies before their parents can come to see them; what it is like to go to their funerals. She writes about the stresses of having few resources and little sympathy, either from the government or from the general public. She writes about her own father’s death from cancer and the way in which his nurse, Cheryl, became more than a professional, something closer to family. Cheryl is there at her father’s funeral. Watson has actually written two novels, but the style of her memoir is stripped-back and matter-of-fact, which both suits the subject matter and emphasises the simple appallingness of human vulnerability, which it is the nurse’s job to dignify and comfort. This isn’t out until May, but I will be recommending it to absolutely everyone. As Watson says, we never know what will happen to us, to people we love; we never know when we might be the ones sitting in the waiting room or propped up in the hospital bed, in need of care and compassion and kindness.

410dmcvxpsl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Mick Herron has made a trademark of writing espionage fiction that features dry sarcasm. His characters’ banter flirts constantly with being too much, usually but not always coming down on the right side of the line. London Rules is his fifth book featuring the “slow horses” of MI5: no-hopers, alcoholics, fuck-ups and dickheads who have been reassigned to a bureaucratic hellhole in Aldersgate Street called Slough House in the vague hope that they’ll resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them. Jackson Lamb is the head of this dubious team; veteran readers of Herron will know and love him, although loveable is the last word you’d use to describe the man, whose characterisation is generally conveyed by his propensity to fart, drink, smoke, swear, eat takeaways, and make profoundly politically incorrect comments to everyone around him. This is mostly justified by the reader’s awareness that, although Lamb is a disgusting boor, he’s also shrewd and loyal: he usually knows what’s going on before his superiors at Regent’s Park do, and, unencumbered by political ambition, can often make better and faster decisions. One doesn’t necessarily read Herron for the plots, which are usually flashy but shallow; London Rules is a decent stab at plotting, though, with the most shocking opening since Slow Horses. (It also borrows from that book’s clever reversal of our expectations about what can be allowed to happen in developed nations vs. developing ones.) Spook Street, the book before this in the series, was a return to form after two lesser outings, and London Rules suggests that Herron remains on the top of his fairly specific game.


The Sealwoman’s Gift is an utterly brilliant book hampered by a fairly terrible title; you’d think, to look at it, that it’s a kind of Celtic romance involving a dreamy, windswept woman who spends a lot of time gazing out to sea. It’s actually based on an event that really happened: a Barbary pirate raid on the Westman Islands of Iceland in 1627. We know from historical sources that among those captured were the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, his heavily pregnant wife, and three of their children. Egilsson’s memoir of the voyage, his brief time as a slave in Algiers, his release on a mission to beg for ransom from King Christian IV of Denmark (then the colonial ruler of Iceland), and his return to his home, was a major source for Magnusson’s book. What she tells us, though, is the story of Egilsson’s wife, Ásta Thórsteinsdottir, a literate and strongwilled (if impractical) woman whose myriad losses—her liberty, her husband, each of her children in one way or another—ought to have floored her. Magnusson’s success is in balancing on a line that could easily tip her into anachronism or sentimentality. Ásta is clever and resourceful, but believably powerless: her owner in Algiers, although he begins to have feelings for her, is never capable of seeing her as anything more than a mere woman, inherently confusing and irrational. Her agonies over religion are also beautifully conveyed: as the wife of a Lutheran priest, albeit one who has been known to tell tales of the elves and the hidden people, she is in a particular bind when it comes to the potential conversion to Islam of her small children. Her fear that she will not only be separated from them in this life, but in the next, is piercingly convincing. And Magnusson’s prose never falters, never slides into awkward phrasing or excessive lyricism, even maintaining a light, dry humour that doesn’t feel out of place. What an exceptional and moving fiction debut this is.

35323055Force of Nature, meanwhile, is a follow-up to Jane Harper’s much-lauded debut of last year, The Dry. It is, if anything, even better than its predecessor. The premise is great: Alice Russell, a corporate bully and soon-to-be whistleblower, goes missing on a teambuilding exercise, hiking in the remote Giralang Range. Not only is she about to provide crucial documentary evidence of her company’s involvement in money laundering, but the Giralang Range is also where serial killer Martin Kovac stalked, abducted and murdered four women twenty years ago—women who look alarmingly like Alice. (He is an invention of Harper’s, but echoes the real-life “backpacker murderer” Ivan Milat.) Aaron Falk, the taciturn cop who headed up the investigation in The Dry, has been handling Alice’s evidence against her employers, and gets caught up in the operation surrounding her disappearance. Harper uses flashbacks to excellent effect throughout the book, alternating past with present as we learn more about the events leading up to Alice’s vanishing. The real strength of the book is its emphasis on the pressures brought to bear on women—especially mothers—in high-achieving environments, and the way that pain can echo through generations if parents and children fail to communicate adequately with one another. It’s been a while since I read The Dry, but Force of Nature feels like an altogether subtler book, with a sadder, more human ending. It’s an excellent, rock-solid crime novel. If Jane Harper can keep knocking these out, I’ll keep reading and recommending them.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: Every single one of these books was a proof, which feels a little imbalanced; I mustn’t forget to read backlists. I’m pleased that one was nonfiction, though.

London In the Rain

To London a few days ago to meet up with the Revered Ancestress, who was going to be in town anyway for a reunion of her nursing friends from her training at Barts in the mid-1950s. Oxford Tube in the mist of early morning; I dozed most of the way, or as much as I could after I’d finished the coffee which I’d rather unwisely bought from the shop near the coach stop. Met the Revered Ancestress under the big clock at Waterloo and set off with her in a taxi to Barts, which is at the top of Ludgate Hill and very extensive. St. Paul’s is its near neighbour; the dome loomed out as the taxi crawled up Old Bailey, still grey and indistinct with mist (very Bleak House). The entrance to Barts is called Henry VIII Gate–he rebuilt the hospital and gave back its property after the dissolution, a very canny move–and atop it, indeed, a swagger sculpture of the king glares down, his crown perched atop his bonnet.


I accompanied the Revered Ancestress to the coffee shop in the west wing–the area is arranged around a central square with a fountain, but construction scaffolding obscured much of this–where we met her friends. They are all old now but have still the vitality, the warmth and the quiet cheekiness of women who were subordinate during their training, but after it, had been trained to be in charge. Nursing may be the equivalent of the army in the sense of camaraderie and self-confidence it provides.

One of the nurses, a smooth-cheeked woman called Maureen, is my mum’s godmother. She has had a most extraordinary life: beginning as a nun, leaving the order when she felt they weren’t doing their duty, moving to Stepney (where she had a garden Mum remembers, with hedgehogs!), then to Ireland, where for a while at least she raised alpacas. She is one of the few elderly people I’ve met with whom conversation is immediate. With most others–even the extremely intelligent–one feels as though a thin but strong veil divides them from one, as though they are fundamentally separate, their experiences and existences too far away to be made real. Maureen is not like that; she seems to continue living consciously. When you talk to her, she’s absolutely there. I can’t imagine how much of a loss she was to her order.

They let me have tea with them, and told me stories of their student days, including incidents such as being given a lobster by a fishmonger on Billingsgate. It was already dead and cooked, but they didn’t know how to open it, and resorted to bashing it against the concrete floor of the nurses’ home. Delightfully, none of them could quite recall whether this had worked or not.

After tea they went off to have lunch (naturally) and I was free to wander on my own for a few hours. I went into the hospital museum as my first stop, and read every word of every noticeboard–it beguiled the time wonderfully, and the exhibit cases were full of fascinatingly hideous things, like travel-sized amputation kits complete with handsaw, and pathological drawings of various awful-looking conditions. Unfortunately, when I stepped out again it had begun to pour. It was a horrid splattering city rain, the effect of which is always made worse by gutters and overhanging roofs. I had intended to go into Barts’ Great Hall, but entry was only with a tour and anyway there seemed to be some kind of conference on, so I contented myself with an iPhone photo of the enormous Hogarth paintings which decorate the staircase. They are meant to be of the biblical Pool at Bethesda, and it’s thought that he took some of the hospital’s eighteenth-century patients as models.

As the museum shut at 1:00, I really had to go elsewhere. I put my scarf over my head and tramped through the rain to Barts the Great, the hospital’s parish church. The Revered Ancestors were married there. I got in without paying by mentioning the fact to the man at the desk. It’s a dark and gloomy church, very different indeed from Barts the Less (within the hospital walls), which is, in best Reformation style, all white and quite plain on the inside, except for stained glass which seems to demonstrate the story of the hospital’s founding. A single candle in Barts the Great burned beside the tomb of Rahere, the monk said to be Henry I’s fool, who fell ill on a pilgrimage in Rome and dreamed that he saw an angel ordering him to return home and found a hospital for the care of the poor and ill. This was in 1123; it’s one of the oldest institutions in the country, second to Oxford by only twenty-seven years.


It was still pouring when I left the church, and the scarf on my head was becoming saturated. I went down towards Paternoster Row and St Paul’s, where so many books were printed, but St Paul’s itself appeared to be closed, or at least I wasn’t allowed in. (“Is no entrance here.” “Sorry, but–the door’s open…” “Yes, is no entrance. Is private event. You must go and enter downstairs, through crypt.” “It looks like the private event might be over now…” “You go through crypt.”) Not feeling inclined to go through the crypt, or indeed to pay money, which would no doubt also have been demanded, I headed back to Ludgate Hill, where I attempted to subtly shed most of my layers and dry myself out. (It was only a partial success; my scarf, now thoroughly defeated, dripped heavily on the floor.)

To occupy the time, I picked up Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the shortest book ever shortlisted for the Booker Prize–it had lost out the night before to Eleanor Catton’s 800+-page The Luminaries, which I haven’t gotten round to yet. The Testament of Mary is very short, very good, beautifully written and terribly sad. I expected not to care much about it, but I find that it’s stuck with me. In it, Mary, mother of Christ, is growing old in exile, afraid for her life if she returns to her former home. She is cared for (if we can use the phrase for a relationship that seems to involve a good deal of bullying) by two of her son’s most passionate devotees, who interrogate her tirelessly in order to produce what the reader suspects are the Gospels of St John and St Mark. Mary has never believed that her son was the Messiah, and the book demonstrates the neverending pain of a mother who loses a child for what she suspects to be no reason at all. It’s a shame, frankly, that it’s not a bit longer, but then it might lose the punch. Of all the Booker-shortlisted books, this was one of the ones that I was least interested in, but I’d really recommend it; depending on your reading speed it will take you no more than an hour or two, and its impact far outweighs its size.

Also, having met up with the Revered Ancestress again and retraced our steps near to St Paul’s (once it had stopped raining), I got a rather lovely picture of it in the sunshine. Autumn is the best season.