The BookBrunch team reveals what's on their bedside tables
My colleague Lucy Nathan's enthusiasm for The Cazalet Chronicles inspired me to seek out an early work by Elizabeth Jane Howard, her much admired second novel The Long View (1956). It is the story of a marriage, told with surprising acerbity and with a backwards chronology, before such a structure became fashionable - it was too unconventional for Howard's American publisher, Bob Linscott of Random House, who turned it down. Antonia Fleming, with her awful parents, is a semi-autobiographical figure; her controlling husband Conrad is based on one of Howard's lovers. What has brought Antonia and Conrad to the dysfunctional state in which we find them as they throw a grim dinner party in Notting Hill in 1950? Gradually removing layers of experience, we discover, can be more revelatory than adding them. But there is no thinning out of the fictional texture: the closing chapter of The Long View, set in 1926, is especially affecting.
With the debate about slave-owning statues raging, I felt it was time to engage with Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga (which I'm listening to on audio, read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith for Macmillan Audio). Starting with the author's own experiences of racism as a child in Gateshead, where attacks by the National Front were regular occurrences, he then takes us on a tour of the slave fortress on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone before diving into the long history of Black people in Britain, from Roman soldiers through the horrors of slavery right up to WWII. Much of the evidence is necessarily scanty, but he does a terrific job of delving into the margins and bringing their extraordinary stories to light. I had never really thought, for example, about the aristocratic Georgian fashion of owning Black page boys - but there they are, in the background of hundreds of portraits. Olusoga doesn't just show us that, he also investigates what may have happened to them when they were no longer so cute. A really fascinating, if often enraging and distressing, history.
I read The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller (Viking) this week and it was fine. There has been a huge amount of buzz about it on Twitter, and it contains decrepit old houses, complicated family histories, and a lot of lush descriptions of ponds, all of which are things I tend to like, but on this occasion I just wasn't particularly sucked in. My favourite parts of the novel were those describing the narrator's complex, fascinating relationships with her sister and mother; less so, the business with Jonah, her childhood playmate and (possibly?) her one true love. I just didn't buy their connection. This novel was enjoyable and well-written, but the slice of white middle-class life in it (were there any people of colour in this book?) was a little too shallow to fully immerse me.
Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy (Haus Publishing) by Jonathan Clements is an excellent 2012 biography of one of the most important Nordic figures of the 20th century and the godfather of independent Finland. Decorated by both sides in both World Wars, Gustaf Mannerheim was a Swedish-speaking Finn who became a senior officer in the Russian cavalry for two decades. He explored Manchuria and China as a spy after the Russo-Japanese War before narrowly escaping the Bolsheviks and escaping back to Finland. He then led this new country along the tightrope of fighting Russia with the assistance of Nazi Germany while distancing themselves before the war ended; the enemy of my enemy is my friend, writ large. However, it was Mannerheim's role in leading Finland's remarkable, against massive odds, defiance in the Winter War with Russia that he is revered for in Finland, and with very good reason.