In this ‘Bookshelfie’ blog, we are delighted to feature book recommendations from Mrs Sally Harley-Martin, a St Mary’s Calne current parent.
I studied English Language and Literature at Hertford College, Oxford, where I was in the year above Andrew Dodd (Bookshelfie blog April 2021!).
After Oxford, I worked in the Advertising industry as a Strategic Planner on brands from Volvo to The Famous Grouse. Fifteen years ago, I retrained in Garden Design at The English Gardening School at Chelsea Physic Garden. Whilst books about plants, design and designers are a delight, there is still no greater pleasure than immersing myself in a novel.
My five books span my early reading days up to last year; all are precious for different reasons.
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
This Carnegie Medal winning novel is one of my favourites and entirely appropriate in this time of pandemic. As my grandmother was deaf as a result of childhood Measles, the story had an historical resonance for me as a child. Tom’s brother has Measles. So, Tom is sent for the summer holidays to quarantine, with his aunt and uncle, in a garden-less flat. When the grandfather clock in the communal hall strikes thirteen, Tom discovers not the bin yard outside as expected but the garden he longs for. During the thirteenth hour of each day, Tom has trees to climb, borders full of scents which remind him of home, and a mysterious playmate, Hatty. The garden is a constant, moving through the familiar seasons, where Tom finds the freedom and friendship he craves. But as the house fades away each morning, and Hatty ages day by day, we have to ask: is Tom a time traveller? Are the people he meets ghosts? Or is this all a dream?
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
I had inspirational teachers at school. Teachers who went the extra mile, teachers who taught me about literature and life, teachers who inspired me to try new things, to stretch myself and achieve. But beware a teacher like Miss Jean Brodie. Miss Jean Brodie goes that step further. In 1930’s Edinburgh, where post-war hemlines were rising and Miss Jean Brodie was in her prime, she had a guiding principle: ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life’. Manipulative and charming in equal measure, she forms the ‘Brodie set’, living, in part, vicariously through them, pulling strings and heart strings, with disastrous results. It is fabulous, funny and salutary.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (1924)
Before I was able to visit and fall in love with India myself, I loved E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Forster describes India with real affection: a country of muddle and mystery, chaos and the mystical. Written in 1924, the novel’s late colonial context is now an historical one, but the complexities of cultural differences are as resonant as ever. The novel explores the difficulties of East-West understanding, before partition, through race, religion and colonial prejudice. Core to the novel is new arrival Adela Quested accusing Muslim Dr Aziz of assault, and the repercussions. The accusation is a complete mistake; one which illustrates with disappointing clarity the gulf of understanding, and empathy between the Anglo Indians and the local population. Although the trial of Dr Aziz is the most devastating episode of injustice and muddle, I find Forster’s smaller injustices which pepper the novel equally painful. Invited to tea, immaculately dressed, Dr Aziz lends his collar stud to British schoolmaster Fielding, whose stud has broken. At tea, Aziz’s collar is noted to be astray by the Anglo Indians. It is held up as a fine example of why an Indian is incapable attention to detail. Prejudice and injustice are key ingredients Forster employs to make the reader consider the novel’s uncomfortable truths, universal truths which are just as potent today.
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro (1986)
This is a novel about a man who has to confess to himself that he made a wrong decision, however right it seemed at the time. Ono, the narrator, is a retired Japanese artist. Much of his life, he painted classical Japanese scenes. At his height, he depicted the ‘floating world’ of the pre-war geishas. It was the world between dusk and dawn, where reality was suspended and the artist shows only a tableau of the world of pleasure. During the 1930’s China crisis, Ono was persuaded to produce pro government patriotic art. Now, post Second World War, Ono finds himself on the wrong side, having to rethink the values on which he built his life. Ishiguro’s gradual reveal of Ono’s history and his grapples with conscience are masterful. They are overlaid with much broader questions of whether art should be politically motivated, the role of women and the struggles of post-war reconciliation. It is a complex elegant novel.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020)
This novel is hilarious and heart-breaking. Agnes and her son, Shuggie, are both looking, in their own ways, for sparkle, glamour and adventure. But when immaculate, attractive Agnes’ husband leaves her for another woman, he also leaves her with her unfulfilled aspirations for ‘a house with its own front door, and a life bought and paid for outright’. Her hope and pride whipped away, Agnes falls into life of addiction and alcoholism. Agnes’ youngest son, Shuggie, left at home, tries all he can to save her. Watching Shuggie holding out hope during his mother’s ungracious, slow car crash demise is agonising. Agnes’ alcoholism is selfish. Despite his devotion to his mother with her fading glamour, Agnes is not there for Shuggie as he and his unforgiving community realise he is ‘no right’. He is a young boy struggling alone with his sexuality in 1980’s Glasgow, post-Thatcherism’s pit closures. Stuart writes with unsentimental candour about poverty, pride and sexuality, and a mother and son looking in the wrong places for their sparkle.