Vera Atkins won’t leave me alone!

Special Operations Executive

Special Operations Executive

Yes, I do mean Vera Atkins of Special Operations Executive Section F fame. I first heard of the SOE agents probably around fifteen years ago when I began researching WWII for my novel Tomaree. I have been fascinated with the amazing women of SOE ever since.

About 18 months ago on goodreads I read about a book entitled A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and missing agents of WWII by Sarah Helm. I marked the book to read and thought that someday, when I had a bit of time, I would read it. After all, I am currently researching Sydney in the 1920s and when I am not reading books on that subject I am participating in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 so Vera would definitely have to wait!

Well it seems she wouldn’t wait! As a writer I do not ignore that funny hunch, the information that appears unrelated to my research but falls into my lap and even photographs that I can’t ignore. They do often turn out to be important in some way. But, let’s face it, how can female WWII agents and the woman that recruited and mentored them, have anything to do with my current manuscript? I have no idea but I can’t put the book down!

It seems inconceivable now the circumstances that these agents operated under – constantly having to move from place to place and fully aware that they may be captured at any time. Of approximately 400 men and women of F section that were couriers, radio operators and organisers, over 100 did not return.  39 SOE women were sent undercover, 13 did not return – a loss of one in three which is tragic. 

I can’t wait to find out how Vera Atkins (travelling to Germany after the war) eventually uncovered the fate of all but one of the missing F Section agents, all the while remaining a mystery herself that Sarah Helm must uncover.

Stay tuned for a review of A Life in Secrets.

Waiting for Eleanor Dark

Slow Dawning by Eleanor DarkI‘ve been doing that for quite a while now for two very different reasons but I had better start at the beginning. I first discovered that I really wanted to read Eleanor Dark‘s first novel way back in the early 1990s. I was researching my third manuscript set between the wars and as the tone of the times (as I like to think of it) is always very important to me I generally try and read at least a few books written during the time that I am researching. By then I had read Prelude to Christopher and thought it marvellous so I was quite interested in reading Eleanor Dark’s very first novel. I can’t recall the exact details but it became obvious that there were limited copies available and I think I had to either try and buy a copy online (which I never attempted) or read the book at the Mitchell Library. Also impossible with a young child and a very unsympathetic husband.

Life moved on. For me there was a divorce and a move up the coast, a World War II novel (Tomaree), a contemporary novel (Crossing Paths: the BookCrossing Novel) and then a manuscript set during World War I (The Grey Silk Purse). As research for that book I thought I would finally attempt to read Slow Dawning and this is when the waiting really began.

In July 2011 whilst researching transport during WWI, I requested Slow Dawning along with another book. I did this online during the week to make sure both books would be available for me after I got off the Newcastle train and arrived at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. On arrival I was told that Eleanor wasn’t there. I said I requested it. The staff nicely informed me there was a delay of about half an hour. She couldn’t be quickly located.

By the time the book turned up I was deep in my other research and only gave the novel a cursory glance. I was still at this stage thinking I could read it in several sittings or just glance through it and dismiss it (particularly after what Eleanor Dark’s biographer had written about the book). I did neither. I decided I really wanted to read it but wasn’t sure how I could achieve this as I knew by 2011 that the book couldn’t be bought online. Surprisingly no second hand book shop on the net had it available for sale (and still doesn’t). I reluctantly returned the book and thought I would have a look at it again next time I was at the Mitchell and hopefully not as busy.

On Saturday, 26 January this year I arrived off the train, keen to have another look at Slow Dawning. It was my main focus this time. I went to the desk to pick the book up and they told me it wasn’t there and would take  a while for them to find it. I said this had happened last time and why couldn’t it be ready when I put a special request in for it? They didn’t know. I was frustrated and beginning to wonder why this book AND ONLY THIS BOOK kept me waiting. It arrived and I began to read Slow Dawning. Because of the delay in arriving I didn’t have much time with the book and was now more determined than ever to read it.

I took it to the front counter and asked if I could photocopy the book. They said yes and calculated the cost – approximately $30. Being a starving artist I didn’t have the money to spare that weekend but promised myself I would be back in a few months to finally read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. What a mission!

On Saturday 1st June I had an awful trip down on the train, missed my connection and had a wait at Gordon station. By the time I arrived at the Mitchell I was already very frazzled and precious time had again gotten away from me. I went to the front counter to pick up the book (as before ordered online for a quick pickup) and was told AGAIN the book wasn’t there! They couldn’t locate it. WELL… you can imagine what sort of mood I was in! I made a fuss (as much of a fuss as anyone can make in the hallowed rooms of the Mitchell Library). I was asked if I wanted to make a complaint. I said yes I did, mainly, I explained because obviously there was something wrong with the cataloguing of this particular book. I filled out the form (still haven’t heard anything back) and waited.

Finally after about thirty five minutes of twiddling my thumbs the book was in my hands and I went into the photocopying room to carefully copy each page. I began by putting twenty dollars on my card to do the photocopying with and the machine just ate my money. By this time I was practically in tears! The Library staff must have thought I was mad but eventually the money was allocated to my card and I spent over half an hour photocopying each page. Finally I was able to read Eleanor Dark’s first novel. Here is my review:

Slow Dawning by Eleanor Dark

I have the book but I’m still not happy! I recently downloaded for free Betty Wayside by Louis Stone. This novel is from 1915 and is quite dated now but anyone can read it. The same should apply to Slow Dawning. In my opinion it has been forgotten because both the author and her biographer dismissed it as a potboiler. I argue that it is much more that that. I believe Eleanor Dark had serious intentions for this book but with the long delay in publication and the fact that sales were disappointing, she dismissed it as a potboiler to cover her disappointment. What serious novelist with literary aspirations sets out to write her first novel purely for money, particularly a book with a prophetic paragraph such as this:

“It was in this way that she had seen her fellow-women. They would climb at last, she dreamed, to a height where they would perform not only the artistic or intellectual work to which their natures inclined, but the normal functions of wifehood and motherhood as well – carrying a double burden as only they were privileged to carry it. A terrible fight, and a slow one, but epic in its magnificence. Generations it would take, and thousands of women would be the most bitter enemies of their own sex.”

No, I really think Dark had fairly high hopes for this first of her babies, especially when you consider her next novel Prelude to Christopher. You DO NOT as a writer, I believe, intend to write a potboiler as your first published work and then write something of such high standing as Prelude to Christopher as your second.

But the waiting for Eleanor is not over. This book should be made available for the general public to read. It is the first book, a very enjoyable novel, of one of Australia’s major writers. It should be accessible to all and the cataloguing problem needs to be fixed. Hopefully, something will be done about this sad state of affairs and Slow Dawning will eventually be available for everyone to read.

Beginning the long journey of writing a new novel

Paris Next WeekYes, I know, I’ve just finished my manuscript The Grey Silk Purse and have made my first submission but I’m nervous. As a diversionary tactic I’m researching a new novel. I even have a title – Paris Next Week.

I’m at the absolute beginning which is always exciting. I have a vague idea about the plot and I have the two main locations – Sydney and Paris in the 1920s. I’ve just picked up my first book to read. It is Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier and even after a quick glance it looks like the perfect ticket. The ship hasn’t docked yet but I already have a list of books to take on the voyage and some of these books may even help determine aspects of characterisation and plot.

That’s the fun of researching. You read to learn about something new. It may be Serbia in 1917, Port Stephens in 1942, England in the middle ages and as you find out more information you often stumble across an amazing fact that alters your writing completely.

Originally at the very start of The Grey Silk Purse I had a vague idea that my main character would be a nurse in Salonika, although something nagged at me that this profession wouldn’t suit my Miss Summerville. I began reading about the Australian nurses working there during WWI and discovered that other Australian nurses were working in Serbia, of all places! When the Australian troops were sent to France a lot of our girls were sent to the little known Macedonian Front. I began to read about Serbia in earnest and very quickly stumbled upon the wonderful Olive Kelso King who drove an ambulance. That was more like it. This is what my girl would have been doing!

Through reading I discovered not only the beautiful and very important location Lake Ostrovo for my novel but what my character did during the last year of the war. I read six memoirs of women involved in the Scottish Women’s Hospital and I drew from their knowledge to set the scenes for the most crucial chapters in the book – the why and wherefore of life in a field hospital. I can’t imagine the completed manuscript without all these facts now common knowledge to me. I don’t reveal them all of course but they are crucial to a lot of decisions I made (or my character makes) during the course of her war work.

I now have an even greater admiration for the women who were involved in this terrible conflict. We often talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We can now see that returned soldiers from all major offensives were victims but how did the women cope? We know the men either ended up in asylums or drank excessively after both world wars but what happened to the VADs, the ambulance drivers and the nurses when they returned to civilisation? That question is the driving force of the novel and it’s one I really couldn’t have asked without at least the basic facts behind me. So happy research reading. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon!

My Five Favourite Books of All Time

RelojDespertadorActually I shouldn’t say of all time. More appropriately I should say that this choice is from this point in time, late March 2013! Mary Tod tagged me in her post
Mary Tod, a writer of history
and this is my response. The list is not in order that the books were read and except for No. 1, not in order of importance. The 2nd to 5th books shuffle themselves around according to my current mood as do my top 20.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
I first read this dark, tormented work in late1985, early 1986 and was overwhelmed. It was like nothing I had read at that time. I remember it as a vacuum of words that just sucked me into the book. It was inexorable in its hold on me. When I finished the novel I was devastated by the “choice” that Sophie does make; something that I didn’t fully understand until well after the last page. Afterwards all I could think about was writing to the author and telling him that I was so inspired by the book that I wanted to finally try my hand at a novel. The trouble was I had no idea how to start the letter. And then in the January the Challenger disaster occurred. I wrote with commiserations and then praise for his book. Unbelievably William Styron wrote back with a letter that I still treasure. This book will always remain my No. 1 because it is why I write novels.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
This book is so much fun. I just loved the time slips, the what ifs and the clutter of Victorian England all rolled into one. Although it is a very long book, I actually read most of it the day of the Newcastle Floods in June 2007. We were without power for over twenty four hours and with no electricity I spent most of the day at a nearby hotel reading it. The flood and To Say Nothing of the Dog are now inseparable in my mind!

Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
This review is mine from Bookcrossing. The book had such a profound effect on me that I started a bookring. The book was read by 14 people from around the world and travelled for a year – one of my most successful bookrings. It is a poignant, unforgettable novel.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
What a wonderful book! The prose is very dense encompassing almost minute by minute details for the characters involved but when the final confrontation is reached the effect is devastating. We know exactly what each character has gone through in the intervening time. I love the twist at the end and didn’t see it coming. The movie was an amazing adaptation.

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
This is my review from Goodreads. I have featured this book before in my blog and it will probably pop up again. It’s a perfect example of why I love to read! Now back to the
Australian Women Writer’s Challenge!

Writing the final draft of your novel…or maybe the second last draft

Words taking flight!

Words taking flight!

Sometimes it’s hard to tell! I’m currently on the 4th draft of The Grey Silk Purse. I believe it is the second last draft but then I thought the 5th draft of Tomaree was the last way back in around 2004. The last was actually finished (the 8th) in 2008 so you see it’s a tricky business!

Ideally, of course, when a writer believes they are on the home stretch they should put the manuscript away for a few months and only then have another look before completing the final draft. I wish! I’d love to have the luxury of being able to do that but, frankly, I would go mad! Not writing is not a option for me!

An alternative the experts say is a change of scene. Wouldn’t a European trip be lovely? Paris, Rome, several mountains in Switzerland, a week in Venice. A mediterranean cruise I’m sure would clear a few cobwebs. One can dream!!
Crossing out those two options, what can be done to clear the air so that we can approach our manuscript with fresh eyes? My suggestion and what I am currently doing is:

Read someone who writes completely differently from ourselves; preferably someone whose style, sentence constructions, choice of subject matter is alien. 

Immediately for me two writers step forward. The first is Philip Roth. In my review of The Human Stain I talk about what it is like to read a Philip Roth. It is like being picked up by the scruff of the neck and dragged along. You can kick and scream against the intensity and speed that you are travelling but somehow you just can’t put the book down.

The other writer is John Banville. In his magnificent novel The Sea the reader is relentlessly tossed and scoured by his prose which sweeps the reader from the shore to the depths of the ocean, often dragged mercilessly under to surface gasping for breath.

Either of these writers will do nicely to give me a fresh eye! I chose John Banville and here is my review of Eclipse, the first book in his Alexander Cleave trilogy.

Eclipse by John Banville

I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the other two books before going back to The Grey Silk Purse but I will try!

2012: My reading year or fiction vs. poetry vs. non-fiction vs. memoir

LargeWBatduskThe last week of the year or in my case, the last day of the year is often a time of looking back and saying what was the best book, the best photograph, the best film etc . My favourite photograph of 2012? Easy peasy. A quick scroll down my camera roll on my iphone and there we go – the image above, Warners Bay, Lake Macquarie at dusk. Last year’s was trees again – my current gravatar. My son took my favourite photo of my grandchild. My favourite film was the French film The Intouchables. My favourite book – well that’s an entirely different matter and one that I can’t make a quick response to.

Firstly though I thought I’d start by doing an update on my blog from October. It’s the one with a picture of 14 books on it.  The blog was entitled “What I’m Currently Reading”. I have since dispensed with most of the books, some summarily in the manner of a reader in a top publishing house with an enormous submissions pile -Singleton’s Mill being one of those. The White Peacock by D.H. Lawrence didn’t suit my purposes but from Sons and Lovers I was able to glean a line or two of discussion for one of my character’s – Clary, a young doctor and also enough details for my main character Phyllis to decide not to read it:

“Today Clary came to the main lounge where I was having afternoon tea armed with two books. He offered me Sons & Lovers. I opened the first page & came to the opening lines about Hell Row, colliers & gin pits, whatever they were. The book was dreary & long-winded by the looks of it.”

She choses the Buchan instead. I’m with her on that as I also decided not to read the Lawrence.  But here’s my review of The Thirty Nine Steps . Around the same time I officially abandoned Fifty Shades of Grey.

For insight into nurses’ lives during WWI and general conditions of Australian servicewomen caught in the frontlines, I would highly recommend Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. Although I only read the section on the Aussie girls in Serbia it seemed to me excellently researched and well written.

The River Baptists I thoroughly enjoyed and now have another Belinda Castles on my shelf to read . I also enjoyed Early One Morning, Robert Ryan’s very painstakingly researched book on two famous operatives of WWII. I really admired Jan Bennett’s book The Facing Island when I finally let myself settle between the pages and get used to the fact  that I was reading the words of a dying woman. However, I decided not to read the very much alive Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? memoir. Why? Now that’s a good question!

It seems I really don’t enjoy memoirs unless they are by a woman who has served in Serbia during WWI or an  elderly man from 200 years ago (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) and then they do get read! Why Not Say What Happened wasn’t set in Serbia so was dispensed as quickly as Singleton’s Mill – just not interested, although I thought I might be when I borrowed it. Reveries of the Solitary Walker on the other hand was a gem!

Moving through the pile, the Florence Scovel Shinn and the Dessaix essays are still on my bookshelf to read but during the last two blogs some other books have snuck in and demanded my attention and I’m very pleased they did; a book of poetry in particular beating a few of the fiction titles to the post. Peter Bakowski’s Beneath Our Armour is a wonderful example of simple, clear and precise poetry where every single word counts and after reading the collection I decided I definitely need to read more poetry to feed my fiction writing, if that makes sense.

The other four books that skipped the queue are:
Pandora’s Bottle by Joanne Sydney Lessner which I read on my iphone.
The Music of Chance by Paul Auster, a 1001 book that had to be read quickly for a BookCrossing virtual book bag.
The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples by Shirley Hazzard – an excellent book bought from Maclean’s bookshop at Hamilton.
And an Erotica anthology by Skive Magazine, lighthearted and a lot of fun unlike that other book!

So it seems I need to read more poetry, memoirs of Serbia beat other memoirs simply by subject matter. The non-fiction I choose to read depends pretty much entirely on the setting and time frame of my WIP and lastly fiction wins hands down! No suprises there, really. And my favourite book and most respected read of 2012?

Nikki Gemmell’s With My Body. Beautiful writing on a powerful theme! Highly recommended.

What I’m currently reading and/or am about to read or are on my bedside table.

Yes, I know it’s ridiculous but what can I say? And you haven’t seen my TBR (to be read) pile yet. I’m a bookcrosser – lakelady2282 at www.bookcrossing.com and things can get out of control. Goodreads – www.goodreads.com doesn’t help either. According to goodreads I am currently reading 8 books. Seven of those are pictured above and the eighth is Dracula which I began reading about two years ago whilst at work (at a job where there was nothing to do).

Wikisource http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikisource is wonderful for this. You open up the book on your computer screen, say The Scarlett Letter or Sense and Sensibility (making sure the chapter heading is not showing and it looks like you are reading some sort of detailed manual). Perfect! It’s how I read both the last two books.

As to the pile pictured above – well let’s see. I started The Facing Island by the historian  Jan Bassett ages ago. It is about WWI so it should be a priority to read but somehow I still haven’t got around to it. I know I will though.There’s With My Body by Nikki Gemmell which I keep interrupting to read other books, mainly because it’s too heavy to take to work (to read in my lunch break). And then as you will have spied by the familiar cover there is Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James which I have pretty much abandoned like a hell of a lot of other readers…evidently. I keep thinking I might get around to reading at least to the heavy BDSM section but always end up reading something else.

Also on the goodreads list is Early One Morning by Robert Ryan. The book is about SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents in WW2, a subject I’m really interested in and I should finish this book soon. Reveries of the Solitary Walker by Jean-Jacques Rousseau I began (before I finished any of the other seven) so I could send it out on the VBB (Virtual Book Bag) 1001 (1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die) being run by a lovely bookcrosser. There’s And So Forth an excellent collection of essays by the erudite Robert Dessaix (but I don’t always feel like reading essays so it’s still not finished). And lastly The Collected Wisdom of Florence Scovel Shinn which I dip into every now and then.

Now we come to the remainder of the books pictured. These are the ones I lugged home from Speers Point Library yesterday.I still need to research Australian nurses during the First World War so I borrowed Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker. I am also currently trying to find a few books that my character Phyllis Summerville is reading and sharing with other passengers on board ship to England in September 1917. The 1001 book is useful for this. D H Lawrence is also very useful as I wanted a few risque books. The Rainbow seemed perfect until I found out it was banned for eleven years. I chose Sons and Lovers and his first novel The White Peacock (the small orange book, top of the right pile). I won’t use the latter. I’ll probably settle on Sons and Lovers for its shock value but I need to check this so will scan through the book. That’s three down of the second lot. I borrowed The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan because that’s the book Phyllis actually chooses to read instead of the Lawrence (so now I need to re-read it). When I chose the Buchan book from the stacks out the back I discovered Singleton’s Mill next to it by an Australian author Sinclair Buchan. (It’s the book on the top of the left pile.) I just might have to read this book too.

The River Baptists I especially ordered from the library after hearing Belinda Castles speak at This Is Not Art last weekend in Newcastle. I googled her name and found out that this book is set in the Hawkesbury River, a place I know and love from my teenage years when my parents owned a Halvorsen cruiser. I am really looking forward to reading this book. It is high on my list to be finished first but its tied with the other book that was on display at the library entitled Why Not Say What Happened? a memoir by Ivana Lowell. Who can resist “a heartbreaking account of a gifted woman, her brilliant but destructive parents, and a glamourous, aristocratic life that was laced with arsenic”?

Certainly not me! So there is the complete list of the books pictured above which pretty much exemplifies my life at present – researching WWI whilst being distracted by sex (as such), the glamourous life (the grass is greener) and generally taking too much on!! What more can I say, except reviews to follow… I hope.

Collaborating on a Writing Project

It’s an interesting concept and until last month one I found quite mysterious. How did people collaborate – actually write something together, something fairly substantial like an historical document or a novel? Was there always one person who did the majority of the writing?

I have previously worked on a short play with someone but it was fairly painless. They provided the initial idea and I ran with it. A few suggestions  were made and that was it. It has needless to say never seen the light of day. But what about a much larger project? Collaborative fiction for instance? In that partnership, who did the thinking and who did the writing?

Australia has a number of famous writing teams. In 1944 James McAuley and Harold Stewart collaborating as Ern Malley wrote seventeen poems in one day as a hoax against Max Harris and his magazine Angry Penguins. From the late 1920s to the late 1940s Flora Eldershaw and Marjorie Barnard (see picture above) wrote under the name of M. Barnard Eldershaw. During that time they published an impressive body of work that included 5 novels. Evidently Barnard did more of the actual writing whilst Eldershaw concentrated on development and structure of the works. Louise E Rorabacher who wrote about the collaboration stated: “that in their early collaborative novels it is impossible to distinguish their separate contributions.” The partnership worked because according to Nettie Palmer, a leading literary critic of the time: “Any difference in the characters of the two women doesn’t make for a difference in their point of view or values.”

In any fictional collaboration it is surely necessary for both authors to understand the characters they are writing about, especially their weaknesses and their passions – in essence to fully comprehend the character’s point of view and for the collaborators to agree on this fictional point of view.

And just as importantly, also, is what each collaborator wants from the project. In some instances they would be working towards a common goal – publication. In the instance of Dymphna Cusack collaborating with Florence James on Come in Spinner, the completed book was submitted and won the 1948 Daily Telegraph novel competition. Cusack also collaborated with another writer – Miles Franklin on the 1939 novel Pioneers on Parade.

In other instances one person might be commissioning another to do the writing for them, something they are unable to do themselves but have the money to finance the project. In many of these collaborations one party will pay to have writing done but the “writer” will not be acknowledged. They will remain a ghost that has collaborated silently. In arrangements of this sort the needs of both parties have to be looked at very carefully – preferably a contract drawn up with the collaboration clearly outlined. Very cut and dried of course but necessary.

Just as in good fiction a character’s point of view must be fully understood and imaginatively rendered, I have found through a painful experience last month that each collaborator’s point of view and needs must be understood. In my recent experience it happened that the other party didn’t realise that I needed to be paid on time. They also didn’t feel it necessary for communication to be both ways. With all this miscommunication and misunderstanding on such a basic level occurring – there was no hope in hell that we could collaborate on a unified point of view for our character and for the project overall. It was never going to fly.

It is now my belief that collaboration is like many forms of relationship, each person’s point of view must be understood and above all respected. Without this basic tenet, forget collaborations and relationships of any kind. They will never get off the ground!

To Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw…my sincerest admiration!

Reading John Berger at Brisbane Airport or the importance of place in fiction

ImageYes, that’s what I was doing in April and I think the author would have approved of the strange juxtaposition. After all in his novel Here is Where We Meet: a story of Crossing Paths, John Berger did just that. He chose fascinating or unusual places, sometimes associated with the people he was writing about or sometimes not, to place those people in context. And it works. His mother has never been to Lisbon yet her ghost is wandering around the city as if she was born there. And because of this juxtaposition his mother seems more real than perhaps she otherwise would have been, placed in her historical and geographical location of 1930s East London.

Place is obviously very important to Berger and he actually has his namesake John say:

“So time doesn’t count and place does?”

For me reading that line was a charged moment. Place is what I hang all my novels on. I simply cannot write without a landscape to put my people in. I generally write about the first half of the last century and if I manage to chose a landscape that no longer exists – then more the better!

I can still recall coming across a place called Burragorang Valley. Pictures from the 20s and 30s showed a rather beautiful place with guest houses, rolling countryside, creeks and valleys. It was obviously very popular and I wondered why the hell I hadn’t heard about it before. A little more research uncovered the fact that well…it had been flooded! Completely flooded to build Warragamba Dam, the new big water supply for Sydney. I was almost jumping up and down with excitement. This loss suited the novel completely and I think Berger would have approved.

In Here is Where We Meet, Berger places Audrey a young woman he once had an affair with – in not just London of the 1940s but a particular place within that world – Coram Fields. They see the trees of the place as they gaze out the window after making love. Luckily it is still a green area today.

Elsewhere in the novel there is the wonderful setting of Krakow. Against the landscape of the old Jewish quarter in this Polish city, Berger brings the character of Ken, another ghost, alive. I’m not sure if his youthful friend Ken ever went to that part of Europe but the location adds a strong dimension to his portrayal. As John the narrator says simply: “Ken was born in New Zealand and died there. I  sit on the bench opposite him.”

Airports by comparison are like a grey canvas that – for the most part – do not echo with associations. But we can add things to them. Like what we are reading at a cafe before flying home. We can add with deft strokes where we are going or where we came from.  Or at least try to be as successful as Berger is in depicting the atmosphere of a particular place.

Below are the links to the three books I bought back in March and wrote about in my blog of the 18th. All three are imbued with a powerful sense of place.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan 
Waiting for Leah by Arnost Lustig
The Quartet by Francois Emmanuel