Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Helen Lewis

Wrap up for the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

I am not a book blogger – trust me there are some serious book bloggers out there. However, I do believe in Australian Women Writers and, in January 2017, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For those of you who don’t know, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge was started late in 2011 when, after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in book reviewing, Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading habits. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to reviewing of books by Aussie women.

 

In 2017, I committed to reading and reviewing a measly four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. I could have aimed higher but I have commitment issues. Seriously, I prefer to exceed my goals than reach for the stars and land low with a thump. In the end, I reviewed many more books than anticipated.

I started the year with a review of Lucy Treloar’s magnificent Salt Creek and followed that up with a post about the seven seriously seductive Rowland Sinclair mysteries. So, that was eight historical novels in January. Am I a super-star or what?!

February I read two history books, one of them in Welsh language, just so you know I’m not a slouch.

In March, I read and reviewed three children’s historical novels, in preparation for an HNSA Super Session, as well as Alison Goodman’s sizzling second instalment, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact. Was I on a roll or what?

In April, I read Kim Kelly’s, Paper Daisies, as well as fellow Welsh language tragic, L..M Owen’s time-slip mysteries, Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity.

In May/June, I was lost in Welsh speaking Wales.

Back in Australian, I hit the ground running with a review of Nicole Alexander’s historical novel, An Uncommon Woman.  I followed this up with an interview and review of Theresa Smith’s delightful contemporary novel, Lemongrass Bay. In August, I interviewed L. J. Lyndon, author of The Welsh Linnet, and Rachel Nightingale, author of Harlequin’s Riddle. I also reviewed Kate Forsyth’s, Beauty in Thorns.

In September, I reviewed Carole Lovekin’s Snow Sisters and interviewed Helen Lewis, author of The House with Old Furniture, both published by Gwasg Honno.

In October, I reviewed Bernard Cornwells’ Warlord Chronicles. They were not Australian, Welsh, or written by a woman, but they were magnificent. I had to write about them.

In November, I stepped out of my comfort zone and interviewed, Isobel Blackthorn about her seriously skin-crawling horror novel, The Cabin Sessions. This was followed by and interview with Maria Donovan, author of the delightfully cosy crime with unexpected Welsh elements novel, The Chicken Soup Murder.

In December, I read Wendy J Dunn’s Tudor novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, but you’ll have to wait until January to hear about the book as I’ve asked the author to answer a few interview questions.

So, are you keeping up? What’s my tally?

  • I think that is 21 books by Aussie women – 19 of them, historical fiction
  • 3 contemporary novels by Welsh women
  • 3 historical novels by Bernard Cornwell – just because

At this time of the year, it is customary for book bloggers to name their favourite books. Which is tough. Especially as I am not a real a book blogger. However, if pushed, I’d have to say, Goodman gave us the most tortured love triangle, Lovekin gave us the most every-day magical, Lewis the most chilling commentary on contemporary British society, Blackthorn the most seriously disturbing read, and Theresa Smith and Sulari Gentil the most laugh aloud funny while L.J.M Owen and Maria Donovan gave me the most delightfully unexpected Welsh surprises. But sadly, I’m going to be a traitor to my gender, my adopted nation and my Welsh heritage by proclaiming Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles my pick of the year.

Tan y tro nesaf!

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

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