All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir
By Elizabeth Hay
MacLehose Press, £16.99
This is a moving, poignant, honest and beautifully written memoir of her parents’ declining years by the Canadian novelist Elizabeth Hay. She brings vividly to life her artist mother Jean, whose abiding characteristic was her extraordinary frugality, and her schoolteacher father Gordon, a strict disciplinarian with a violent temper. Although there are many flashbacks, most of the book focuses on their last few years and does not flinch from the indignities of old age. Hay faces their all-too- human shortcomings and failings as parents and hers as their daughter. She emerges with a nuanced, deeper understanding of herself and them, finding a delightful humour in much of what they said and did, even in decline.
Square Haunting Francesca Wade Faber & Faber, £20
Artists struggle, wherever the starting point. The focus here is on being a mid-20th century female artist. Francesca Wade’s enjoyable book on five remarkable characters, and one square in London that linked them, is admirably researched, documenting the lives of HD (poet), Dorothy L Sayers (crime writer), Jane Ellen Harrison (classicist), Eileen Power (historian) and – the only figure I knew – Virginia Woolf. Wade’s flowing style keeps the pages turning; the subject is catnip for lovers of literary biography. Belly laughs are here, too, with some figures parodic ideas of the Bloomsbury set: “Living in Chelsea on a diet of baked beans and cheese, he was working on an orchestral score and a study of the relationship between Nietzsche and Wagner.”
Resist: Stories of Uprising Edited by Ra Page Comma Press, £14.99
What a clever idea for a book. Pick 20 instances of resistance in British history, get a creative writer to produce a story about each, and then have a scholar or activist give a non-fiction take on the same event. It works admirably. The events range from the Celtic leader Boudica’s uprising to the Grenfell Tower tragedy. (Curiously, there’s nothing from the Middle Ages – was it particularly quiescent?) It seems invidious to pick out individual pieces among many that are so good, but Lucy Caldwell’s insight into the Victorian Caroline Norton’s life is particularly striking. Norton’s violent husband deprived her of access to their children and her prolonged campaign of pamphlets, novels, newspaper articles and letters led to much better – though still not equal – rights for women.