Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ April 2015

Not everyone will immediately recognise the term Anchoress, which is the title for Robyn Cadwallader’s intriguing first novel.

In the Middle Ages an Anchorite or Anchoress was someone who has withdrawn from the world in order to devote their life to God. Cadwallader is a medieval historian and for her Ph.D she wrote a dissertation on the attitude to virginity in the Middle Ages, when a religious life was often a better choice for a woman.

I was surprised to learn that the anchoress, sealed into a small cell attached to the side of the church, also had a parlour and two maids who attended to her wants, while her expenses were guaranteed, in this case by the Lord of the Manor.

Sarah, our Anchoress, has chosen to escape her worldly problems after the death of both her mother and her sister in childbirth. She has already seen the desire in the eyes of Sir Thomas, heir to the manor. This is no romantic serial, but a thoughtful and interesting look at life in the Middle Ages and of the importance of the written word.

The Ancrene Wisse, or Guide to Anchorites, is called by Sarah her Book of Rules and she tries hard to obey. She has a small window and a thin narrow “squint” so that she can see into the church and take part in services and it is her duty to advise and pray for the people who come to visit her.

It seems a small story but is in fact quite thrilling and in places the religious descriptions are both sensuous and physical. An unusual but satisfying book.

Do you remember the amusing novels written in the late Sixties and Seventies by David Lodge? Still fun to read. Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work are now all in one volume called The Campus Trilogy. Lodge was an industrious writer and successful academic with many books to his credit including a big fat novel about H.G. Wells called A Man of Parts. He has now produced a memoir called Quite A Good Time to be Born: A Memoir: 1935-1975. Quite so. I agree as I am in that bracket. It is clear-eyed and honest with equal attention given to his writing life, his academic career and his Catholic conscience.

Not everyone will find this riveting but if you have any interest in literary criticism, or academic rivalry you will lap this up. He makes touching reference to Malcolm Bradbury, a colleague and friend at Birmingham University. People often confused them – who wrote what? Bradbury's most famous novel was The History Man, another very funny novel about the Swinging Seventies.

I greatly enjoyed reading Kate Grenville's latest book, One Life: My Mother's Story. It has a coveted sticker on the front bearing the words Women's Weekly Great Read, and indeed it will be for many, many women and some men as well. It is both domestic and literary as well as inspiring. Her mother's country childhood was difficult but this clever, sensitive, practical girl somehow got to university and became one of the few qualified female pharmacists. She even ran her own business several times, usually defeated by the lack of childcare opportunities. And like many other mature women, after the Whitlam Government brought in free university education, she obtained a B.A. with Honours and at long last became what she had always wanted to be – a teacher. It is a story that well illustrates the huge changes in social life since the Second World War, for both men and women.

I enjoyed reading Twiggy: The High-Stakes Life of Andrew Forrest by Andrew Burrell, which won the Business Book of the Year Prize. It is called An Unauthorised Biography and is absolutely fascinating. What a complex, brave and fascinating character! Not just the 'good guy' in the blue shirt and moleskin trousers. Whatever your verdict, people like him are an asset. I'm sending a copy to my son in Western Australia who now works for Woodside.

I have begun the Neapolitan Quartet novels written by Elena Ferrante, who is getting great publicity by remaining totally unknown! Who can she be? Who writes such a fascinating story? Who is really writing what is being called a 'modern masterpiece'? The first novel is called My Brilliant Friend.

Filled with characters, you really need the list of characters at the beginning. And, like a good Saturday afternoon serial, it finishes at a moment where you are left on tenterhooks! Where is the next instalment! For me there are rather too many details (a bit like my attitude to Donna Tartt) but altogether it is an absorbing picture of Italian life in the 1950's. How far will it go?

Like all the reviewers quoted I can't wait for the next instalment. The next two books are The Story of a New Name followed by Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The fourth book The Forgotten Child is due out from Text Publishing in October. Translation from the Italian is by Ann Goldstein, who is also an editor at The New Yorker.

Abbey's Language Book Centre also has some of the Italian editions.

Entries for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, run by Australian Book Review, close on 1st May. Is yours finished? Get it in. See for information.

Keep well,


Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

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