Thanks to everyone who wrote to me after reading my (recycled) piece on turning 70. I know I promised to write about turning 75, but I am still trying to work out how I feel about that! Meanwhile I want to let you know about a couple of terrific books that I’ve read in the last few months.
Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel
I fell in love with 11-year-old Allegra in the first chapter of this book, and that took me by surprise, because I tend to be cautious about books written in the voice of a child. But Allegra’s voice is immediately captivating: smart, funny, intelligent, and endearingly innocent at times without, thank goodness, ever being cute. I really hate cute.
Ally lives with her maternal Grandmother, Matilde, a post war migrant from Hungary, who does garment piece work from home, spending long days at her sewing machine and cooking traditional Hungarian food. Matilde’s life is focused on Allegra to whom she is devoted, but she is sad, angry, and struggling financially. Her fierce love for her granddaughter makes her rather strict and controlling.
Next door is Joy, Allegra’s paternal Grandmother, who is gliding joyfully into the women’s movement of the seventies. She has a tortoise called Simone de Beauvoir, smokes a little weed and is often impractical and vague. Just like Matilde, Joy loves Allegra dearly; she is an emotional woman with a warm heart and saves her tears in small glass bottles, inscribed with the reasons those tears were shed.
In the flat at the back of Matilde’s house is Rick, Ally’s father, who works in the building trade and is a keen surfer. Matilde calls him riffraff, which has Ally puzzled. What also puzzles her is why all three of them love her but seem hate each other.
These relationships are beautifully developed as Allegra, in her final year at junior school, negotiates her way through other, sometimes rewarding, but often painful connections with her schoolmates. Her combination of knowingness and innocence is beautifully demonstrated, as is the confusion that results from it.
The background of the seventies and the women’s movement is right on target. For the background to what’s going on in Allegra’s homelife, you have to read the book. But the triangle of the people she loves most, and their hostility to each other is a constant source of sadness, misunderstanding and confusion. She navigates her way through each day, keeping up with schoolwork, making and losing friends, and juggling the expectations of her family, trying always to do the right thing by all of them.
Suzanne Daniel is a talented writer and a great storyteller. She is a journalist and communications consultant who has worked for the ABC, the BBC in London and the Sydney Morning Herald. It is a similar background to my own and this is her first novel. I found the shift from journalism and broadcasting to fiction extremely difficult, so I was interested to read this. I think it is a triumph, and I am waiting now for the next book
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
I discovered Tessa Hadley’s books when I was in England last year and haven’t yet found them in Australia. I bought two to read on holiday and have had to order the others online. They are well worth waiting for. Late in the Day is her most recent and, in my opinion, the best. But each time I tell someone that, I remember the others and how much I enjoyed and admired them! Hadley writes with insight into the extraordinary nature of the ordinary life. Her books are usually about families and old and new friends of all ages. She is particularly astute and sensitive in creating normal situations in which people hide small secrets and resentments that end up tripping them into awkward and sometimes distressing situations.
In Late in the Day Hadley explores the lives of two middle-aged couples: Zachary and Lydia, and Christine and Alex, who have been friends for many years, and have spent some of the best times of their lives together. There are also close friendships between their various teenage children. But it is the adults, the way they interact with each other, the way their friendships work and the secrets they keep, that is at the heart of this book. Sneak peaks into the past are woven seamlessly into the narrative revealing more about each one and how their friendships began.
It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the death of Zachary is the catalyst for change, because it happens on page three. His wife, Lydia and their oldest, closest friends are devastated. He was the heart and soul of their friendship, the one they all loved most, the one they could not afford to lose. It is a crisis for all three, and as each one traces back through the years of their friendships, we learn about their connections to Zachary and the lines that were crossed, the secrets kept, the trusts broken, the joys and disappointments and the strength and love it has brought them. Each one must now learn to live without him, and maybe without the friendships that have been central to their lives for decades.
I loved this book: the story, the characters, the way that the loss of one, changes the future of the other three, their children, relatives and friends. Real tension grows as loyalties are tested and found wanting.
I will read Late in the Day again, more than once, for sheer pleasure, and for the fascination of trying to work out how Tessa Hadley does it.
That’s all for now. Thanks for staying with me during what’s been a really difficult and challenging 12 months. I am working on the next book with more confidence now and your encouragement and support in emails and letters has been wonderfully motivating.