A hymn to Nigel Slater

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I have recently been entranced by Nigel Slater’s wonderful photographs of his visit to Japan, shared on Instagram. The delicacy and care with which he frames his pictures, and the joy he exudes in his adventures is inspiring.   I have grown up with his books, and can mark certain stages in my life through his recipes: herbed salmon with garlic cream sauce being the first recipe with which I wowed my friends at a dinner party in my twenties, and grilled lamb with onions and spices turning my boyfriend from a one recipe chicken in a jar man, to a real cook with a growing enthusiasm for measuring out and chopping exotic spices and fresh vegetables and transforming them into delicious supper dishes.

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Illustration by Julia Dallas-Conte

Nigel Slater has a passion for what the authors of Moro, Sam & Sam Clark, describe as ‘the language of spice’.   He shares with them a feel for the ingredients he uses, and possesses a gift for describing the background and inspiration for his dishes. He writes recipe books that deserve to be read, not just followed. This is a tradition that takes us back to Claudia Roden and Elizabeth David, whose books, ‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ and ‘A Book of Mediterranean Food’ respectively, introduced the public to food writing at its most authentic and inspirational.

The opening of Nigel’s recipe for Flash-fried Morrocan Chicken is imprinted on my mind: indeed ‘The 30-Minute Cook’  falls open at this page:

‘I love dusk in Marrakesh. I love the cacophony of sounds and smells as the musicians start and local lads set up their stalls of food, freshly squeezed juices and other good offerings’.

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Mezze inspired by some of my food heroes: Claudia Roden, Sam & Sam Clark, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Nigel Slater.

The key to Nigel’s approach is simplicity and imagination. His writing transformed my cooking from merely slavishly following a recipe to beginning to understand and enjoy using fresh ingredients. Chicken, sprinkled with pine nuts and raisins, with lemon juice and fresh mint cutting through the heat of the chilli, served either in pitta or with couscous remains a favourite supper dish; a plate of sliced oranges drizzled with olive oil and dusted with black pepper and a hint of ground cinnamon is an inspired accompaniment. A variation of this recipe: Baked Couscous with Chicken and Spices appears in ‘Real Cooking’. The page is splattered with olive oil and garlic, a reminder of the joy of making this dish, which fills the kitchen with the heady aroma of cinnamon, chilli and garam masala.

img_0222Twenty five years after the publication of Real Fast Puddings in 1992, Nigel Slater has a long list of books to his name.   On my shelf, alongside the 30-Minute Cook and Real Cooking, sits The Kitchen Diaries: two journals of his year with recipes. One entry in the first volume in May includes the inspired Lemon Amaretti Cream Pots, a delicious combination of yoghurt, lemon curd and crisp, crushed amaretti biscuits (‘it doesn’t matter of you don’t have a rolling pin any heavy object, even a wine bottle will do!’) chilled in the fridge in individual dishes and eaten with a wafer biscuit. Served after a supper of baked mushrooms with tarragon mustard butter and a salad of frisee and bacon (‘probably the best salad in the world’) my guests were blissfully unaware of how simple the meal had been to prepare.   Printed on gorgeous, thick, cream paper with colour photographs by Jonathan Lovekin, ‘The Kitchen Diaries’ are books that deserve to be read from cover to cover, and then used as the basis for one’s own journey through the seasons.

When I use Nigel Slater’s  books, I feel I am getting advice from a good friend, such is the power of his conversational writing style. When I first met him in the bookshop where I work, I broke an unspoken rule, and told him what his writing had meant to me.  I owe what technique I have in the kitchen to Delia Smith, whose Complete Cookery Course was my companion at college and beyond.  However, for creativity and sheer joy, Nigel Slater is my hero.   Here is a toast to his next adventure.

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Photograph by Georgia Glynn Smith, Real Cooking, 1997

Further Reading: Not a comprehensive list by any means, simply the books I use regularly, some of which I have referred to in this article.

Nigel Slater:

Real Fast Puddings, Penguin, 1992
The Thirty-Minute Cook, Michael Joseph, 1994
Real Cooking, Michael Joseph, 1997
The Kitchen Diaries 1 and 11, Fourth Estate, 2005/2012
Tender, Volumes 1 and 11, Fourth Estate, 2009/2010

Elizabeth David:

A Book of Mediterranean Food, decorated by John Minton and published by John Lehmann, 1950
French Country Cooking, decorated by John Minton and published by John Lehamnn, 1951
An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Robert Hale, 1984

I was entranced by John Minton’s illustrations to my mother’s copies of these books as a child.  Along with Harold Jones, it began a life-long passion for mid-twentieth century English design.  The Pallant Gallery in Chichester is holding a centenary exhibition of John Minton’s work from 1st July to
1st October.

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Claudia Roden:

A Book of Middle Eastern Food, Nelson, 1968
Arabesque, Michael Joseph, 2006: no kitchen should be without this book: my absolute favourite.

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Sam and Sam Clark:

Moro, 2001, and Morito, 2014, Ebury Press

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The Hebridean Trilogy by Peter May

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This is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A E Houseman, ‘Blue Remembered Hills’.

Tri rudan a thig gun iarraidh: an t-eagal, ant-eudach ‘s an gaol.
(Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy).

Gaelic proverb.

(Epigraph to The Blackhouse by Peter May).

 

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Lochan up Cracabhal, Isle of Lewis, photograph by David Wilson.

 

theblackhouseIt may sound odd for a bookseller to suffer from the equivalent of writer’s block, but just sometimes nothing amongst the teetering piles of books at my disposal at home or at work feels quite right. This happened to me after my trip to Laos last October: an action-packed fortnight during which there was little time for personal reading. I arrived home full of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that I had experienced, and I just couldn’t quite settle back into my usual reading habits. In desperation I turned to one of my colleagues, who put me onto the first of a trilogy of crime novels by Peter May set in the Outer Hebrides. The Blackhouse had me in its grip immediately, because it is exactly the kind of crime novel I like: not just a straightforward murder mystery, but also an intimate portrait of a man returning to his homeland and reconnecting with his past.

Returning to work in Edinburgh after a personal tragedy, Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is stunned when an unsolved murder takes him back to the Isle of Lewis, and to Crobost, the village where he grew up. Soon, long-lost memories of his youth on this windswept island come flooding back: Fin is going to have to dig deep into his past in order to solve the mystery.

Peter May has a real talent for narrative structure: all three books are untitledintricately plotted, moving seamlessly between the present and the past. What makes the books so compelling is the retelling of Fin’s past life on the island, and that of his friends, which is central to the plot of all three novels. I tried to slow down in order to savour Peter May’s beautiful evocations of the landscape and culture of the islanders: whether he is describing the back breaking work of peat cutting, or the wild beauty of the machair, I was entranced. Memories of a holiday spent on North Uist many years ago came flooding back to me: the wildness of the wind that propelled us along the empty stretches of sandy beach, the way the cloud and rain can come down and envelop one in an instant, the peat stacks by the cottages, the eerie beauty of the standing stones, the feeling of being right out on the edge of the earth:

‘It was a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be
unexpectedly transformed.  Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to peter-may-hebridesmarvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could change by the month, the day, or even the minute…to their right the sky had blackened … to their left the sky was almost clear, summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here’.

(Peter May: Hebrides, with photographs
by David Wilson, published by
Riverrun in 2013)

 

chessmen-peter-mayIn the final volume, the Chessmen of the title are the 12th century Lewis chessmen, returning to the island for a special gala day. When I was a child we made a replica of the original chess set out of plaster of Paris. I learnt to play chess using these pieces, and was endlessly fascinated by the expressions on their faces: the queen with her hand up to her face, the sturdy knight on his horse, and the serious bishop. I loved the weight of each piece in my hand.

 

 

 

I am grateful to Chris, my fellow bookseller, for introducing me to Peter May’s magnificent trilogy, which, in a moment of true serendipity not only propelled me out of my reading slump, but drew me back to some of my own memories of this extraordinary place.

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(The Lewis Chessman: History Extra).

 

Edward Ardizzone: artist and illustrator

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Little Tim lived in a house by the sea.

He wanted very much to be a sailor.

little-timWhen it was fine he spent the day on the beach playing in and out of the boats, or talking to his friend the old boatman, who taught him how to make the special knots that sailors make and many other things about the sea and ships.

Sometimes Tim would astonish his parents by saying, ‘That’s a Cunarder’ or ‘Look at that barquentine on the port bow’.

So begins ‘Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain’, which, together with ‘Diana and Her Rhinoceros’ and ‘The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll’ was one of my favourite picture books when I was a child. I loved his cross hatching technique and his use of speech bubbles that added another layer to his stories.

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Edward Ardizzone’s work occupied a large space in my childhood reading. One of my earliest memories is of my father reading me Nurse Matilda, written by Ardizzone’s cousin Christianna.

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In the 1960s and 1970s it was quite hard to avoid his drawing, as he was extraordinarily prolific, illustrating many of my beloved Puffin books for other authors, in addition to his own writing.  Eleanor Farjeon’s ‘the Little Bookroom’, ‘The Otterbury Incident’ by C Day Lewis and ‘Stig of the Dump’ by Clive King are just a few favourite books in which his line drawings complement the story. His illustrations also make the perfect match for E Nesbit’s beautifully written collection of childhood reminiscences “Long Ago When I was Young’, published in 1966 by Robert Whiting &Wheaton.

 

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As I grew up Ardizzone’s influence was woven into the fabric of my life in unexpected ways: On holiday in Bath, my mother bought me a proof version of an illustration by Ardizzone, only to discover at home the original Harvey’s wine catalogue from which it came: it must have belonged to my late father. My Uncle fought in the Second World War in the Reconnaissance Corps, and on going through his things I was astonished to discover that the rather dull looking black and white Reconnaissance Corps magazines had illustrations inside by Ardizzone. One of my favourite pieces of ephemera is a booklet he produced for Guinness called ‘Game Pie: a Guiness indoor Sportfolio’.

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Ardizzone recently had a retrospective exhibition at the House of Illustration in Granary Square.  I love the space, which is small and intimate, where I saw the exhibition celebrating the work of E H Shepherd last year. The exhibition included his extraordinary body of work depicting life on the front line in the First World War. As I knew him best as the creator of the sublime illustrations for Winnie the Pooh and the Wind in the Willows, I found this side of his life extremely moving.  Similarly, the Ardizzone exhibition gave an insight into the many different aspects to his career: I was particularly interested in learning more about the four years he spent as a war artist during the Second World War. The exhibition displayed paintings, drawings and letters home from this period.  Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery at this time, set up the War Artists’ Advisory Scheme, with the aim of drawing up

‘a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad. In co-operation with the Services Departments, and other Government Departments…to advise on the selection of artists on this list for war purposes and on the arrangements for their employment’.

He said:

‘I wanted (a war artist) who could show the earthy part: what military life was really like”.  Ardizzone made over 400 works, depicting the home guard, the desert war, officers off duty and life in Southern Italy.

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Paul Johnson, in an article for the Spectator, in which he celebrates ‘the Michaelangelo of the Maida Vale pub’ explains:

‘He did many hundreds of on-the-spot sketches, often within sound of the guns and in peril of his life, but he also recorded camp and barrack life and the roistering which went on between the fighting. His drawings form a true record of a great part of the war. He was on duty almost from the beginning, in training, in France before and during the collapse in 1940, in London during the Blitz, in North Africa for the final defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, in the Sicily invasion, the campaign in Italy, the Operation Overlord invasion of France and the conquest and occupation of Germany.’

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In 1973, on his 70th birthday, in reply to a telegram he received from Ardizzone, Sir Kenneth Clark thanks his friend for the pleasure his drawings have given him:

‘The invention, the humanity and the flowing composition and in general the sweet picture of life you have created’.

Ardizzone made money in the early days from illustrating book jackets, and went on to design restaurant menus, birthday telegrams, and covers for Punch and the Strand Magaziovertons-menu-ardizzonene, in addition to his prolific career as a children’s book writer and illustrator. The exhibition even had on loan from the P & O heritage collection, a wonderful mural, made in 1961 for the first class playroom of ocean liner SS Canberra, depicting a scene from Treasure Island.

 

Unlike contemporaries including Edward Bawden and Barnett Freedman, Ardizzone is thought to have his roots in the 18th and 19th century tradition of Rowlandson and Cruickshank. (i recommend the fascinating interview in the Guardian between Joanna Carey and his daughter Christianna Clemmence: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2000/jan/04/educationalbooks).

In a short video at the House of Illustration exhibition, Shirley Hughes admires Ardizzone’s skill in making the reader want to inhabit the story. There is nothing flat about his painting. I knew this instinctively from the moment I saw the little girl reaching for the tiny doll in the deep freeze all those years ago.

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Further reading:

Edward Ardizzone: Artist and Illustrator, Alan Powers, Lund Humphries, 2016

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The Young Ardizzone: an autobiographical fragment, Edward Ardizzone, first published by Studio Visa in 1970, and reissued in 2013 by Slightly Foxed editions.

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Edward Ardizzone, Diary of a War Artist, The Bodley Head, 1974

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Sketches for Friends, Edward Ardizzone, published by John Murray, 2000

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My Father and Ardizzone: a Lasting Friendship, illustrated with Ardizonne Christmas cards, Edward Booth-Clibborn, Patrick Hardy Books, 1983

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To War With Paper and Brush: Captain Edward Ardizzone, Official War Artist, by Malcolm Yorke, published by Simon Lawrence at the Fleece Press.GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAsttowar1_01

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laos Unlocked: the Plain of Jars and UXO Lao

From 1964 to 1975 a Civil War was fought in Laos between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao government. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War the activities of the superpowers in Laos were all but forgotten, the USA only officially acknowledging their part in what became known as the Secret War in 1997.

Whilst in Phonsavan, the capital of Xieng Khuang province, we visited the eerie sites of the Plain of Jars, so-called because of the huge stone funeral jars that lie scattered across the grassy meadow lands. The flat plains were a focus for fighting during the second Indochina War and the crater-ridden landscape is evidence of the extensive bombing by American planes that took place here.

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At the entrance to UXO Lao we are confronted with a collection of bombs. Seeing a cluster bomb up close in all its terrifying ugliness is frightening, especially when we find out that children in the fields can pick up a cluster bomb and try to open it like a toy. The dangers for local people who farm the land are clear to see.  Casualties, both injury and death, occur each year.  We are taken inside and sit in shocked silence while Mr Kingphat tells us about the work of UXO Lao.

He began by giving us the chilling statistics: Two million tons of ordnance fell on Laos during the Secret War, 30% of which failed to explode.  This is the equivalent of a B52 bomber dropping its load every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day for nine years. There are two aspects to the work of the MAG: clearance and education to ensure fewer accidents amongst villagers. We are shown a map of the areas still affected by UXO, and told about the painstaking work involved in mapping out each area, and checking for bombs using three different pieces of equipment.

We are then taken out into the field to see the work of an all-female team. It is not an experience I will ever forget. A small plot of land is marked out, and one of the women works her way slowly down it, using what looks like a metal detector. When it beeps, she stops, and marks the spot with a stick. This is then carefully dug up, to reveal what may be a piece of ordnance, or may just be a harmless piece of metal.   We are invited to watch a cluster bomb being exploded: this involves one of the women warning the local farmer with a loud speaker to move his herd away from the area, before wiring up the detonator.

Daniel and Meganne are two Americans in our party, who as young people in the 1960s demonstrated against the Vietnam War. They were given the task of pressing the button that would explode the bomb on the hillside in the distance.

I don’t think any of us expected it to be quite such an emotional experience. The UXO team were quietly efficient and full of good grace. After posing with us for a group photograph Meganne put our feelings into words:

‘Thank you for the important work that you do and we are so sorry for what America has done to your country’.

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The Wild Buffalo Foundation

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I first met Mark Steadman in Pakistan in 2013. One evening, at the sublime Eagle’s Nest Hotel, Mark gave a presentation about how he came to co-found Lone Buffalo: a non-profit organisation that teaches young people in rural Laos English as well as giving them the opportunity to play football and make films. It started when Mark met Manophet, who devoted himself to the young people in his community. Mark spoke with passion about a man, and a project, that had changed his life, and that of many young people around him.

During a spectacular two weeks in Laos in October 2016 we met many people and saw many things, but the highlight for me came on day 5 of the trip, when we travelled from Luang Prabang to Phonsovan. It had been a moving day already, as we had spent the morning visiting the offices of the Mines Action Group and the UXO Survivors Centre. Later in the afternoon we arrived at Lone Buffalo and having taken off our shoes, were given a tour of the facilities, which include a small gym, an expanding library of English books, and two classrooms. We were divided into two groups, and whilst I sat downstairs, and met some of the students in the Advanced Beginner class, my fellow travellers went upstairs and participated in the Pre-Intermediate class.

The students were all very welcoming. We talked about our lives and our families. Miss Yer Yang showed me her spectacularly neat exercise book, while Mr Chan explained his hope for the world, which involved ‘a new relationship through smiling’. It was an intense hour in which I felt I had never talked so much, or been so inspired by what I had seen. Finally we watched a short film made by some of the students about the work of Lone Buffalo, and I presented the two librarians with some English/Laos books that we had brought with us.

The majority of these young people are the children of farmers. They live in the most heavily bombed place on earth. Without the help of Lone Buffalo (which many attend after a day at school) they wouldn’t have the chance to study English. We left the school moved by what we had seen of both staff and students: without exception dedicated, enthusiastic and determined to build a future for themselves.

Laos Unlocked

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An autumn chill is in the air as I leave the flat for a walk on Hampstead Heath.  The leaves are turning from yellow to burnished gold, and the silence is complete, except for the sound of leaves stirring in the trees and the echo of a dog barking in the distance. It is a peculiarly British scene, and yet in my heart I am still in Laos.

I first met our guide Mark Steadman in Pakistan three years ago. He told us about his adopted home in Ponsavan and the story of how he came to found the Wild Buffalo Foundation: a charity that teaches young people English and gives them the opportunity to play football and learn about film making. The afternoon we spent with the students was one of the highlights of a trip that took us deep into the heart of Laos, and showed us what life is like here in all its complexity.

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In a fortnight of surprise and adventure many things stand out: meeting Lao Lee at The Living Land Community Farm and participating in the twelve stages of rice production; a sobering visit to the offices of the Mines Action Group and the UXO Survivors Centre where an all-female team demonstrated their painstaking work; travelling into central Laos, where we strolled around colourful markets, experienced life in a Hmong village and enjoyed a playground game with some schoolchildren.

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We were stunned by the noise and colour of the Buddhist festival of light at Thakek, and enjoyed dining by the Mekong and watching the candle lit floats sail by. We travelled by boat through one cave and swam through another, trekked through jungle and finally made it south to the 4000 islands, which we explored by boat. Mark has an unerring ability to appear at unexpected moments with a little treat. In Pakistan it was tea as we watched the sun rise over the Himalayas, here it was gin and tonics at sunset on the French bridge near our hotel at Sala Don Khone.

I thank Mark, Louis and Det for sharing so much with us. Whilst we build up to Christmas at Daunt Books, I will be thinking about adding ginger and lime to my porridge, trying to learn how to make noodle soup, and wondering what Miss Yor Yong and her classmates at Lone Buffalo are learning this evening.

 

Rose Tremain: from Restoration to the Gustav Sonata

 

I first discovered the writing of Rose Tremain, when I joined Waterstone’s in Bath as a bookseller in 1989 and was given her novel ‘Restoration’. Her attention to detail and sharp wit drew me in immediately: her tale of anti-hero, physician and rogue Robert Merivel, courtier to Charles 11, was a tour de force. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize and was responsible for making her name. In 2012 she returned to her wonderful creation, with the publication of ‘Merivel’, picking up the story fifteen years later.  Tom Cox writing in the Guardian said,

‘Merivel does seem like a man of his time, but ends up coming across quite a bit like a man of ours, too’.

In the years that followed, I read all her books: the historical novels ‘Music and Silence’, in which Peter Claire arrives at the Danish court in 1629 to join the Royal Orchestra, and ‘The Colour’, set during the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860s, her love story set in Paris ‘The Way I Found Her’,  ‘The Road Home’, in which widower Lev travels from Eastern Europe to make a new life in London and ‘Trespass’, a modern thriller set in Southern France.  I always breathe a sigh of relief on starting one of her novels: for me she is the epitome of good writing. Her language is precise and the landscape and era are always evoked with a clarity that takes us with her in our imaginations.

I was reminded of all her remarkable qualities as a writer when I reread her exquisite collection of short stories ‘Wildtrack’, published by Full Circle editions, with evocative illustrations by Jeff Fisher. The publisher specializes in writers and artists associated with the East of England, and these stories celebrate Rose Tremain’s passion for ‘the wide skies and watery byways of East Anglia’ in which, in the words of Merivel, who is exiled to East Anglia in ‘Restoration’, ‘the landscape became, as it were, less and the sky more.’

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In her introduction to ‘Wildtrack’ Rose Tremain says that two of her stories, “Wildtrack’ and ‘Peerless’ relate the debilitating sense of loss of her two male protagonists and their efforts to reconnect and ‘find something to hold onto in the future that will give their lives purpose and meaning. She continues:

‘This important question, how we find meaning in a secular life, especially after the age of sixty of so, is one which is worthy, I think, of tireless exploration, and I have addressed it again in my novel ‘Tresspass’ (Chatto, 2010). Quite often short stories may prove to be essais for larger works of fiction, even though the writer doesn’t know this at the time’.

This is pertinent to her recent novel ‘The Gustav Sonata’, which i read this year with an increasing sense of wonder, both for the narrative structure of the novel, and for the quality of the writing. The novel tells the story of a friendship: Gustav meets Anton at primary school in Switzerland. His father has died, and he lives with his mother. From his stark childhood, the novel moves back in time to tell the story of Gustav’s father, a policeman who makes the decision to help refugees who are no longer legally permitted to enter the country, with unforeseen consequences. In the final section of the book, Gustav and Anton have grown up. Gustav has been running a guesthouse, and Anton, despite his desperate stage fright, has decided to try his luck as a concert pianist.

There are so many layers to this novel and it is very hard to do it justice on paper. I was moved by Rose Tremain’s skill in telling her tale, one that will resonate with every reader, exploring as it does the relationships and decisions that affect our lives and make us human

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