Book reviews roundup: Fell; The Lauras; Les Parisiennes

What the critics thought of Fell by Jenn Ashworth, The Laurasby SaraTaylor and Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba

Two novels about adults looking back on their childhoods were particularly well reviewed. In Fell, by The Friday Gospels author Jenn Ashworth, a woman returns to the house where she grew up. As David Mitchell described it in the Mail on Sunday, “a middle-aged woman called Annette returns to her childhood home and awakens the spirit of her dead parents, housed in a pair of sycamore trees. As their memories slowly come back to them, Ashworth cleverly intertwines their back-flash story with real time events in Annette’s life. It’s beautifully written and cleverly blurs fantasy and realism.” If this sounds “hokey”, wrote Alex Clark reassuringly in the Spectator, “it really isn’t.” Fell is “a disturbing, precisely rendered tale of charisma, misplaced faith and transgenerational trauma, with a touch – not too heavy handed, fortunately – of the supernatural … The woo-woo elements of the novel … function effectively as metaphors – for transience, regret, our desire to hold on to the insubstantial … It is meticulous and mournful at the same time, a thoroughly involving and suggestive novel.” In the Sunday Times, Francesca Angelini admired Ashworth’s gift for “creating solid, believable characters and relationships in an oblique, suggestive fashion … Fell is headily atmospheric and luminously written … packed with the pungent smells of the sea and decay”.

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor, begins with 13-year-old Alex being bundled into a car by “Ma”, for a road trip that ends up lasting over two years. Some reviewers struggled not to reveal, by mangling pronouns, that Alex does not identify as male or female. “The book does this brilliantly,” wrote Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman. “It is exceptionally moving … in beguiling the reader into identifying with someone they thought they couldn’t.” In the Sunday Times, Louis Wise found “subtlety” to be “both the charm and the frustration of this novel. Plenty of things are not spelt out – from Alex’s sex to Ma’s real name. That is fine, but there is always the danger that a tasteful opacity can end up as underpowered storytelling.” But the Observer’s Hannah Beckerman was more impressed by “the novel’s themes of family, love, loss, and identity”, calling it “a meditation on gender: on our determination to define and categorise, and on the need by some to belittle or abuse based on that distinction”.

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s, by the historian Anne Sebba, “gives voice to a myriad of narratives belonging to the Parisian women who resisted, collaborated, flourished, suffered, died or survived through a mixture of defiance and compromise” according to Clare Mulley in the Spectator, who found it surprising “how little regard has been paid collectively to this fabulous material”. Sebba “has interviewed women who, remarkably, are talking about their experiences for the first time,” pointed out Daisy Goodwin in the Times. “This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives … To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the second world war still run so deep.” For Dani Garavelli in the Sunday Herald, the value of this history is in how it demonstrates that “under occupation, life was mostly blurred lines and ethical trade-offs. ‘C’est tres compliqué,’ Sebba’s interviewees tell her … Is a degree of collusion justified if it puts you in a position to do good? And can too great an adherence to principles be counterproductive? … [Sebba’s] sweeping, nuanced account makes it easier for us to … understand.”

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