Review of The World Cannot Give, by Tara Isabella Burton

Much joy in writing a school story comes of creating our own little world, giving it a local habitation and a name, and variegating it with distinctive customs and practices; great English Public Schools such as Eaton and Winchester even speak peculiar dialects. Tara Isabella Burton gives St. Dunstan’s, her co-ed prep school in Maine, many features of the traditional English boarding school that survive the transatlantic crossing, including replacing American-style semesters with terms, Michaelmas and Candlemas (the latter inauthentic—I’d prefer a combined Hilary-Easter Term). There are also dormitories called Latimer, Cranmer, and Keble – famous names in the history of the Church of England – as well as Mountbatten, Desmond, and Devonshire – an admiral, an archbishop, and a dukedom.

Burton’s previous novel Social Creature was a fantasia on the theme of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I am even more delighted with this new novel in the line of succession to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. There, an outsider from California at a small New England college majors in Classics and finds himself emmeshed in an elite undergraduate set who not study Greek tragedy, they live it, with no limits and no regrets. Now in The World Cannot Give (see John 14:27), we have Laura Stearns from Henderson, Nevada, joining a singing group at Saint Dunstan’s school chapel. Their speciality is Anglican liturgical music, especially choral Evensong, under the sway of the strikingly charismatic girl Virginia Strauss, who proceeds to adopt Laura as a protégée and takes over her life. Though the author calls the singers a “choir,” it’s technically an ensemble: five boys, Virginia and Laura.

Laura chose to go to St. Dunstan’s drawn the legend of a former student in the 1930s, Sebastian Oliver Webster. He wrote a passionate lyrical novel entitled All Before Them (see Paradise Lost, 12. 645), then left school, converted to Roman Catholicism and died fighting for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. I cannot think of a real-life model for Webster, but he recalls such English Communists as John Cornford and Christopher Caudwell, whose deaths fighting on the Republican side inspired Kim Philby and the Cambridge spy ring. If we imagine Webster as a Jesus-figure, Virginia takes the role of Saint Paul, eagerly making converts. Webster’s followers, according to Virginia, should despise the “sclerotic modern world” and become “World-Historical” characters whilst eschewing “moral relativism.” For Virginia and her acolyte Laura, that entails Anglican ritual, studying Latin and philosophy, and early-morning long-distance running.

If you appreciate traditional Anglican ritual, you will enjoy the parts devoted to Evensong. This is the sung service of evening prayer, according to the Book of Common Prayer. My own favorite composers of English liturgical music are Thomas Tallis and William Byrd—ironically both were Roman Catholics—and Charles Villiars Stanford’s Magnificat in C – which Laura hears at chapel – was new to me and to my ear sounded a trifle slushy. I loved Laura’s response to hearing it, though. “It’s how they’re all singing different notes, that are also somehow all the same, it’s how they’re at once so grand and exultant, swelling up their chests on for he hath rejoiced, and also so soft when the line of the music dies; it’s how Laura can hear all their voices, irreducibly distinct from one another, and also how what Laura hears is a single sound, unbroken. . . .” I’ve felt the same hearing the Tallis Scholars rendering Byrd’s Magnificat in the Great Service. Throughout the story we find allusions to this anthem that begins “My soul doth magnify the Lord . . .” taken from Luke 1: 46-55, Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s news that she will be the mother of the Messiah. I wonder if the phrase “He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden” should be taken as an ironic commentary on this story.

As Burton has a theology degree from Oxford and writes nonfiction about religious and cultural topics, it is no surprise that her characters’ beliefs are derived from real, albeit somewhat esoteric, political and sociological theory. Virginia Strauss is portrayed as a Catholic Integralist, specifically an Anglo-Catholic Integralist, which is unusual, as most contemporary Integralist thinkers – such as Crean and Fimister, Vermeule, Deneen, Dreher, and the somewhat intellectually lighter Sohrab Ahmari – are Roman or Orthodox Catholic. Historically, though, their roster includes some real heavy-weights, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and I’d include Simone Weil too. Some of the characters’ names – Strauss, Sterns, Anton (Laura’s oafish date for the Mayfair Ball) subliminally suggest rightist commentators, and Virginia’s intended internship at the American Institute of Civic Virtue makes one think of certain conservative think-tanks.

Ironically for an advocate of a Christian society, Virginia is actually Jewish, and is frustrated when the school chaplain, Reverend Tipton (most Anglican clergy hate to be called Reverend, preferring to be addressed as Father – or Mother) ignores her request to be baptized. When Virginia finds out that Reverend Tipton is looking for romance on Tinder, she sets up a clever revenge plot, one that also embarrasses Bonnie, Laura’s influencer roommate with 2000 followers who stole Virginia’s spot as first soprano. It’s a cruel but hilarious surprise for both, cleverly sprung by the author. But it also marks the point in the plot where Virginia’s fortunes turn downward.

Isabel Zhao is Virginia’s polar opposite at Saint Dunstan’s, a political radical and lesbian who organizes the student effort to abolish compulsory Friday Evensong and to topple the statue of “the fascist” Sebastian Webster, as well as drowning out Evensong by playing Black Sabbath over the school sound system. (Tastes differ; Capleton’s “Leave Babylon” is my epitome of diabolic noise.) When Virginia runs against her for student council president, she sets herself up for a nasty surprise.

As reviewer of a new book, I have to pass over the rest lest I spoil it for the reader. But I shall reveal that the denouement is deftly prepared although quite unexpected, and totally appropriate. It is terrifying, excessive, unjust – yet inevitable and right – the very essence of a tragic ending. How tragically ironic that a story about characters who believe in a Christian social order should be the victims a revenge tragedy, but imagine a twenty-first century schoolgirl as a Marlovian hero. That is how we might view Virginia, an over-reacher determined that nothing stand in the way of her quest to overcome the sclerotic contemporary world. Or is she simply a silly pretentious deluded teenager, without a tincture of common sense? Then Mary’s words respexit humilitatem ancillae form an ironic commentary indeed – Virginia one of the superbos mente cordis sui, the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

On the last page, we discover a passage from the prophet Isaiah, in a note Virginia wrote for Laura.

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:16-18)

It alludes to God’s faithfulness toward Israel, but also to the blood pact Virginia and her followers swore to each other in the school chapel. Does the biblical reference condemn the ultimate blasphemy or is it a message of future hope? How we answer that question will tell us what kind of tragedy we have read. But whichever, I am immensely grateful to Tara Isabella Burton for letting us have a splendid and moving story, worthy to stand on the shelf with The Secret History.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an ARC.

Review of The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill, by C. S. Robertson

Though I’m not certain if the title character exemplifies the current vogue for narrators who are somewhere ‘on the spectrum’, Grace is most surely not well endowed with social skills. She lives alone with no friends except for her cat George (found appropriately in a cemetery). Her mother is dead, but she endures the importunities of her father, a nasty alcoholic. Appropriately they live in Glasgow. (Does Scotland harbour the most repulsive drinkers and druggies?) But Grace has the perfect occupation for a person of her social skills; she’s a ‘death cleaner’. When you discover a tenant died alone in one of your flats and has been decomposing for weeks, after the cops have carried away the pestiferous remains you call Grace for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the premises. Grace also has an odd hobby; she crafts dioramas of the death scenes, carefully reproducing in miniature all the details – except fortunately the corpses. Curiosity about one of her ‘clients’, Tommy Agnew, leads her to attending the funeral and then to the ‘crem’ where Grace pretends to be the grand-niece of the deceased and actually stages a wake at a nearby pub for Bob and Jackie, the only mourners. Grace had found an old photo at Agnew’s flat showing five teen-aged boys, Tommy, Bob, Jackie, and two others. It was taken at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, which used to be a popular holiday resort back in the 1960s. Backtracking in newspaper achieves, Grace discovers a cold case, a seventeen-year-old girl named Valerie Moodie, who disappeared on a holiday trip to Bute in July 1964. Grace becomes obsessed with the case, travelling by train and ferry to Rothesay, tracking down the places Valerie and her friends stayed, and questioning an alcoholic old fisherman who had reported seeing a floating body, but later retracted.

As it so often the case with mystery stories using a first-person narrator, Grace actually knew more about Tommy Agnew than we find out till much later in the book, which explained something I found puzzling, why Grace keeps lying about her identity, first pretending to be a relative of Agnew’s and later to being a journalist investigating a cold case. (If it were me, I’d simply have claimed to be a free-lance true crime writer – no problem is awkward questions about what paper I worked for. Though I was delighted to discover there actually was a paper called The Bute-Man in the old days.). The title, The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill, turns out to signify more than it might appear on the surface, what in grammar are called the subjective and objective genitive. 

I had been aware that the Earl of Rothesay is Prince Charles’s title when he is in Scotland, but Rothesay and Bute were new to me and made me wish I’d had the chance to visit, though not in June. The sailing looks great. Some of the events in this story struck me as improbable – I certainly hope it’s not so easy to gain access to a cardiology patient unobserved: some of the things British mystery story writers allow to happen in hospital are not great advertisements for the NHS. But I loved the settings in Glasgow; the Royal Infirmary is indeed and imposing pile. If you enjoy the novels of Helen Fitzgerald, I think you will like this one too. Grace is as eccentric as Fitzgerald’s principal characters, though not quite so amusing and likeable. I certainly anticipate C. R. Robertson’s next book.

Review of The Girls of the King’s Navy, by Rosamund “Tiddy” Greer

This photograph from Martin Middlebrook’s Convoy, the story of the greatest battle of the North Atlantic between the German U-boats and the allied merchantmen and their escorts, haunted me. The caption read: “A Canadian Wren watches another escort vessal leave St. John’s harbour.” The ship was a corvette, HMCS Bowmanville, visible below the rampart. Being an incurable romantic, or perhaps just endowed with an over-active imagination, I found myself creating a story. Perhaps the Canadian Wren had a lover or husband serving aboard the ship and she was anxiously watching as he sailed away to do battle against the submarine wolf-packs. I knew from reading The Game of Birds and Wolves, by Simon Parkin, that such things actually were possible, that Wrens on shore in naval plotting rooms actually followed the engagements between their men’s ships and the U-boats in what we now term “real time.” So I started searching the internet for information about women in the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World and found my imagination, as too often, was going a bit too far.

Though I’ve never formally studied art or military history, I’ve managed to acquire a minimal ability to read a painting or a photograph, whether to appreciate the spirituality of Hieronymous Bosch, the humour of William Hogarth, or to determine the subject and authenticity of a scene of battle or of an atrocity. Are the details of the weapons and uniforms authentic for the purported setting? There is a famous photo from the Desert campaign showing what is supposed to be a German soldier surrending to the British at bayonet point—only the man in the German uniform is wearing British army boots!

In the case of the above photo, we might ask how friendly person with a camera happened to pass by just as the ship was passing the narrows. But another photograph retreaved by Google search left my romantic tale in ruins.


Same harbour but no corvette, though the smaller vessal inbound in the first photo may be the same as the one at the base of the bluff. By the position of the ships in the harour, one can tell this photo was taken the same day, probably a few minutes after the first. And obviously it is the same Wren, though posed with a different cannon, a field gun rather than a coastal defence weapon. So we have a couple of posed publicity photos, which explains their presence in the Canadian Defence archive.

Yet I’m glad I tracked down Rosamund Greer’s memoir of her service in the RCN Wrens, joining in 1943 as an 18-year-old. I particularly enjoyed the account of her training at HMCS Conestoga, “the only Naval establishment in the British Navies commanded by a woman” then. Being familiar with Royal Navy terminology, I wasn’t surprised that “His Majesty’s Canadian Ship” was actually a shore installation far from the ocean in Galt, Ontario, an erstwhile reform school for girls. Everything was very closely modelled on British practice, including building named for famous admirals such as Rodney and Nelson. Greer emerges as an utterly charming person, very much an ingenue by contemporary standards. Insturctions in sexual and feminine hygene seem quaint in our time when armed forces supply maternity combat dress. Yet so much cheefulness and patriotism shine through, especially Empire loyalty, as the title reveals. The name HMCS Conestoga puzzled me; I thought of the Oregon Trail rather than Canada. But the author notes that the name came from the wagons used by the early pioneers to Ontario and then of course I recalled that many Empire Loyalists emigrated from Pennsylvania after the American War of Independence, which was the origin of the distinctive pronunciation of “ou” in Canada. Later she served in the Pay Division, stationed in Halifax, the most important Canadian port during the Battle of the Atlantic.

Rosamund Greer died in British Columbia in 2020. You can find her obituary online, with a photo of her in uniform. How I wish I’d encountered her in this life.

Review of The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell, by Hilary Spurling

The style of the photograph is perfectly iconic. We seem to be looking over Sonia Brownell’s shoulder towards Lys Lubbock, in the offices of Cyril Conolly’s magazine Horizon. It is most ironic as well, supposedly taken on the final day of publication. No paper in Lys’s typewriter and Sonia’s telephone has gone silent. Today best known as George Orwell’s widow, who collected and oversaw what the Victorians would have termed the writer’s ‘remains’, we find from D. J. Taylor’s Lost Girls: Love, War and Literature: 1939-1951 that towards the end of the magazine’s run Sonia was virtually the editor, making the editorial decisions to reject and accept, as well as reviewing the latest publications of the Paris avant garde. Having had the experience myself of editing a journal in the humanities, I know just how much an able editorial assistant contributes, in effect an editor’s alter ego. Though her formal education did not extend beyond convent school and a year at a Swiss pension, Sonia held her own in the most rarified Parisian intellectual spheres, as well as gaining the affection of a wide variety of English and American admirers, not only George Orwell, whom she married on his deathbed, but Anthony Powell, Stephen Spender, Mary McCarthy, and Jean Rhys, whose rediscovery Sonia accomplished.

One fascinating aspect of Sonia’s career seems to have escaped the credit it deserves. Before her career at Horizon, she served as the editorial assistant to Eugene Vinaver, a name little known to readers of modern literature, but instantly recognisable by every mediaeval scholar as the editor of The Works of Sir Thomas Malory. A mediaevalist recently described her: “The individual in question was Sonia Brownell (1918–80), then nineteen years old, well versed in French but untrained in Middle English palaeography, and something of a femme fatale.” And adds: “Sonia’s name is absent from Vinaver’s acknowledgements to those who helped him to transcribe Caxton’s Morte or the Winchester Manuscript.” I wonder just how much of the Oakeshott MS Sonia transcribed but given what we know of her extreme conscientiousness, I should expect she made a good job of it, especially as the MS is in a very easy and readable hand. I imagine that had Sonia been born a generation later (ie my own) she would not only have attended university, but ended up a distinguished professor of French. I suspect Vinaver’s failure to acknowledge Sonia’s assistance may owe less to any scholarly failures than that he had since become married.

I found reading this biography that Sonia Brownell was someone I’d like to have had as a friend as well as an editorial assistant, and even though glad I’d not encountered her in her later years when that might have been possible. The heavy drinking, I suspect, accompanied an introversion I found amongst many English people and with which I easily empathised, one had to be half-shot to feel comfortable amidst strangers or in a crowd, and it is easy to overdo it. Unfortunately, Sonia was also extremely averse to dealing with finances, with bad consequences for the Orwell estate for which she was unfairly blamed. As we also shared a similar traditional Roman Catholic education, I know well the steel-trap conscience that accompanies that formation. However much rationally one rejects those beliefs, the guilt continues to haunt one. I wonder if she was ever tempted to slip into the much pleasanter harbour of Anglicanism. There were lots of first-rate Anglican writers in Sonia’s time – T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers. Maybe Sonia thought the via media too easy a course, unafraid to adopt the full-scale atheism of her French contemporaries.

Yet, Sonia Brownell Orwell accomplished much more for the literature and culture of the English-speaking world than all but a few creative writers or literary scholars. First of course by preserving Orwell’s works, but also by encouraging major writers and inspiring some of their best characters, as well as discovering and commissioning new writers. Even though I never met her, I feel I’ve discovered a friend and inspiration.

Review of Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, by Ariel Sabar

Physically the artefact consists of a scrap of papyrus about the size of a calling card, consisting of seven lines written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. 
1 ] “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe…” 
2 ] .” The disciples said to Jesus, “.
[ 3 ] deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it 
[ 4 ]…” Jesus said to them, “My wife . .
[ 5 ]… she is able to be my disciple . . 
[ 6 ] . Let wicked people swell up … 
[ 7] . As for me, I am with her1 in order to . 
[ 8 ] . an image …
From this, Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, hypothesized a “gospel” revealing that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. One of the great deficiencies in the study of early Christianity is the lack of sources outside of the canonical Christian scriptures. Especially amongst feminist scholars, there is a notion that other documents were destroyed by the patriarchal “orthodox” Christian authorities as heretical, and the few that survive, documents with labels like the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Judas, received considerable publicity from the popular press before fading into obscurity. For those of us who believe that the New Testament is most likely the only source we have of authentic information about Jesus of Nazareth, those gnostic writings of genuine antiquity are probably late fictional theological propaganda with no first-hand connection to the historical Jesus.

A standing joke about a religious studies department in a secular university is that it is the only department where the professors are forbidden to maintain that what they teach is actually true. Ironically, in the case of Harvard Divinity School, some of the Harvard faculty, such as Steven Pinker, claim that a college training ministers has no business in a modern university, based on scientific and rational principle. (Apparently such critics have no problem with a school of government that trains politicians, a school of business that trains prospective CEOs, and a college of education for “educators”—not to mention a college of law!) Amusingly, the publicity surrounding “the gospel of Jesus wife” gave the divinity school a new lease on life. One could add that a lot more real science, including carbon 14 dating, chemical analysis of the inks, and paleographic analysis of the script, seems to have gone into the examination of that papyrus fragment than underlies the publications of Professor Pinker.

I think we scholars are fascinated by forgeries because they appeal to our delight in trying to solve mystery stories as a test of our knowledge of the past. But too often we lose sight of the maxim that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is not. Like other inventors, forgers have to know their market. In such an age of faith as the Middle Ages, when relics were thought to do miracles, artefacts like the Shroud of Turin were created. Now in our age of disbelief (at least in tradition), many religious studies professors have never seen a heresy they didn’t like. Except for Roman Catholics, with their practice of clerical celibacy, there is no reason Christians should be surprised at the notion of a married Jesus—personally I’ve long wondered if he might have been a widower. As we have references to Jesus’ mother and brothers in the Scriptures, if Jesus had a wife during the period of his ministry, we might have heard of her. 

Ariel Sabar is a journalist not a scholar, but he spins a marvellous tale, beginning with the story of Karen King’s announcement (at the Vatican, appropriately) of the document, and then following with the investigation of the genuineness of the fragment itself, and finally tracing the actual source by way to Berlin to Florida. The author’s publishers seem to have been very generous in covering travel expenses and providing translators. It’s ironic that forgeries are much more interesting to read and write about than real biblical studies, but I remained entranced till nearly the end, when the rather squalid real identity of the creator was revealed. And once we find out how it was manufactured, it seems strange that it was not immediately taken for a prima facie fake.

Review of We Are the Wildcats, by Siobhan Vivian

The first half of 2020 has been a disaster for field hockey enthusiasts, especially supporters of the USWNT. After a disappointing start with three straight losses in the FIH Pro League, the corona-19 virus forced the cancellation of the series. We do not know at present when and how school and NCAA field hockey will be played this fall. But a small mercy—thus far it has been as great year of reading about our sport. So far I’ve read Fiona Campbell’s No Number Nine, Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks, and now Siobhan Vivian’s We Are the Wildcats. Comparing these three novels brings out the splendid variousness of the sport. Campbell’s is international hockey, culminating at the Olympic Games. Both Quan and Vivian write about American high-school field hockey. Though their settings are similar, the two books belong to quite different genres. We Ride Upon Sticks is clearly intended for the audience for “literary” fiction, so while most of the characters are teenagers in the 1980s, the setting in Danvers, neighboring Salem, Massachusetts is heavily reliant on the mythology of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. We Are the Wildcats is a YA featuring a common theme of the genre, the moral superiority of teenagers (especially girls) over corrupt and manipulative (especially male) adults.

I had hoped for another story with the intensity of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, and to some extent Vivian delivered. Both feature a triangle of two high-school BFFs and a demanding coach who wants a state championship and drives the team to their limits to excel. Abbott’s sport was competitive stunt cheerleading, Vivian’s field hockey. Her team is the West Essex Wildcats, and as with Abbott’s Sutton Grove Eagles, we never learn their precise location. The BFFs are Melanie Gingrich and Phoebe Holt, a forward and a midfielder who make a deadly goal scoring combination. Coach is a handsome twenty-something who is supposed to have played on the US men’s national team and imagines himself too good for high-school coaching. Last season the Wildcats were runners up for state championship when Mel failed to score, Phoebe was out with a torn ACL and Kerson, seconded from the JVs to replace her, flopped. (It was a nice touch to witness the Schadenfreude of Kerson’s former JV teammates.) Then Ali the goalkeeper allowed Oak Knolls to score the winning goal. Coach is determined that not happen again.

 The girls on the team believe his connections are vital to getting scholarships. As in many contemporary novels, much of the narration is conducted by text messaging.  As the new season opens, Coach appoints Mel team captain, but she is also Coach’s favorite and throughout the book we share their secret messages. We also discover Coach is developing a new favorite, Luci, who’s just made varsity as a freshman. The Wildcats are commencing their new season with a scrimmage, a “friendly” match against their arch-rivals the Oak Knolls Bulldogs. By tradition the night before the opening game is given over to a “Psych-up” sleepover at the home of the Wildcat captain, who will give the newly chosen varsity team their uniform shirts. But this year Coach doesn’t deliver the shirts, and the girls embark on their own midnight rambling team-building effort, leading to a shocking revelation that Coach has been deceiving and betraying them.

Like West Essex, the universities to which the Wildcats aspire are imaginary. Coach is supposed to be an alumnus of Truman University. Its location is undisclosed, but apparently far enough away to require a plane flight for a campus visit (Mel has already been offered a scholarship) and almost but not quite Ivy League: I’d imagine like Duke or Northwestern. “Their field hockey team produced nationally ranked players, many of whom, like Coach, went directly into the Olympic pipeline.” That “like Coach” rang with a large clunk. Although Coach is supposed to have played Division I field hockey in college, there are no American universities with intercollegiate field hockey programs; unfortunately it is exclusively a women’s sport.

There is a poorly supported professional USMNT; if possible its players train overseas.) As there is very little actual hockey playing in We Are the Wildcats, but I couldn’t help wondering what members of Vivian’s audience would make of Mel and Phoebe’s game strategy.

Okay! So you and I are going to make a run at the Oak Knolls goal with the kind of intensity we’d have if the clock were about to run out and it was our last chance to score. Except we’re going to do it immediately after the face-off.”

            “Assuming you win the face-off,” Phoebe teases.

            Mel swats her. “I always win the face-off! Anyway. Instead of passing the ball forward, I’m going to hook the ball sideways to you. Then you and I will sprint straight up the field, full throttle, crisscrossing passes as we go. I’m imagining three total, like boom boom boom, with your last one hitting me right at the top of the key. And then I’m going to fire off a shot, as hard as I can, with everything I’ve got.”

Seeing “face-off” and “key,” a YA field hockey player might wonder if Mel and Phoebe think they’re playing ice hockey, men’s lacrosse, or basketball. Since the 1980s, face-offs, or bullies as they’re termed in field hockey, are rare, mostly replaced by a push-back for starting or restarting games. And the goal-scoring zone is a 15 yard semi-circle in front of the goal cage called the “scoring circle” or “the D” and not the “key.” One also wonders what the Oak Knolls defenders and goalkeeper would be doing while Mel and Phoebe were passing the ball back and forth, boom boom boom.

Siobhan Vivian missed an opportunity to accomplish for field hockey what Megan Abbott did for cheer. Readers could have come away aware of the beauty and intricacies of the game. If Coach had been a woman, like Coach French in Dare Me, her backstory as a Truman University alumna who went on the play for the USWNT would have been entirely plausible. She could actually have played division I field hockey at an elite university like Truman is supposed to be. Surely, a woman coach could be equally prone to favouritism, self-centeredness, and manipulative behavior as any male. And from an artistic POV would be more plausible, realistic, and accurate with respect to American school sport.

The ignorance of the game We Are the Wildcats betrays is especially unhappy because Vivian wastes an opportunity to display for YA readers who do not have the good fortune to play field hockey—either because they live in the wrong states or are wrong sex—what an exciting international sport it is, very demanding physically, fast and constantly moving, and requiring the most selfless teamwork from the whole squad (quite unlike Mel and Phoebe’s game plan in this book). Some games really are morally and spiritually better than others, and I believe field hockey, whether played on the school, university, club or international level, is amongst the very best.

Review of The Islanders, by F. J. Campbell

With The Islanders Fiona Campbell had the clever idea of borrowing her setting from Thomas Hardy. All the place names are from Hardy’s fictional Wessex, which of course have counterparts in real English geography well-catalogued for over a century. The school is called Weatherbury Hall after a village with strong associations with Hardy – the real name is the unprepossessing Puddletown. Our principal characters are four sixth-form students preparing for A-level exams for university entrance. There’s no exact American equivalent, but something like AP courses. The time is autumn 1989 to summer 1990, when Mrs. Thatcher was prime minister and when mobile phones were uncommon. Our central character is a new sixth-form girl, Beth Atkinson, who finds herself the centre of attention amongst the senior boys. The main rivals for Beth’s affections are Edward Markham the son of a cabinet minister who lives on a country estate, and Zack Smythe, a sophisticated Londoner who has already run up an impressive number of conquests, including Edward’s sister Bonnie. But Beth’s most faithful follower is Milo West, the son of the school groundskeeper. Milo’s mother died of cancer and his father has just killed himself, providing Milo with a very modest inheritance, a cottage next to the school bounds. Thanks to Beth, who has the means to decline a scholarship, Milo also enjoys a sixth-form year.

The idea of the son of a groundskeeper at an expensive school brought to mind Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players but fortunately the flavour of The Islanders differs toto caelo. Far from being devoured alive with class envy – like too many characters in school stories – Milo is a model of caring and good sense. There are lots of allusions to ’80s culture: one that amused me as a hockey follower was discussion of pop music. Milo enquires about the song Come On Eileen and is informed‘in the sticks, it’s brand new … but in London it’s an oldie.’ It’s still played at every University of Iowa field hockey match three decades later. Unfortunately, Weatherbury’s hockey teams get little attention, but in addition to being captain of the rugby team, Milo also plays goalkeeper for the hockey team. The position is appropriate given Milo’s character and background: not glamorous but the last line of defence against a stronger attacking side.  His first ‘save’ is the discovery of Beth’s backstory, involving the identity of her parents, which she is eager to keep from everyone at school

The minor characters, including Tom the headmaster and Beth’s roommate Livvy, are well-drawn in detail. There are villains in the novel, but no monsters, unlike the bullies that populate too many bad school stories (bad doing duty for both school and story). The title seems a trifle misleading though. The students refer to their school as the “Island” because they feel remote from the rest of the world. (In fact till I checked my Hardy geography, I thought they might be on the IOW or Portland bill.)  Actually, Beth regularly travels by cab or bus to Melchester (i.e. Salisbury), which is her usual home. There are also parties in London and on the beach in Cornwall. But Campbell did well to catch the insular life of a boarding school, and the feeling of inhabiting a private world where close personal relationships, school sports, theatricals, and exams, are the main events in the entire universe. I think that is one of the reasons that for some of us our school days remain so deeply in our memories, however many years have passed since we left. I can imagine a sequel for The Islanders, but it would be a different book. (I greeted Beth’s choice of university with both shock and applause.) The Islanders is not quite in the class with Patrick Gale’s Friendly Fire – my choice for the best of contemporary school stories – but it is very moving and engaging.

Review of Old Lovegood Girls, by Gail Godwin

Books by Gail Godwin are special for me because one of the peak experiences in my career as a university teacher was a semester course with a lively and enthusiastic class, focused on four of her novels, as well as four by Susan Howatch. (One of the assignments was to write a letter from one of her characters to one in the other’s or vice versa.) I thought Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong were two of the best treatments of Anglican spirituality I had ever read. Not all of Godwin’s books worked for me: Unfinished Desires was a disappointment, Fleur enjoyable but not quite great, and Grief Cottage a DNF. Fortunately, I found Old Lovegood Girls stunning, a superb celebration of one of my favorite themes, a school friendship that turns out indeed to be Forever. The title is a wordplay. “Old girls” in the British sense of alumnae, but also chronologically. We follow Feron Hood and Merry Jellicoe from their first semester at Lovegood, a women’s junior college in eastern North Carolina, in 1958, till the end of the century. Both are talented writers but only Feron fully develops her gift, and even she supported herself mostly in a day job for a management consultant firm in New York. Merry remains in Carolina running a tobacco farm. But though sometimes nearly a decade passes without their being in touch, they remain close. If you have had the honor to enjoy such a friendship you know what it’s like: a reunion after twenty years feels like picking up a conversation interrupted five minutes ago.

Because Gail Godwin and I are near contemporaries, la longue durée brought back to me the experience of starting an undergraduate English major at the end of the fifties. Then the reigning deities for aspiring creative writers were Chekhov and Joyce (particularly Dubliners). Taking a creative writing course from a professor who expounded the same doctrines as Miss Petrie in this novel left me persuaded that I had no gift as a creative writer and I ended up with a career devoted to scholarship instead. (Finally after retirement I rediscovered my gift, but with different models like Donna Tartt’s Secret History.) But Chekhov certainly worked as a model for Godwin in this book. The teenaged Feron, escaping a sexually abusing stepfather, encountered a stranger on a bus trip, which led her to Lovegood College and a new life.

As in Godwin’s previous novels, we find rackety families and unreliable parent figures and eccentrics, as well as an attraction to relationships with older men. Feron marries her professor of medieval studies at UNC, an expert of Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship. Godwin’s minor characters are terribly accident-prone—Feron is a widow at twenty-three. But then Merry inherited the tobacco plantation her freshman year.

Over a lifetime it was enjoyable to chart the changes that I recall from my own experience. In 1969 Merry travels from Carolina to New York by train; in 1979 she flies. Feron types her novels on a Remington portable typewriter and does not get round to using a laptop till the later ‘90s. Occasionally there’s an allusion to a current event, like the school headmistress Jean Peters who blew away her lover the Scarsdale diet doctor. Apparently, the dean at Longwood had been tempted to something similar. And I have to admit thoroughly disliking Feron’s creative writing teacher at Columbia who is called Alexy Cuervo (I kept wanting to call him José), who is supposed to be a one-trick pony famous for one novel, whose literary pronouncements seemed pretentious and boring.

But the pleasure of Old Lovegood Girls lay not in following Feron’s literary career, but in the beautiful course of watching a friendship grow and change and yet endure and remain. Neither Merry nor Feron has a life that many people would choose, although they are successful and accomplished by most standards. But their relationship is one to model and if you ever have one like theirs, hold onto it tight. 

Review of Sea Wife, by Amity Gaige

CSY 44 Walkover


This kind of book is a rarity for me: a book I didn’t like till I found nearing the end that I did – very much. Reading a newspaper review persuaded me that the author probably didn’t know enough about sailing or sailors, especially offshore sailing, to write a believable sea story, and my suspicious were aggravated by the husband’s being a Trumpian. (Michael’s inchoate – so seldom get a chance to use that word – political opinions seem a mixture of libertarianism and Nietzscheism.} Wife Juliet is that very familiar figure, the doctoral student who can’t finish her dissertation (on Anne Sexton) turned stay-at-home mom. They have two young children, seven year-old Sibyl and Georgie “Doodle,” three. Most annoyingly, Michael gives them all pseudo-nautical designations of rank. Juliet is “First Mate,” Sibyl in “Bosun” (it’s actually spelled “boatswain”), and “Doodle” is “Deckhand” – of course real ocean sailors don’t indulge in such silliness – only dentists “driving” power cruisers on Long Island Sound. Michael’s mid-life crisis takes of the form of imagining the family going round the world at sea, though fortunately since Juliet has never been on a boat and Michael’s previous experience was day sailing on Lake Eire, they begin with coastal passages in the Caribbean. The tale is narrated to two voices, Juliet speaking in first person after her return to Connecticut and Michael’s very verbose entries in the yacht’s log. The boat is an CSY 44 Walkover (the latter term referring to the cabin  layout below deck, not to the boat’s competitive abilities), renamed the Juliet. Definitely too much boat for a couple, especially when one of them doesn’t know how to sail.


For a reader who knows something about sailing boats, the narrative is often disconcerting, especially as the reader for Juliet couldn’t pronounce mainsail, leeward, or Caribbean, and kept referring to the masthead windspeed indicator as the flywheel. Besides his crude political views, Michael’s vocabulary is too often that of a middle-school boy. He refers to being self-absorbed as “being wrapped in my own shit” and small talk as “shooting the shit” (gross!).


The descriptions of sailing and handling the boat were also unconvincing, especially when they run into heavy weather and Juliet is supposed to be reefing the mainsail and helming the boat by herself. But I felt the author made a serious effort to research her subject and introduce realistic detail even if she doesn’t always get their names quite right. But though we know from almost the beginning that the trip will not end entirely well, readers should remain rivetted to discovering the outcome. And I found it surprisingly stirring.


There is an easy test to find out if you have the mentality of offshore sailing in the deep ocean. Download the movie Adrift and watch it at home. That is what Michael should have done. After you’ve watched it, ask yourself if you knew that your passage might turn out like that, would you go?  Then, ask yourself, if you can foresee that it definitely will turn out like that, then would you still go? The voyage of the Juliet is not quite so eventful, but at the end I was persuaded the Juliet had underwent a sea change into a real sailor.

Review of Invisible Girl, by Lisa Jewell


Lisa Jewell’s novels follow the property developer’s mantra – Location, Location, Location. For Invisible Girl it is one of my favourite neighbourhoods in London, Hampstead, near Belsize Park, where some three decades ago I had the good fortune to be spending spring break visiting a friend. Most appropriately, she was sharing a flat with a psychoanalyst. Alternating sections are told by Cate, mother of two teenagers and wife of Roan Fours, a 50ish child psychologist; Owen Pick, a 30 something college lecturer who has never had a date, who lives opposite the Fours family; and Saffyre Maddox, a mixed-race fifteen-year-old who had been treated by Roan for self-harm. The first two characters’ stories are told in free indirect third person; Saffyre speaks in first person. The differing POVs confuse the reader because Saffyre is on a different timeline, with about a six-week lag.

Saffyfre seems fixated on her former therapist and shadows (stalks would be to strong) Roan, convinced he is having an affair with one of his colleagues, a younger woman named Alicia. Saffyre has taken to sleeping rough in the derelict garden outside the house where Owen lives. She befriends Josh Fours, as well as an urban fox. And on Valentine’s night, she is reported missing and the principal suspect is Owen Pick. He has just been sacked from the college for getting drunk at an end of term disco where he is supposed to have: ‘Splattered the girls with the sweat from [his] forehead. They all attest that it was a deliberate action and that you did it more than once when asked by the girls to stop.’ (We are not told how Owen was supposed to have done it – I can’t imagine.)

Worse, Owen found his way to an ‘Incel’ site online. This group actually exists and has been responsible for multiple murders. The term is supposed to mean ‘involuntarily celibate’ (they mean ‘abstinent’ but few people these days know that ‘celibate’ means ‘unmarried’ – Latin coelbs is a bachelor). In the old days I couldn’t imagine men who would advertise their lack of amatory success online, much less want to murder women they blame for this condition. Why don’t they seek professional assistance instead? Not only does Owen post some ‘rants’ online; he meets a shifty character named Bryn who gives him ‘roofies’ which Owen hides in the usual place, the back of the sock drawer. When Saffyre is reported missing and what is supposed to be blood found on the outer wall of the house Owen lives in, along with her mobile phone cover in the garden. Owen is arrested and charged with abducting Saffyre.

Whilst Owen is in jail being interrogated relentlessly by detectives, Saffyre (on an earlier timeline) befriends Roan’s son Josh and enlists him in a quest to find an attempted rapist who seems to be preying on girls in the area, and whom she thinks may be the same person who molested her sexually when she was ten. Meanwhile Cate vacillates between suspecting Roan and apparently being convinced her suspicions are unfounded. So, we have three questions Lisa Jewell has posed for us. Who is the mysterious person attacking women? What is going on with Cate and Roan’s marriage? And what happened to Saffyre and is Owen responsible?

As we expect of Lisa Jewell, the denouement answers all these questions neatly, tying the different plot lines into a tidy package containing a satisfying conclusion. But I must confess a major reservation. Most of us keen readers, and sometimes writers ourselves, of crime fiction think we are criminal law experts. I am very often appalled in novels at how often characters are arrested on the flimsiest of grounds, and such is the case with Own’s being arrested and charged with abducting (and presumably murdering) Saffyre. Though she’s missing from her uncle’s home, the police have no evidence of a crime. Though they tell Own it was her blood on the wall, we are told nothing about DNA evidence and as I believe results in Britain can take weeks, what grounds did they have for arresting Owen? His solicitor very remiss on that, as well as with other ‘evidence’ that proves nothing. I began to wonder if the police are reading my reviews. With Then She Was Gone I criticised the cops for being extraordinarily lax in their search for Ellie; they seem to have learned their lesson and this time they descend on Owen like the chorus of Furies in Aeschylus.

But despite some scepticism with the police procedures, I found Invisible Girl a most engaging combination of setting, characterisation, and plot that readers of Lisa Jewell will enjoy.