Virago has a birthday and to mark it comes Virago is 40: a Celebration, available as a free e-book. Various Virago authors were asked to write a piece in which the number forty was significant. I’m grateful to Virago for many of the books they’ve published, especially those I bought as they came out; for instance Elizabeth Taylor’s novels and Angela Thirkell’s Trooper to the Southern Cross, a book it’s almost impossible to find in the original edition. Reading Virago is 40 wouldn’t make me rush to buy a Virago book. Unfortunately, some of the writers have interpreted the brief as an invitation to write Polly Filler-ishly about themselves at tedious length. ‘I don’t need a penis in my panties'. Is this 1970? In fact, the book made me so cross I’d have hurled it across the room if it hadn’t been on the Kindle.
I needed light relief and turned to some books I’d picked up cheaply recently. The first was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I’m so far behind the times that she already has a new book out, Perfect, which I now look forward to reading. I’m in the ‘loved it’ camp with Harold Fry.
‘When Harold Fry leaves home one morning to post a letter, with his wife hoovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking. To save someone else’s life.’
Harold receives a letter telling him that a former colleague is in a hospice, suffering from cancer. For reasons not revealed until the end of the book, he feels guilty about having ‘let down’ this woman in the past, so he writes to her. He sets off to post the letter, and just keeps walking. He has his credit card, so is able to pay for overnight stays. He phones home, his distraught wife wondering if he’s got Alzheimer’s, worrying about what the journey is costing and whether Harold and the ex-colleague had an affair. Harold plods on, his shoes falling apart, his feet wrecked. Whenever he tells anyone what he’s doing, and why, they seem to understand. Eventually, he sends the credit card back home and lives on the kindness of strangers or off the land. News of his journey reaches the press and he becomes an unwilling celebrity, recognised on the road. The only part of the book I didn’t like is the section where his pilgrimage is hijacked by a motley crew of hangers-on; it seemed unnecessary. Harold is a perfectly ordinary man who does a rather saintly thing. I detected a similarity here to the writings of Alexander McCall Smith. A book for people who want to believe in basic human decency and goodness.
Next up was The Legacy by Katherine Webb. This is yet another of those backwards and forwards mysteries set in an old country house. Two sisters return to their grandmother’s home after her death. The legacy is that the house is theirs if they live in it; otherwise it is to be sold and the money to go elsewhere. There are two mysteries, one concerning their great grandmother and the other, the complete disappearance of their cousin during one of their childhood holidays. The answers lie with one of the sisters and with the family of travellers who have the legal right to live on part of the estate when they want to. Both sisters have to face up to the past and make a new future for themselves. By no means a brilliant book but I kept reading because I’d only guessed the answer to one of the mysteries and wanted the solution to the other. An ideal long book for easy summer reading.
Back When We Were Grown-ups by Anne Tyler is in a different class to the other books I’ve mentioned. I admire Anne Tyler so much. She writes so well that she makes it look easy; she writes of ordinary people and their lives in a way that reminds you that everyone is extraordinary in their own way. In this novel a middle aged woman suddenly reflects on the decision she made years before to marry one man rather than another and wonders if that step made her into a different person from the one she was meant to be. Widowed young and left with three step-children and a daughter of her own, she’s never before had time to question her life. Running the family party business and always ‘relentlessly cheerful’, according to one of the now grown up children, she looks back at the serious student she once was before meeting her charming, outgoing husband. Can you turn back the clock? She contacts her original sweetheart to find out. Nothing very dramatic happens in this story of family dynamics, self awareness and ageing, but I loved reading it.