Sep 21, 2022
Authors from Barbara Ehrenreich to Damon Galgut highlight these undervalued workers and their sharp perspectives on those they tidy up after
Whether known as cleaners, charladies, housekeepers, janitors or maids, those who clean have recently been recast. Originally seen as either comical or sinister, they have become emblems of resilience, keeping chaos and Covid at bay. Next week, Paul Gallico’s enchanting comedy, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, opens as a film with Leslie Manville in the lead. It will shine a spotlight on a job that has moved from that of supporting character to hero.
Perhaps the first cleaner in English literature is Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, associating “sweep(ing) the dust behind the door” with blessing a house. Yet mess, whether domestic or political, has long been seen as work for the female or unskilled. To those who resent the imposition of domestic order, cleaners can be sinister and even vengeful presences – most famously depicted in Jean Genet’s play, The Maids. But to those who feel only relief at having their filth lifted by someone else, the cleaner is a bringer of joy. Continue reading...
Jul 14, 2021
The search for oil in 1920s Trinidad leads to ruin in a magnificently absorbing novel based on real events
Caribbean fiction has a distinguished lineage, from VS Naipaul to Monique Roffey, but its roots often seem to lie in The Tempest. The presence of a dangerous magic lurks beneath its prodigious natural beauty, and Amanda Smyth’s third novel Fortune has it erupting from the earth of Trinidad itself: oil.
Eddie has returned to 1920s Trinidad from the US oilfields, and sets himself to persuade an illiterate Indian landowner, Chatterjee, to let him drill on his failing cocoa plantation, which is “floating on oil”. What Eddie needs to gain preferment over an offer from a powerful American oil company is an investor. A chance encounter with Tito Fernandez, a successful local businessman, swings the deal. Charismatic, handsome Eddie and educated, middle-aged Tito become friends as well as business partners. “Find a woman with fire in her,” Tito advises, trusting Eddie with his money, his life and, unwittingly, his beautiful young wife, Ada. Continue reading...
Nov 15, 2020
From a wartime romance to a comedy of cooking errors … Amanda Craig recommends books that lift the spirits
With the second lockdown upon us, we have never been more in need of books to cheer and charm. As both reader and writer, I have waged a lifelong battle against the kind of novel that makes you feel worse at its end than you did when you started it. Happy endings are not always trite: consider how Tolstoy balances Anna Karenina’s suicide with the happy marriage of Levin and Kitty.
PG Wodehouse’s comedies, set in an idealised milieu of butlers, country houses and chorus girls, are a balm for all seasons. The work of Eva Ibbotson, which shares many of the same features, should be far better known. As well as great children’s stories, such as Journey to the River Sea, she wrote six adult novels that are sophisticated, brilliantly plotted and gloriously funny. The Morning Gift concerns a secret marriage of convenience between a Jewish academic’s daughter and an aristocratic visiting British professor, which enables our heroine to escape Nazi Vienna. Of course, they fall in love but can’t admit it. When they are plunged into wartime London, with its snobberies and privations, the plot is hilarious and filmic. A Jewish refugee herself, Ibbotson underpins her romantic comedies with an apprehension of evil, which gives their comforts more depth than most. Continue reading...
Jul 01, 2020
Authors from Charlotte Brontë to Suzanne Collins have imagined clothes for their characters that are almost as expressive as their wearers
The first clothes in western literature, Adam and Eve’s fig leaves, performed their essential fictional function in drawing attention to the protagonists’ moral failings.
Clothes in contemporary fiction seem to me to be an underused trope, perhaps because fast fashion has made individual garments less emblematic. When my own heroine Hannah is persuaded into a double murder plot by the rich Jinni on the London to Penzance train in The Golden Rule, it is no accident that her co-conspirator is wearing green. Continue reading...