One Day I Shall Astonish The World by Nina Stibbe

Published by Penguin Viking on April 21st 2022

Available from West End Lane Books

and all Good Bookshops

What They Say

Susan and Norma have been best friends for years, at first thrust together by force of circumstance (a job at The Pin Cushion, a haberdashery shop in 1990s Leicestershire) and then by force of character (neither being particularly inclined to make friends with anyone else). But now, thirty years later, faced with a husband seeking immortality and Norma out of reach on a wave of professional glory, Susan begins to wonder whether she has made the right choices about life, love, work, and, most importantly, friendship. 

Nina Stibbe’s new novel is the story of the wonderful and sometimes surprising path of friendship: from its conspiratorial beginnings, along its irritating wrong turns, to its final gratifying destination.

What I Say

Before I tell you about Nina’s novel, and what I think of it, I have a confession to make. I usually write my reviews by referring to the notes I have taken as I write it,

I didn’t write a single note about One Day I Shall Astonish The World because I was too absorbed, and didn’t want to put it down! I was sat outside on my patio on Easter Sunday (possibly with an Easter egg!) reading it, laughing out loud and reading numerous passages to Mr Years of Reading.

It’s a brilliantly funny, incisive and emotional novel that absolutely understands not only the complexities of female friendships, but also the realities of life for so many women that it’s impossible not to be genuinely moved by it.

Susan and Norma are lifelong friends, who first meet when Susan starts working in The Pin Cushion, the haberdashery shop that Norma’s family owns. Norma breezes into Susan’s life and wants to learn about literature from her so that she can apply for courses and leave her life at The Pin Cushion behind.

While Norma forges ahead with an academic career, Susan has stayed in Brankham, married Ray – the marketing manager of the local golf club and and has dropped out of her degree course to be a full time Mum to their daughter, Honey. Norma seems scornful of the life choices that Susan has made, and yet makes her own romantic choices based on the opportunities the men afford her. She marries her first husband, Hugo Pack-Allen, the man who has invested in The Pin Cushion, and Susan cannot understand what the attraction is. Unfortunately, after they Norma and Hugo are married, certain proclivities come to light that reveals Hugo to be someone who is not what Norma thought, and a twist of fate means that she finds herself alone a lot sooner than she thought.

As Norma sets on a path of carving out a career in academia for herself, Susan is feeling increasingly trapped at home. She is knows she is ever more isolated from Ray, and when they discover Ray has a daughter called Grace from a previous relationship, Susan starts to question exactly what she is getting from the life that seems to be whizzing past her without her making any mark in the world.

It’s also important to say that Norma and Susan’s relationship is an interesting one. They are in each other’s lives, but there always seems to be an ebb and flow in the relationship, and they seem to take a delight in the passive aggressive towards each other. Yet that is what made me love them even more. The fact that they quite frankly wind each other up and sometimes seem to take delight in the other woman’s misfortune is what adds another dimension for me. I loved the fact that their friendship wasn’t saccharine sweet and cosy confidences – because friendship isn’t always like that.

The turning point is when Susan decides to apply for a role at the local University – first in the Estates Office and eventually she ends up working for the Vice Chancellor. As someone who worked in a University, I can tell you that Nina has absolutely nailed what it is like to work in a place like that! On the one hand it is steeped in tradition with a dedicated group of people determined to ensure the University never changes, on the other is the outside ever changing world and the voices of those who know that in order to thrive, it has to understand the very students it needs to come through it’s doors.

Susan feels herself increasingly drawn towards the enigmatic VC and finds herself romantically imagining a life with him, Norma is suddenly again putting herself front and centre into Susan’s life. She decides she wants the VC for herself – while also keeping other relationships on the back burner just in case! Norma soon marries the VC and Susan wonders if she ever really had a friend in her at all.

As we follow both women through their lives from 1990 right up to the onset of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we see how their worlds weave in and out of each others, and how whether they like it or not, in the absence of other female friends, they have this really deep, but not always comfortable bond that always brings them back together.

One Day I Shall Astonish The World is an incredibly funny and touching novel about women, friendship and the lives we somehow find ourselves in. For me, one of the many brilliant things about Nina’s writing is that she has that perfect balance of humour and emotion. She intuitively understands her characters and it is testament to her writing that each and every one of them is unforgettable and relatable, and that is why you can’t put this book down.

If I had to tell you just one reason why I loved One Day I Shall Astonish The World, I would say that in a world which at the moment for me seems unsettling and confusing, this book brought me such utter joy, that to be able to lose myself completely in it was just what I needed until I really did have to put it down. That for me is the sign of a brilliant writer, and Nina Stibbe is undoubtedly that.

I absolutely loved it, and this is without doubt one of my favourite books of this year.

Thank you so much to Ella Harold and Penguin Viking for my gifted Proof copy.

You can buy your copy from West End Lane Books here.

What To Do in 2022?

Here we are in 2022, leaving behind another year of highs and lows, of things that we could never have foreseen happening, nor would have chosen to happen, and yet 2022 hurtled out of nowhere before I really had chance to take in everything that 2021 threw my way.

Last year, I felt that I did quite well in reading lots of books – many of which I loved, and putting together my end of year #MostSelfishReads2021 proved to be even harder as my reading had been in fits and starts according to who I had at home and when!

Still, as always happens at this time of year, I sit and think about book blogging – largely because I am feeling increasingly like I am not very good at it, and as always that I spend too much time reading and not enough time reviewing. I also hit December and felt overwhelmed with it all – not just reviewing, but setting up Two Fond of Books with Amanda (which I am so extraordinarily proud of) and a series of personal events I could not have foreseen last year knocked me for six, including Covid and becoming a full time carer to my adult son when I least expected it .

I think all the things that were happening to me at home meant that for a time I had to put my reading as my last priority rather than my first, and had to admit that I just couldn’t keep up with everyone else who seemed to be posting and blogging so frequently. Then I did that thing I guess lots of bloggers do, and started to question what the point of it all was – I don’t mean that to sound melodramatic, but when life means you can’t read as much as you think you should, you start to wonder what the point of it is. Then I just lost every creative impulse in my body and simply stared at the screen, attempting to write blogs so I could at least have something to show for my reading.

I couldn’t find the words. I can’t tell you how many draft and deleted posts I have on here, but all I know is that for a woman that could previously produce blogs at the drop of the hat, now I was completely lacking in confidence – they all sounded the same, and I felt I was just regurgitating all my previous posts. So I stopped writing reviews, and instead of picking the next book off my pile to make sure I could read and review it for publication day, I picked up a book that I wanted to read, and I can’t tell you how much better I felt as I finally lost myself in a book again without the slightest inclination to review it.

Why am I telling you all this? I guess it’s because I need somewhere to write down what I am feeling – and to let other people know that if you feel that too, it’s ok to admit it. I forget a lot of the time that I am doing all this for free, and sometimes my worry of letting publicists and publishers down (who by the way are the kindest and most supportive people ever) means that I forget this is and always should be a hobby.

Anyway, I think what I am trying to tell myself and anyone else feeling baffled by the world and not quite sure where their blogging is going, is to maybe know that you are not the only one who feels like it, and theres no shame in admitting you can’t find the words at the moment. The books will always be there, and I love the feeling of finding that book that sparks something in me that means I need to write a review all about it to tell the world. I know it will come back, and in the meantime am just enjoying reading for reading’s sake again – and it feels wonderful!

Here’s to 2022, and whatever and whenever you feel like reading, and know that blogging will always be there for you whenever you are ready to return to it.

Lots of love,

Clare

xxx

The Fell by Sarah Moss

The Fell by Sarah Moss

Published by Picador on November 11th

Available from West End Lane Books and

all Good Bookshops

What They Say

At dusk on a November evening in 2020 a woman slips out of her garden gate and turns up the hill. Kate is in the middle of a two-week quarantine period, but she just can’t take it any more – the closeness of the air in her small house, the confinement. And anyway, the moor will be deserted at this time. Nobody need ever know.

But Kate’s neighbour Alice sees her leaving and Matt, Kate’s son, soon realizes she’s missing. And Kate, who planned only a quick solitary walk – a breath of open air – falls and badly injures herself. What began as a furtive walk has turned into a mountain rescue operation . . .

Unbearably suspenseful, witty and wise, The Fell asks probing questions about the place the world has become since March 2020, and the place it was before. This novel is a story about compassion and kindness and what we must do to survive, and it will move you to tears.

What I Say

To write about a family going through a period of self isolation many of us have lived through is an interesting premise. In some ways, we may feel exasperated that we are reading about something that was so all consuming that we don’t need to see it in our literature, but at the same time for me, reading about other families experiences and ways of dealing with it made me feel more connected to others.

In The Fell, Sarah Moss has perfectly articulated what it means to live through such a complicated and unsettling time, whilst also ensuring there is a very human and relatable story at the heart of the novel.

Kate, like so many people is being forced to self isolate after being in contact with someone who has Covid. Having no symptoms herself, she and her son Matt are stuck in their cottage in the Peak District. Matt seemingly loves the prospect of lie ins, massive gaming sessions and a break from everyday life. Kate on the other hand is not coping at all. Right from the start you can see how she feels confined by the rules which means she can only venture as far as the garden.

Tired of cleaning the house, unable to settle on ways to keep herself occupied, she is left alone with her thoughts and she is not coping. For a woman who is used to taking a backpack and walking wherever she likes, whenever she likes, we understand how frustrated and hemmed in she must feel by the law which is imposed on her and how little control she has over her situation.

When she decides to leave the cottage and go for a walk, rationalising that as it is at dusk she won’t see anyone, and her familiarity with her environment means she can be out and back without anyone knowing, I completely understood why she decided to do it.

Their next door neighbour Alice, is widowed and her immediate family live far away. She is shielding due to her immune system being compromised by chemotherapy. Alice has been relying on Kate and Matt to help her get the supplies she needs as well as them giving her some much needed human interaction. Alice’s narrative is an interesting and necessary one, because on the one hand she realises how much she has in terms of financial security and a family at the end of a zoom call, but she misses the basic human interactions. As a daughter whose widowed Dad was in Wales during the lockdown, it was at times hard to read Alice’s words, because I kept thinking of my Dad, and although he is not an emotional man, he too had so little face to face interaction or hugs during that time, I just wanted to get in my car and drive to see him.

This is also why Kate’s actions are understandable. Many people would try and rationalise it by focusing on reasons why in our situation it doesn’t count, and why it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, and that everyone else is doing it, but always at the back of our mind are the same concerns Kate has. She is meant to be self isolating, and being found out means she could be faced with a fine she can’t afford – especially now the café she works in is closed, and she can’t get gigs singing at the pub like she used to.

Then Kate falls and badly injures herself. With no phone she realises that by alerting people, she runs the risk of legal action and losing what little stability she and Matt have. She is completely conflicted, but the thought of Matt is what makes her determined to try and get home in spite of her extensive injuries. It is only when Matt becomes concerned and attempts to talk to Alice in a really touching scene where he is making sure he is following the rules and is always at an appropriate distance, Alice realises what has happened and raises the alarm.

The interwoven narratives of the four main characters are an effective device for Sarah Moss to give us different perspectives on Kate’s actions. Matt doesn’t know where his Mum is, and can’t reach her because she has left her phone behind, Alice sees her leave but doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to get her into trouble, and for Rob, part of the Rescue Team who is mobilised to help find her, he has to explain to his self obsessed daughter why he has to find the missing woman and cut short their time together.

The novella is written as almost a stream of consciousness which I have to admit took me a few pages to get into, but once you start, you understand exactly why this is the perfect form. You are party to each character’s thoughts, and see like us the way their minds dart around from topic to topic. We learn about Alice’s happy marriage and Kate’s experience of a violent relationship and a dull marriage, of Matt’s worries about his Mum and Rob’s determination to both try and do his job and keep his daughter happy.

The Fell perfectly captures what it felt like to live through this lockdown. We rationally understood how it was critically important to ensure we we stayed at home, even when it made no sense, but it seems that the enforced isolation also made what we weren’t allowed to do seem even more desirable and necessary. The sense of claustrophobia, families forced to spend all day every day together without respite or a chance to see others only served to exacerbate our need to do the most basic of things we had never considered before. To be able to walk and experience nature, to go to the shops, to see and connect with people outside our bubbles became things we understood we had so often taken for granted. This is why I believe The Fell will resonate so deeply with so many people.

Sarah Moss’ writing works so well because it is not the grand gestures or explosive events she talks about, it is the small things and everyday routines we all understand and connect with. There is also this sense of how nature and the world beyond our doorstep is so incredibly important, and how small and insignificant we can feel when we are lost in it. It is another thing we can’t control, and Sarah’s beautiful and measured prose only adds to the sense of awareness as to how fragile our world is.

The Fell may not be very long, but when I had finished it, I kept thinking about it, especially what Kate had gone through, because I had felt it too. You can feel Kate’s frustration at her situation seeping through the pages, and her rationale for stepping out of her front door is understandable because hand on heart, we all felt it, lived through it and have had to deal with a new and unpredictable world that we have been forced to navigate.

I absolutely loved it.

Thank you so much as always to Camilla Elworthy for my gifted proof copy.

You can buy it from West End Lane Books here.