A year in books or, What I read in 2020

This year, for the first time, I kept note of the books I read for pleasure or curiosity. As ever, it was mostly fiction. It’s been an odd year and, given external events, I tended towards books I thought I’d enjoy. That means there are a lot of new (to me) novels by authors I’ve read before because I wasn’t feeling terribly adventurous. I’ve got to the point when I can be certain I’ll love almost anything by James Robertson, for example, and am mildly annoyed he’s not written more books.

On the whole, my new reading this year skewed modern. There are a lot of recent books, a good many from the twentieth century, but only David Copperfield plus a couple of translated classics to represent older work. Several novels were enjoyable, undemanding books to pass the time on the train during my commute, back in the days when travelling to work was still something one did. There’s a fair amount of historical fiction; I was slightly surprised, however, how little new science fiction and fantasy I read this year, although several of the historical novels tended towards the fantastical (thinks of The Heavens, which is fantastic in at least two senses of the word, and Hamnet).

Of the novels that I read for the first time, the two I enjoyed most were Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Stefan Hartman’s The Convert. The Mirror and the Light was wonderful – I’ve reread it twice, trying to see how Mantel does it – but not a surprise, given my response to the first two books in the Cromwell trilogy. The Convert is a novel I picked up simply because I liked the cover and then pounded through in a mad rush. It’s an historical novel set in a time and in a set of places I knew little about, but it’s also a book about the author’s experiences writing that novel. The focus zooms in and out, fragments of the past are woven into fiction. In that way, it’s comparable to Laurent Binet’s HHhH, another book I think wonderful and urge on people whenever I can. It’s notable that both HHhH and The Convert are translations (from French and Dutch, respectively) and thus written outwith the mainstream sweep of UK/US fiction.

The rereads were mostly done in those times when I wanted familiarity. Many of the books on that list I count as old friends. No matter how often I pull them from the shelf, Sutcliff, Renault and Lively never fail me and were I to make a similar reckoning next year there would be something by all of them on the reread list. Alas, not all rereads offered the reassurance I sought. Revisiting two books by P.D. James proved a disappointment, despite I’d been impressed with them years back and kept a place for them ever since. Each was a careful evocation of a rather melancholy milieu and finely drawn character studies, and then both mood and mode were abandoned in the final third in favour of idiotic sensationalism. I reread all the Little House books this year, spurred on by reading around the lives of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. I reread Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, because I’ve been watching the adaptation and wanted to compare other people’s images with my own.

The Nonfiction list is a mix of research for a novel and books that caught my fancy. The standout on that list is Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass, an account of her Jewish family’s experiences in pre-war and wartime Europe. It’s compassionate, thrilling and heartbreaking in equal measures. Recommended.

New to me fiction
Ayobami Adebayo Stay With Me 
Oyinkan Braithwaite My Sister, the Serial Killer 
Max Brooks Devolution 
Max Brooks World War Z 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Sower 
Octavia E. Butler The Parable of the Talents 
Graeme Macrae Burnet The Accident on the A35 
Susanna Clarke Piranesi 
Moray Dalton One by One They Disappeared 
Moray Dalton The Body in the Road 
Moray Dalton The Night of Fear 
Abi Daré The Girl with the Louding Voice 
Charles Dickens David Copperfield 
Jane Dougherty Thicker than Water
Alfred Duggan The Little Emperors 
Alfred Duggan Winter Quarters 
Alfred Duggan Besieger of Cities 
Lucy Ellmann Mimi 
Anne Enright Actress
Michel Faber The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps
Samantha Harvey The Western Wind 
Stefan Hertmans The Convert (trans. David McKay)
Homer The Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)
Christopher Isherwood A Meeting by the River 
Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard (trans. Archibald Colquhoun)
Colum McCann Apeirogon 
Katharine McGee American Royals 2: Majesty
Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light 
Andrew Miller Now We Shall Be Entirely Free 
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty 
Liane Moriarty Nine Perfect Strangers 
Benjamin Myers The Offing 
Justin Myers The Last Romeo 
Sandra Newman The Heavens 
Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet
Philip Pullman Serpentine 
Ian Rankin A Song for the Dark Times 
James Robertson To Be Continued… 
James Robertson 365 Stories 
Marilynne Robertson Jack
Meg Rosoff The Great Godden
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
A.F.E. Smith Dawn Rising
Judith Starkston Of Kings and Griffins 
Noel Streatfeild The Circus is Coming (republished as Circus Shoes)
Noel Streatfeild Curtain Up (republished as Theatre Shoes)
Adrian Tchaikovsky The Dogs of War 
Walter Tevis The Queen’s Gambit 
Virgil Aeneid Book VI (trans. Seamus Heaney)
Winifred Watson Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day 
Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind 

Joan Aiken The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Laurent Binet HHhH (trans. Sam Taylor)
Craig Brown Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret
Agatha Christie Crooked House
Agatha Christie Death Comes as the End
Agatha Christie Peril at End House
John Dickinson The Widow and the King
Michel Faber Under the Skin
Michel Faber The Book of Strange New Things
Penelope Fitzgerald The Blue Flower
Ian Fleming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Georgette Heyer These Old Shades
P.D. James A Taste for Death
P.D. James Devices and Desires
M.M. Kaye The Far Pavilions
Ursula K. LeGuin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. LeGuin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. LeGuin The Farthest Shore
Ursula K. LeGuin The Other Wind
Penelope Lively Cleopatra’s Sister
Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies
Philip Pullman Northern Lights
Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife
Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass
Mary Renault The Persian Boy
Dorothy L. Sayers Have His Carcase
Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood Feud
Rosemary Sutcliff Blood and Sand
Rosemary Sutcliff Sword at Sunset
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House in the Big Woods
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Banks of Plum Creek
Laura Ingalls Wilder On the Shores of Silver Lake
Laura Ingalls Wilder The Long Winter
Laura Ingalls Wilder Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder The First Four Years

Nick Ashton Early Humans
Julian Barnes The Man in the Red Coat
Mary Beard Pompeii (reread)
Tracy Borman The Private Lives of the Tudors
Shaun Bythell Diary of a Bookseller
John Drinkwater Nero: Emperor and Court
Richard Fortey Trilobite
Caroline Fraser Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder
Hadley Freeman House of Glass
Roy K. Gibson Pliny: Man of High Empire
Anne Glenconner Lady in Waiting
Stephen Jay Gould Bully for Brontosaurus (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Flamingo’s Smile (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould The Lying Stones of Marrakech (reread)
Stephen Jay Gould Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms (reread)
Isabel Hardman Why We Get the Wrong Politicians
Adam Higginbottom Midnight in Chernobyl
Robert Knapp Invisible Romans
Diarmaid MacCullough The Reformation
Helen Macdonald Vesper Flights
Robert McFarlane Underland
Emily Maitlis Airhead
Hilary Mantel Mantel Pieces
Pliny the Younger Letters (trans. B. Radice; reread)
Adam Rutherford How to Argue with a Racist
A. N. Sherwin-White The Letters of Pliny
Will Storr The Science of Storytelling
Hugo Vickers The Sphinx: The Life of Gladys Deacon – Duchess of Marlborough
Wynne Williams Pliny: Correspondence with Trajan from Bithynia
Rex Winsbury Pliny the Younger: A Life in Roman Letters

Posted in beloved books, fantasy novel, novel, thoughts, Twentieth Century Fiction | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Banish misfortune (traditional music in fantasy)

Yesterday was the solstice, midwinter’s day here in the northern hemisphere. Dull it was too, a few cold spots of rain, and too overcast to see the Great Conjunction*, but this year is coming to its end and the dark days will slowly lengthen and lighten, beginning today. I don’t blog much, mostly because I’m not writing much (and so the question beats Am I still a writer?). In the time when I’m not working or writing, I’m either listening to music or reading. At this time of year, the old books and the old tunes are the best. Comfort food for the soul.

Banish misfortune is an Irish jig, probably the cheeriest of all of them (if ever a tune can be said to live up to its name, it’s this one). I don’t know when or where I heard it first, some pub session probably. I borrowed both thought and tune for a midwinter’s night in After the Ruin**, as you can read below. If any one asks how it travelled into the Later Lands, I’ll shrug and say it must have slipped through a window between worlds.

From Chapter 6: Banish misfortune

“Now there’s a space of silence, what should I play?”

Banish misfortune,” she answered, softly, “as you played the first night I ever saw you.”

He sketched the melody upon the lute, half a tune and half a thought. “I had not thought you listened, love, that night.”

“Oh, Assiolo, every word you’ve said, each note you’ve struck, is sealed fast in my memory.”

He looked up, smiling, music bubbling from beneath his fingers.

“I knew you on that evening,” Marwy Ninek said, quietly lest other ears than his heard her, “of all the men, in all the world, I knew you as my own. When you looked into my face, I wanted to run to you and say, I’m here!

His eyes met hers but the lutesong never faltered, a paean of love and freedom, giving her the strength she needed to go on: “Assiolo, though I said no word, that night, and made no move, I think my heart would have withered and died had you gone your way upon the road next morning.”

“For me as for you that night,” he said, “and, knowing that, how could I have a thought to leave you lonely? Now listen, love, and let my music tell you all I’ve ever wished for you, then and now and forever and for always.”

At last he let the full tune come dancing out to fill the hall with music and drive sorrow and misery away into the dark. Some smiled to hear it, others danced, and even Yatta Tala tapped her toe upon the floor for all her face was scowling. Beyond the doors, beyond the walls, in the wind and rain, the year was turning but here, within the hall, was fellowship and laughter and company and dancing. The past was gone, the future not yet written; ’twas time to look ahead with light feet and bold hearts and smiling faces. Marwy Ninek leant upon the table, resting her head in her hands, and gazed at Assiolo, her happiness welling up inside her like a sweet spring on Cal Mora-side.

“The tune’s the charm,” she said, and Assiolo nodded, his eyes alight with love and merry laughter.

Yatta Tala came up sniffing. “That’s pretty, lad, but that she’s here tonight says there’s more to you than music.”

Marwy Ninek flushed and stiffened but Assiolo only bowed his head, full courteous but for the smile lurking at the edges of his lips. His fingers never ceased their movement ’cross the lutestrings, plucking and picking to conjure forth his melody.

“That’s between us two, mistress, but what I can, I’ll show, if you’ve a mind to see it.”

The old weaver sucked her teeth and settled herself into the chair beside him. For a little while, all was the same: Assiolo played, music rippled, men and women danced. Then, slowly, the light changed in the rafters, a soft glow as of sunrise in the summertime brightening the hall. Assiolo made no move, he said no word, but on all the ivy strands twined round the beams white roses grew, and on the holly boughs at every arch were other roses, red as blood. Music rippled, music swelled, and then the beams above their heads were beams no longer but branches of flowering trees, elder boughs laden with curd-white blossom and the hall was filled with the honey-heavy scent of summertime. Some stared to see such things, others laughed to find themselves a-dancing beneath the summer trees. Assiolo laid down his lute and drew Marwy Ninek onto his knee but still the air was full of music for a blackbird sat on the topmost twig, its yellow eyes shining in the sunlight, its yellow beak open in song, and the song it sang was Banish misfortune.

“A trick.” Yatta Tala sniffed. “A foolish seeming.”

“No seeming,” said Marwy Ninek, “but the thing itself.”

She twined her arms around her lover’s neck and kissed him softly, cheek and chin. Then the blackbird sang the louder and Assiolo said, “I did but answer to your will, mistress. The tune is honest, and the thought likewise: what harm to deck it out in fancy?”

The weaver shook her head. “The world is as it is, lad, and fancy’s but a step away from folly.”

“ ’Tis easy enough to put an end to fancy, an it displease you; the rest, being the truth, I will nowise hide.”

The blackbird flew away into the shadows, sunlight faded into firelight, the branches were but beams bedecked with holly and with ivy, and men and women rubbed their eyes and thought, as memory slipped away into a haze of beer and wine and barleyspirit, How foolish, how very foolish, to think there were roses flowering at midwinter.

Yatta Tala scowled and went her way, to sup spiced wine and scold her granddaughter, though, often and often, her sharp eyes turned back to Assiolo and Marwy Ninek and, each time, her lips pinched tight, as if to hide her thought or keep her words unspoken. But Assiolo cupped his hand beneath his true love’s chin and turned up her face to kiss her long and lovingly, and neither cared that all and any saw it.

*Typical, 800 years since it’s fallen after dark, and so close to the shortest day, and then clouds block out all hope of a sighting. Ah well, my great-grandchildren may be around for the next one. I’ll wish them clearer skies.

** After the Ruin contains several significant midsummer’s days too, and a satisfying number of equinoctes. The turning year provides structure and symbolism – what’s not to like?

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Book Review: ‘Of Kings and Griffins’ by Judith Starkston

A long time ago now I reviewed books for a now-mothballed website called Heroines of Fantasy. It put me in the way of books, I’d not otherwise have encountered. When the site shut down, I got on with other things, mostly offline, and let the world of book reviewing carry on without me. I do, however, continue to follow various authors on Twitter and recently one of them, Judith Starkston, got in touch to ask if I’d be interested in reading her book, Of Kings and Griffins. And, as it seemed exactly the type of book that would have appealed to the readers and reviewers of Heroines of Fantasy, I decided yes, I was interested.

kings & griffins cover image amazon

A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmanoeuvre foes from these three different worlds?

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.

Tesha and her husband, Hattu, are priestess-queen and king, respectively, of a minor kingdom set within the empire of Hitolia. At the book’s beginning, the Great King, Hattu’s elder brother, is dead, and his son by a minor wife has inherited his throne and suzerainty. Mutual distrust exists between this young Great King and his experienced and battle-tested uncle, and indeed within the wider royal family. Domestic tensions are strained further by the relationship between Hitolia and the recently defeated state of Egarya, as well as by an incursion into Hitolian territory by bordering tribespeople in search of resources, which threatens to develop into war by means of both swords and sorcery. Meanwhile Tesha and her sister Daniti must use their very different forms of magic to hold their own against the demands of gods and griffins. [Note: Of Kings and Griffins is the third volume in an on-going series. I found this book a perfectly satisfactory stand-alone story, but, if you’d prefer to begin at the beginning, the first instalment is Priestess of Ishana.]

My first impression was justified: this carefully researched, big picture historical fantasy is exactly the type of book likely to have found its way onto Heroines of Fantasy. It’s a secondary world fantasy, one in which the imagined world closely resembles that of the Hittite empire, but with the addition of gods, griffins and magic. Events encompass both petty family quarrels and a clash of empires, the plot involves confrontations between dark and healing magics, and challenges set by gods to mortals. On the human level, there is a great deal of intrigue and spying and a satisfying measure of realpolitik. The sisters, Tesha and Daniti, are complicated characters, not flawless, capable of error, fully active and engaged with events. They have a loving, mutually supportive relationship and Daniti’s blindness in no way limits her ability play an important part in safeguarding the kingdom, indeed it enables her to engage with the griffins as no one else can.

An immense amount of research has gone into the preparation of the book; its afterword, discussing the parallels between plot and history, is fascinating. If you’ve a bent towards the ancient history of the near and middle east, you may mark how the names of the states and characters echo those of real places and people and how its plot follows much of the interfamilial manoeuvring that occurred around 1274 BCE during the clashes between the Hittites and Egyptians. There’s a nice realism informing its recreation of past mores and manners: Hitolian sensibilities tend towards those of the period inspiring them rather than clinging tightly to the present. The past is indeed a foreign country and people did do things differently there.

I read Of Kings and Griffins with a great deal of curious interest. It’s an ambitious story and, as noted above, one on a grand scale. And yet, despite appreciating the extent of the research (and intelligent conjecture) informing the story, despite admiring the expanding fractals of that story, I found myself a critical rather than a fully engaged reader. Historical fantasy, like Of Kings and Griffins, sets itself the double challenge of both creating a plausible secondary world and recreating an historical one. This book was not, to my mind, entirely successful in meeting this challenge. Often, I felt I was an observer watching from a distance whilst a guide took me through myriad details rather than a participant embedded in the scene. This distance distracted me from the characters and they never quite came alive in my mind. Although each part of the story was satisfyingly complex, the griffins thread unwound largely in parallel with the war and politics threads, rather than all intertwining to make one whole.

I found a huge amount I admired in Of Kings and Griffins but I’m afraid it wasn’t in the end a book that captured my imagination: I read with immense respect for its research and ambition rather than with love for the story. Despite that reservation, I’d recommend you take a look. Taste in stories is as individual as that in food.

External links

Judith Starkston blogs about writing, history and archaeology here; you can find all her books on Goodreads here.

Amazon UK

Amazon US


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How to begin? (pantoum)

I sat down at my desk this afternoon, wanting to write something but with neither time nor motivation for the novel in progress (sadly, writer’s block is very much a thing). Instead I looked up a list of writing prompts and the one for today was ‘Write about a beginning’.

So I did.

The beginning is the difficult part…
Should I begin this verse with an image?
A rose, maybe, or, given the weather,
Cold rain beating against my window.

Should I begin this verse with an image,
The red rose, I am led on to love songs;
Cold rain beating against my window,
The bleaker image for a bleaker time.

The red rose… I am led on to love songs’
Imagery. You know as well as I
The bleaker image for a bleaker time
Is needed now. I shall let the winter rain,

Imagery you know as well as I,
Run onto this page, take shape where it
Is needed. Now I shall let the winter rain
Beat against your window, as it does mine.

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Dawn Rising by A.F.E Smith

This isn’t so much a book review as a whoop of delight.

A.F.E. Smith, author of the Darkhaven novels, has a new book out. It’s called Dawn Rising and is an absolutely fabulous read.

Dawn rising cover image


I’ve been hoping it would appear for quite a long time. Aeons ago (or so it seems), I encountered the early chapters of an early draft on a now defunct authors’ site and loved them. Since then, Smith has won a Harper Voyager new writers’ competition, which led to the publication of the Darkhaven series. They were fantasy thrillers – highly enjoyable books, all of them – but still I hoped that one day Dawn Rising would find its way out into the world.

At the end of last month, it did. And it fulfilled every promise of those early chapters. It’s a portal fantasy, highly patterned yet completely gripping with an excellent feel for place, pace and character. It’s emotionally complicated too. I’m not going to say anything about the plot (you can read the book’s blurb below) but will say I think Smith has superb grasp of story, the shape of it, how it interacts with and reflects other stories, how the basic elements can be recombined to create something that is simultaneously familiar and entirely itself.

It’s a triumph. Do go and read it.

Dawn Rising by A.F.E. Smith, published by IronWright Books

Alyssia Gale is a daydreamer. A liar. An attention seeker. Everyone she’s ever known has found a label to stick on her, but one thing’s for sure: she can’t be telling the truth. The flashes she sees of the dark and difficult lives of four other people, living in a world that’s not her own … they can’t be real. Alyssia understands that as well as anyone, even if she does keep catching herself thinking of the people she sees as friends.

Then she’s pulled into that other world by blood and dark magic, and realises that everyone she’s ever known was wrong.

To start with, her focus is on surviving until she can find a way home. Yet it doesn’t take long for her to figure out that where before she was merely a spectator, now she can change things. And with one of her friends being forced into an abusive marriage, and another trapped in the cruellest of prisons, there’s plenty that needs changing. She just needs to survive long enough to do it.

What she doesn’t know is that something connects her to these four people. Something she never could have imagined. And it’s not long before she isn’t just fighting to find her place between the worlds – she’s fighting to protect her closest friends from a narrative that wants them dead.

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The false friend

Another silkie (well, one glimpsed a couple of weeks ago) and another villanelle. Silkies don’t usually fare well upon the land and this one is, I’m afraid, no exception.

The false friend

I took his skin and put it on,
I’d longtimes thought it would fit me.
So tempting, when I found him gone,

To dig up friendship. Whereupon
I found it buried ’neath a tree.
I took his skin and put it on,

Left him a man the land upon
And swam a silkie in the sea –
So tempting when I found him gone.

And, sure, I grant I did him wrong,
Though he erred first in trusting me.
I took his skin and put it on,

Gave him my half life, pale and wan,
And claimed his double life for me.
So tempting, when I found him gone.

Regrets, like friendships, are bygone
Forsook for wonders ’neath the sea.
I took his skin and put it on;
So tempting when I found him gone.

Posted in poetry, selkie, verse, villanelle | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

Lovers’ vows

It’s a couple of days too late for this to be a Valentine.

Beneath the tree (Lovers’ vows)

An apple tree beside the sea,
It grows for you and grows for me,
And, in the shade, beneath the tree,
A touch for you, a kiss for me.

We whisper what all lovers say,
At the first dawn of the first day:
Swear, you and me, beneath the tree,
Shall be, and be, and be, and be.

Swear I the stem and you the shoot,
Swear you the leaf and I the root,
And I the flower and you the fruit.
Swear you the singer, I the song,
This the right, the world the wrong;
They the weak, and we the strong.

And yet, and yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget:
The tide will rise, the tide will fall,
And words will halt, and words will stall,
The leaves from off the tree will fall.
The light will fail, the day will fade,
No matter promises are made.
By time itself we are betrayed.

In our beginning is our end.
Our little stock of time we spend
So carelessly, beneath the tree.
A kiss for you, a touch for me.

And so the moments slip away.
All will be lost. Except this day
Will stay, and stay, and stay, and stay.
And you and me, beneath the tree,
Shall be, and be, and be, and be.

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An historical fragment

I usually write fantasy. That way I don’t get too bogged down in/side tracked by research. Making stuff up is so much easier when you’re not worrying about whether so-and-so was in such-and-such a place at any given time. I’m constrained enough by the real world in every day life not to want to deal with it in fiction too. Or so I’ve always said.

Recently, however, I’ve cast caution and common sense to the wind and embarked on an historical novel. Here’s the beginning. Or at least, here’s the current, first draft, unrevised beginning. Portrait of a marriage.

Rome, Year of the Consulship of Piso and Bolanus (864 AUC)

A year ago Secundus would have gone straight from the palace to his wife. Today, despite the importance of what he has to say, he judges it politic to keep to their routine and waits until his usual hour before visiting Calpurnia’s rooms. She puts her book aside to smile and greet him. The freedwoman Oenone gathers up her needlework and slips away. Secundus kisses his wife’s cheek and takes his accustomed seat beside her couch.

Calpurnia knows what he has come to say, of course; it is her business to know such things. Because she is a fair woman, and this restraint in their discourse and dealings her choice rather more than his, she lets him tell his news.

‘It is Pontus and Bithynia.’

‘You thought as much.’

‘The accounts are out of order. Works begun but never finished. Monies paid out and little to show for them.’

These things she knows, nearly as well as he. Their conversation at dinner has dealt with little else these last weeks. A safe topic, those half-built theatres and bath houses months away from Rome; to discuss account sheets or imperial annoyance at provincial ineptitude distracts them from lesser matters of more importance to them both.

He passes her his copy of the Emperor’s mandate. The ink of the scrawled signature is still fresh and black. She reads it quickly, taking in the important points: a special commission over and above the governorship, proconsular authority, and extra lictors to give such dignities their due.

‘It’s a well-deserved honour, Gaius, and past time you had a province.’

‘I know more about Bithynia than most men who’ve been there.’ He accepts her praise casually. He is a man who knows his worth and has no time for false modesty.

‘When must you leave?’

‘Yesterday,’ he admits. ‘Next month will do. August at the latest.’ A rueful smile touches his lips. ‘When ships are chartered and my staff are selected and I am ready. It’s a long way.’

‘And an important job.’

The smile deepens, recognising flattery. ‘Dull work, but useful. The Emperor wants the place kicking into shape, financially speaking. I’m good with figures. Treasury background. So – Pontus and Bithynia.’

So far, so simple. The difficult part of the conversation is yet to come. To delay it, whether deliberately or not she cannot tell, Secundus picks up the scroll and unwinds it a little, holding it out to the light. She has always turned to books for solace; he understands, she knows, being of much the same cast of mind himself, but she knows too he wishes she would look to him for comfort.

And she cannot.

‘Octavius Rufus,’ he remarks. ‘I was always pushing him to publish. I’m glad someone besides me reads him.’

‘I like the one about the dog.’

‘The one that didn’t bark, or the one that did?’

‘The quiet one. The faithful one.’

Secundus unwinds further until he finds the place and reads aloud. Calpurnia listens and for a little while her mind is neither in Rome nor in Comum nor even in Campania with Lucius but far away and long ago in stony Ithaca.

When Secundus is done, he sits quietly with the book in his hand.

She cannot bear it when he looks like that. So lost, so lonely, a man yearning for the thing denied him.

She has tried, oh she has tried – the Bona Dea, Juno, the lesser gods of house and hearth, all would bear witness she has tried – but without success. Her blood is curdled with melancholy; her heart is a stone with another name’s chiselled into it. Whenever Gaius looks at her, his face filled with tender longing, she cannot bear it, and always, always turns away.

Her rooms look out into the gardens. From the window of this sitting room she can see the neat clipped squares of box hedges, the manicured lines of quinces and peach trees punctuated by spikes of cypress. No line is natural, no curve left to chance. Nor yet the birdsong, though at this time of day the larks’ cages are covered against the sun. Silence stretches between them, taut and sharp as the shadow of the cypress in the garden. A maid’s voice fills that silence, rising in song somewhere beyond the window. Not Latin. Some eastern tongue tuned in unfamiliar intervals.

These are recent habits, his formal visits, their uncomfortable silences. Husband and wife speak, both in the same moment. Both break off, embarrassed, over-polite: ‘You, please.’

‘No, you.’

‘Very well,’ he says. ‘My appointment is for two years, maybe longer.’

‘That is the normal run of these things.’

‘I would like,’ Secundus says, carefully, ‘you to come with me.’

Calpurnia folds her hands to still their tremble. ‘That too is the normal run of these things. There would be gossip if I did not.’

‘Calpurnius Fabatus is old and in poor health. A visit to him would not cause tongues to clack.’

Her grandfather is as old and gnarled as an olive tree, and like to live as long. And yes, if she went to him, there would be no gossip. But, says her second thought, if she went to him, he would grind on and on about Lucius, asking all the questions she does not want to answer, demanding – over and over and again – she explain her actions and defend her choices.

Better Bithynia than that.

Secundus says, ‘Nicomedia is not Rome but it is far livelier than Comum. You’ll find society there, and you’ll not be able to throw a stone without hitting a philosopher. But, Calpurnia, my dear, you have a choice. I should like it, very much, if you came with me but you may go to Fabatus if you prefer. Your aunt will enjoy your company.’

She bows her head. ‘I shall come with you.’

He fiddles with the scroll. Hesitantly, he says, ‘If that is what you wish.’

‘It is what you wish, Gaius,’ she says, sweetly submissive. ‘That is what matters.’

Secundus flinches, bites his lip, stands up, leaves without a word.

Calpurnia takes up her book to begin again where she left off, but she has lost her taste for reading. Unfair to strike so low a blow. When had she become unkind?

In the privacy of her mind she is too honest not to own the answer: nine months ago, eight days before the Kalends of October, when Lucius died.

The maid’s song resumes, jerking her gladly out of the arms of melancholy. The same song, incomprehensible as a lark’s trill in the morning but conjuring bright images none the less: the first rose of springtime; sunlight through the branches; the rush and tumble of a mountain stream.

Oenone bustles in, her mouth pinched into a thin, straight line. ‘That’s no way to treat a husband. You count yourself lucky, my girl. Another man would have divorced you by now. The way you’ve been since – ’

‘That’s enough,’ Calpurnia snaps.

Oenone sniffs. She has never been one to keep her opinions to herself, even before she had her freedom, knowing that as Fabatus’ marriage gift her position was unassailable. Since her manumission, well, Secundus values loyalty above all else. How can his wife wish to be rid of one who has chosen to remain? Calpurnia says, quite quietly, ‘I mean it, Oenone. Don’t presume that, because you’ve known me from a babe, you are any different from the rest. My husband may rebuke me if he wishes, may divorce me if he wants, but I’ll take no lessons in marriage from anyone else. Not even you. Do you understand?’

Their eyes meet. Oenone has myriad ways to make her displeasure clear; before Lucius, Calpurnia would have given way for sake of a quiet life. But Calpurnia has hardened in these last months and will no longer yield in face of laces tied too tightly or hairpins driven too hard against her scalp. ‘Let us be clear,’ she says, ‘I’ll not speak of –’

The look on Oenone’s face makes her tremble on the name. Pity is more than she can bear. She turns away, blinking hard to drive back tears before they reach her eyes, and finishes, flatly, ‘I’ll not talk about him. Not now. Not ever.’

Oenone busies herself with resetting a trim torn from the hem of one of her mistress’s gowns. Though she mutters, ‘Might help if you did,’ she does so quietly enough that Calpurnia can pretend she has not heard. Calpurnia arranges her stole to cover her hair, takes up her parasol to shade her face and steps out into the sunlight of the garden. She finds the maid gathering peaches, settling each carefully into a basket of straw. The woman stands up, stands back to let her pass, but Calpurnia does not walk on. Instead she asks, ‘What was that song?’

The maid has kept her head bowed in the proper style but, surprised, she glances up. ‘Song, madam?’

‘I heard you singing. What was it about?’

‘A girl is filling her waterjars at the river. The day is hot and the water is cool, but her mother needs her and she cannot stay.’

‘Is that all? It sounded so much deeper.’

‘Maybe it is the Latin, madam. It can tell what the song is about but it is not the song.’

Something must have shown in her face for the woman bends her head and holds out conciliating, empty hands. ‘I’m sorry, madam. I did not mean rudeness.’

But Calpurnia is fascinated rather than affronted. It is something she has thought about many times, reading the poems written by her husband and her husband’s friends, the difficulty of capturing feeling with words, the gap between intention and achievement. Metre is easy but to achieve meaning? It is one of the reasons she restricts herself these days only to letters. ‘Don’t be absurd. Why’d such a thought be rude? What language was it?

‘My father’s tongue, madam. The master brought him from Syria.’

‘And you?’

‘I was born here, madam.’

‘Here?’ Calpurnia frowns. ‘In this place? I do not know your face.

‘In Narnia, madam. My father is now an overseer at the estate of Pompeia Celerina, where my mother lived.’

‘And now you are here.’ It is not a question and the woman does not answer. She goes where she is told, does there as she is bid. Choice, even the illusion of choice, is not for her. On a whim, Calpurnia asks, ‘Do you speak Greek?’

‘A little, madam.’ The accent is abominable but the words quite clear. Testing her way, perhaps, with this new mistress. Calpurnia approves. There is nothing so dull in life as accepting meekly the dice thrown down by fate. Choice may not be offered but chances are there for the taking.

She asks, in Greek, ‘What is your name?’

‘Psyche, madam.’

‘Psyche.’ Calpurnia studies the woman, looking carefully to confirm the decision she has already made. ‘Well, Psyche, when you are done here, tell Eutychus I have requested your services. Find Oenone in the morning.’

‘Yes, madam,’ Psyche murmurs, bending her head in meek obedience but not quite quickly enough to hide the flash of triumph in her eyes.

Later, Calpurnia must explain to Oenone what she has done; must soothe her ruffled feathers and assuage her jealous dignity; must, in the end, snap that the thing is done, that the girl will be with them in the morning and Oenone will find her a dress to match her new position and set her drying rose petals to scatter in amongst packed clothes. With that, the matter is closed. Oenone sniffs but is otherwise silent, though the look in her grey eyes bodes ill for Psyche. Well, either the girl will match her or she will settle into a drudge. If it is the latter Calpurnia will feel some disappointment, but there are maids a-plenty. Oenone bustles round the room, folding clothes, tidying away books and trinkets, making all ready for the night. As she does so, Calpurnia wonders how she will manage in Bithynia: despite her name, she has no Greek.

A small weight in Psyche’s pan. The balance now is tilted in Oenone’s favour but Fortuna is a capricious goddess. In time, perhaps, it will be otherwise.


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Twitter – and other – poems

It’s been a long time, for which I offer neither explanation nor apology.

Here are a few recent poems. The shorter ones have featured on twitter. I’m there more often than I’m here, but still not often.

I took his skin and put it on
(I’d long time thought it would fit me –
So tempting). When I found him gone,
I took his skin and put it on
Left him a man the land upon
And swam a silkie in the sea.
I took his skin and put it on.
I’d long time thought it would fit me.

Grave thoughts

As I am so shall you be
Think on that. As you pass by
Pause a moment – you will see
As I am so shall you be
The same winds blow on you and me
Though further down the road am I.
As I am, so shall you be.
Think on that as you pass by.

The margins (revision two)

Look around. These are the margins:
End of the day, edge of the world
The moment between ebb and flow
When the tide pauses and is still.

End of the day, edge of the world.
Take a breath. Remember this,
When the tide pauses and is still:
The taste of salt, the touch of rain.

Take a breath. Remember this
Dull half-light thickening to dusk,
The taste of salt, the touch of rain,
The rising curlew’s twicefold call.

Dull half-light thickening to dusk.
As the tide turns and rushes to the ebb,
The rising curlews, twicefold, call,
Summoning souls in the grey evening.


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I’m on the radio!

A quick note to say in November 2017 I was the guest on Hannah’s Bookshelf, on North Manchester FM. We talked about books – mine and other people’s – ballads, biology, time, and what I’d save for a post-apocalyptic library. It was enormous fun; I can talk about books for ages and Hannah is a well read and very perspicacious interviewer. You can listen to the interview here, and find out more about Hannah herself here.

Posted in After the Ruin, Harriet Goodchild author | Tagged | Leave a comment