Posted in Book Reviews

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom – Independent on Sunday Review

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom, book review: An ambitious, but not wholly successful debut

Bloom has found an episode in London’s history that should be better known
SHIRLEY WHITESIDE Saturday 29 November 2014

A chance conversation led Jo Bloom to investigate the 62 Group, an anti-fascist Jewish organisation formed in Sixties London. Its adherents came together to fight the resurgence of fascism in Britain led, in the main, by Colin Jordan of the World Union of National Socialists.

A militant faction, the 62 Group set out to counter the propaganda disseminated by the fascists and take a stand against their violence and intimidation. Its members endeavoured to disrupt fascist meetings and even infiltrated the ranks of their opponents to discover their plans. Amazed that she knew nothing about the 62 Group, Bloom set her debut, a love story, against this dramatic backdrop.

It is summer, 1962, and Vivien Epstein, a 22-year-old hairdresser, leaves her Manchester home for London soon after the death of her father. She plans to make a new life for herself and find Jack Fox, the man she had fallen in love with in Manchester but who had suddenly returned to his London home.

Vivien finds a room to rent and gets a job in a Soho hair salon, quickly adjusting to the excitement of a city on the cusp of the Swinging Sixties. She searches for Jack Fox and eventually spots him during an anti-fascist demonstration in Trafalgar Square, only to wonder if he is still the man she fell in love with.

As lead characters Vivien and Jack lack depth. Bloom spends too much time telling the reader what her characters think and feel rather than letting their actions convey their state of mind. Her heroine’s ability to slip seamlessly into London life also feels glib – although the burgeoning jazz scene and coffee bars of early Sixties London are well drawn. The buzz around Soho and nearby Carnaby Street is palpable. But while Vivien’s transformation from a drab provincial into a stylish Londoner is plausible, the speed of her absorption into the working and social lives of the other hairdressers strikes a jarring note.

Bloom relates the history of the 62 Group – and its predecessor the 43 Group – and injects tension as she describes the organisation’s activities. Vivien’s astonishment at seeing fascism rise again, less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, is credible.

The policies proposed by people such as Colin Jordan, Oswald Mosley and the American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell are shocking. They take their hate message to the East End of London and the Ridley Road area, where the 62 Group engages with them. The running battles in the streets are frighteningly authentic, as is the despair of the Jewish community as swastikas are painted on the walls of synagogues.

Bloom has uncovered an episode in London’s history that deserves to be better known, and her research has thrown up some appalling events. She has been ambitious with her debut novel and, while it is not wholly successful, the subject matter alone makes for a thought-provoking read.

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Posted in Book Reviews

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster – Herald Review

Margaret Forster: My Life In Houses (Chatto & Windus)
Shirley Whiteside
Saturday 15 November 2014

Novelist Margaret Forster applies the same attention to detail and precise language of her fiction-writing to the story of her own life, as glimpsed through the prism of the houses she has lived in. It is not a tale that puts much emphasis on the colour of the walls or the placing of a rug. Instead, it is an emotional response to the houses that became her homes.

Forster was born in Carlisle in 1938, in a council house on the Raffles estate. Her father was a fitter in a local factory and, prior to marriage, her mother had been a secretary. She had an older brother and younger sister, the family of five crammed into a two-bedroom house with an outside lavatory and, bafflingly, a bathroom housing only a bath.

Forster was fascinated by houses from an early age and developed a rather snobbish attitude to her own home. While she often went to visit school friends living in large private houses she never invited them to her own crowded house. She longed for the large bedrooms that her friends had and the privacy they afforded. She often played a game where she picked a house she liked, moved out the inhabitants and moved herself in, luxuriating in the quiet rooms she anticipated they had. In her childish mind she never saw this as a rejection of her family, more that she was imagining a life beyond them.

Forster was a clever child and won a scholarship to study at Oxford University. She hated the constant noise and chatter around her college room and, as soon as she was able, she rented a room in a house nearby. The house was owned by the intimidatingly proper Mrs Brown but run by her sister, Fanny, who sported a fixed grin in public but constantly grumbled under her breath. She met her future husband, the journalist Hunter Davies, and after university they settled into rented rooms in London before buying a dilapidated house on the ‘wrong’ side of Highgate Road that was to be her home for the next 50 years.

Forster writes in a deceptively simple, conversational style that is warm and inclusive. Her recollections are generously tinged with a gentle, knowing humour. The most moving sections are when she discovers she has breast cancer and her London home becomes her sanctuary. First one mastectomy and then another, but the solidity of her home comforts her through her recovery. She eschews the usual terms associated with cancer patients such as ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ the disease instead opting to retreat to the familiar territory of home, observing how her mind and body react to the disease and treatment. Sadly, she now has metastatic cancer which is being held at bay.

Forster’s journey through various properties also reflects the changes in British society. She recalls her mother blacking the grate and keeping their home scrupulously clean without the benefit of any of the modern appliances we now take for granted. When she moved to London many of the large houses in her street were split into bedsits but as the area became more desirable the buildings were converted back to their original state. As she recalls, there were skips all along the road and the sounds of drills and hammers seven days a week. She is amused when the kind of fire that her mother toiled over and had replaced with a cheap tiled fireplace becomes fashionable again, as do the panelled doors that her mother had paid to have covered in thin sheets of plywood.

Forster found that the atmosphere of a house had to be just right in order for her to write. Even when finances allowed her to have a holiday home first in the Algarve and then in the Lake District, it was her London home that sparked her writing into life. She wraps it around herself like a favourite cardigan, knowing that it is the memories those walls enclose that make it special. This is a lovely and touching evocation of what home means to one woman, and within this is a universality that many will connect with.

Posted in Book Reviews

Palawan Story – Book Oxygen Review

Palawan Story

Caroline Vu

Published by Deux Voiliers Publishing 2 May 2014

232 pp, paperback, £9.30/$16.95

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Caroline Vu was born in Saigon and grew up there during the Vietnam War. In 1970 she moved to the USA, before settling in Canada where she became a physician. She draws on her childhood experiences for her debut novel which tells the story of Kim, a young girl who escapes the newly Communist Vietnam and is adopted by an American family.

Kim’s story opens on 30 April 1975, the day the Americans pulled out of Vietnam. Watching the last helicopter leave Saigon on television, Kim, who lives in Hue, thinks she sees her father scramble aboard. Her mother doesn’t react but Kim is sure it is him and his absence haunts her. Kim is a vivid character and the naïve style that Vu employs suits her well. She lives with her mother, who appears to be rather hard and cold, and her grandmother, who puts the family in peril with her frequent outbursts against the Communist regime. Kim works hard at school and diligently takes part in her after-school job cleaning her neighbourhood along with the other children.

One night in 1979, when Kim is fifteen years old, her mother wakes her and takes her on a long walk to the coast. She puts Kim on a refugee boat and disappears, hurrying to make her way back to Hue before she is missed. The only person Kim recognizes on the boat is Aunty Hung, a woman her mother has known since childhood, whom Kim has never liked or trusted. After some time at sea the boat is picked up and taken to Palawan Island in the Philippines and Kim finds herself in a refugee camp. An American immigration officer mistakes Kim for an orphan and she is shipped out to the USA and a new family.

Vu has chosen to tell Kim’s story in the first person, accessing her private thoughts as she pretends to her new American family that she has no parents. It is an effective choice and Kim’s voice is strong and engaging. Her struggles to adapt to a new culture are fascinating and her memories of her time in the refugee camp are stripped back and alarming. It would be easy to forget that this a novel and not an autobiography.  Kim, like Vu, becomes a doctor and volunteers to go back to Palawan to help the refugees. There are frightening blanks in her memory of her time on the boat, blanks that she must fill in to find peace, which means retracing the steps she took escaping to the West.

For many, grainy television footage of desperate people on tiny boats is all that they know about the Vietnamese boat people. Vu goes behind the faded headlines to show the tragedy of her homeland through one girl’s brave journey to a new and very different life.