Posted in Book Reviews

A World Gone Mad – Review

Book Review: Pippi Longstocking author’s journals paint a vivid picture of the Second World War

 
ASTRID Lindgren is best known for her Pippi Longstocking children’s books, which have sold in their millions all over the world. Pippi’s irreverent attitude immediately appealed to children. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, said that he based his iconic character Lisbeth Salander on her.
In 1939, Lindgren was a 32-year-old office worker living in Stockholm with her husband and two children, a middle-class family living a happy and comfortable life. When the Second World War broke out she followed its progress with a passion, writing a diary into which she pasted reports and articles from the newspapers. From the first months of the “phony war”, to the incredible bravery of her Finnish neighbours, her diary provides a unique view of the rising conflict as seen from a neutral country. On one side the Finns are fighting a brutal war against the Russians, and on the other Norway becomes a Nazi puppet state presided over by the notorious Quisling.

It is shocking to see the war through Lindgren’s eyes, where the Nazis seem like a better option than the Communists hammering on Finland’s flimsy defensive lines. Surprisingly, in the early days of the war Lindgren has rather a low opinion of the British war effort. She feels the British should be doing more to help Finland and Norway, even as Sweden officially refuses to become embroiled. “There’s a lot of bitterness about Britain and its feeble assistance,” Lindgren notes in May, 1940. She is constantly amazed by the indomitable spirit of the Finns, fighting a much larger army and miraculously holding them at bay, and the dogged endurance of the Norwegians who suffer terribly under Nazi occupation.
Rationing plays a big part in Lindgren’s life as she compares the generous rations meted out in Sweden to meagre supplies in other countries. There seems to be a large measure of guilt on her part, as time and again she notes how lucky Swedes are to be warm and well-fed even in the depths of the harsh winters of the early war years. As she writes about her everyday life, she notes that her children still have birthday cakes and presents while children in Greece are facing starvation. She writes: “Why, our rations are pure gluttony, though we think them stingy.”
As well as getting her information from newspapers and radio, Lindgren’s job at the Postal Control Division gave her access to scraps of news from all over Europe. She steamed open envelopes to read the contents, blacking out anything that mentioned military locations or classified information. Although her work was confidential, it didn’t stop her copying parts of letters into her diary or musing on the news of the war the correspondence often contained. A letter written by a Norwegian woman in 1943 infuriates Lindgren with her claim that everything in Norway is good and the Germans aren’t getting in the way. “I’ve never heard anyone else make such grotesque assertions,” writes Lindgren. Being able to draw on the voices of so many different people’s hopes and fears enables Lindgren to paint a vivid and intimate picture of ordinary people in extraordinary times.
Although she had yet to express any literary ambitions, it is clear from her diaries that Lindgren was a talented writer. She had an eye for detail, and a sharp sense of humour amidst all the horrors she wrote about. She started to entertain her daughter, and then her daughter’s friends, with stories featuring Pippi Longstocking, and in 1945 the first Pippi book was published and became an immediate classic of children’s literature.
Lindgren’s diaries were published posthumously, which is a pity as she deserved to know they would be received with critical acclaim. In the Swedish version there are facsimile copies of the articles that she cut and pasted into her diary. In this, the first English version, there is just a short description of them, which is an odd omission.
Also, the translator has replaced Lindgren’s references to England with Britain, an unnecessary modernising of a term that was universally used and understood to mean Britain at the time.
Nevertheless, in the midst of a world gone mad, Lindgren’s diaries show a compassionate and curious woman trying to fathom the horrors of war through her writing, and leaving behind a wonderful insight into life during a global conflict.
A World Gone Mad – The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-1945, Translated by Sarah Death is published by Pushkin Press, priced £18.99

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Posted in Book Reviews

Dark Water – Herald Review

Review: Dark Water by Sara Bailey

Nightingale Editions, £8.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Dark water is a diving term that is used when a diver no longer knows which way is up and which is down. It is a fitting title for Sara Bailey’s debut novel, a haunting tale of teenage obsession and betrayal where things are not quite as they first seem.
Helena returns to her childhood home on Orkney after many years away, a glossy metropolitan version of her former self. She is back to look after her father who is very ill, and to help her step-mother. As soon as she steps onto the island news of her return seems to spread by osmosis. This feature of life on a small island immediately sets the scene for the rest of the story. Bailey creates a suffocating atmosphere where secrets are almost impossible to keep. But there are some hidden truths yet to come to light, such as the mysterious disappearance Anastasia, Helena’s best friend, who never returned from a moonlight dare to swim between the ship wrecks around Orkney. Helena fled the island soon after Anastasia vanished, and her return dredges up painful memories.
The intense nature of the teenage friendship between Helena and Anastasia is worryingly obsessive; writing notes to each other in their own blood, and promising to stick together, “through sick and sin”. When boys enter their world, a fissure forms that slowly widens, stretching the girls’ loyalty to each other to breaking point.
Helena narrates most of the story, with some sections told in the third person, and it works well, giving characters such as Dylan, Helena’s first love, more breadth and depth. The flashbacks are particularly well handled with the wild swoops of over-confidence and then crippling shyness showing how confusing the mid-teenage years can be. The supporting characters are carefully drawn, especially Helena’s ailing father and worn-out step-mother. Gloria, a family friend and near-neighbour who has taken over Anastasia’s old home, is wonderfully blunt and pushy.

In Bailey’s hands, Orkney becomes a character in its own right. The very particular light, the constant wind and unpredictable weather, and the savage beauty of the landscape form a dramatic backdrop to her story. The scenes where the teenage girls skinny dip in the still-cold summer seas are dreamlike as they swim in and around the ship wrecks that once protected Orkney’s natural harbours from Nazi invasion. Lying on the rocks to dry out, they share their deepest secrets and hopes for their futures that lie far away from Orkney’s shores. Their plans always include each other.
This is not a fast-paced thriller but Bailey does control the flow of information skilfully, and it never drags or feels padded out. Instead, it is a slow-burn, psychological study that is both gripping and emotionally involving. It is well plotted and it is hard to believe that this is Bailey’s debut. It feels like a story that has waited a long time to be told and has resonances with her own recent return to Orkney after a long time away.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Turncoat – Review

More than 500 died and 600 were seriously injured in Clydebank in two nights of bombing by the Luftwaffe in March 1941

ON THE night of March 13, 1941, German bombers targeted the shipyards and munitions factories in Clydebank, trying to disrupt the British war effort.
Houses close to the docks and factories were bombed out. The Luftwaffe returned the following and deliberately targeted civilian housing, hoping to break the people’s spirit. Clydebank was flattened with only seven houses escaping damage, leaving 35,000 people without a home. More than 500 people died and more than 600 seriously injured, while hundreds more suffered less acute wounds. The Clydebank Blitz was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic events taking place all over the world but it was one of the most devastating attacks on home soil. Historian Alan Murray takes these facts and weaves around them a plausible thriller featuring army intelligence, the IRA and Hitler’s deputy, Rudolph Hess.

The novel opens with a prologue detailing the death and destruction wrought on Clydebank, immediately catapulting the reader into the chaos of 1941. Murray quickly moves his main characters into view as they investigate the suspicious death of their informer, Billy Dalgleish, in Partick. Major George McLean and Sergeant Danny Inglis come from Room 21A, military intelligence, which gives them the freedom to investigate wherever they see fit.
The Major is a former journalist at the Glasgow Herald, an educated and well-read man, who hopes to return to his old job when the war ends. Inglis is more of a loud-mouth, never afraid to get his hands dirty should a suspect require some not-so-gentle persuasion. Both are veterans of the Great War and together they scour the west of Scotland for spies and traitors.
They report to Brigadier Ewen Stuart, a posh old buffer, who at first seems to be a caricature. However, there is a sense that Murray is having a bit of fun with this character, peppering his pompous dialogue with French phrases. He talks about “La Not-So-Grand Guerre” and asks his aide to do things “toute de suite” and keep things “entre nous”. He provides some light relief and may not be quite as ineffective as he seems.
The plot revolves around a whisper that the second night of the Luftwaffe bombing run was so accurate and destructive because the Germans were being fed information from someone in Clydebank. The only strangers in town happen to be two Irishmen, “Cafflicks” passing themselves off as “Proddies” to get a job on the docks. The Major suspects that the IRA might be helping the Germans out. They organise a manhunt to find the men before they escape back to Ireland and try to find Chrysalis, the mastermind behind the spying operation.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess crash lands in Scotland, and military intelligence must find out why.
They are joined in their investigations by the very proper Finola Fraser, a reporter for the Glasgow Herald who has a nose for a story and network of people happy to tip her off to anything newsworthy.
“She’s very solid. Middle-of-the-road. A daughter of the manse, you know,” the Brigadier said. “She’s the right type.”
Again, Murray teases as Finola Fraser seems like a parody but turns out to have hidden depths.
The circles that the Major and Inglis observe in the course of their work are less than glorious. Murray paints this parallel universe well, peopling it with black marketeers and petty criminals happy to inform on their colleagues for the right price. He creates a realistic atmosphere of anger, sadness and determination around the destroyed Clydebank, as the community refuses to give up. As a historian, Murray is well-placed to sprinkle telling historical facts throughout the tale, adding to the strong sense of time and place. The privations of rationing mean that even the Major and Inglis are happy to buy cigarettes and whisky from the black market.
There are echoes here of the television series, Foyle’s War, and Murray’s novel unfolds at the same stately pace. This suits the era well, a time when communication was slow and difficult and forensics were basic. Murray’s characterisation is a bit thin at times but a complex plot and plenty of authentic details make for an absorbing and informative read. The Major and Inglis complement each other well and Finola Fraser adds a sharp intellect and a splash of glamour. These are characters that could easily support a number of sequels if Murray is minded to give them another outing.

The Turncoat by Alan Murray is published by Freight Books, priced £9.99.