This Little Bag of Dreams

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Month: May, 2012

The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

It is almost 2200hrs and I am sat in my car (don’t ask) in what I imagine is a former miners’ or council estate in Tenterden, a well-to-do town as far removed from the East End as possible. The houses surrounding me, despite their former use, sell for as much as £235,000 for only 3 bedrooms, due largely to their location in this particularly pretty market town. Despite my own location, I can almost hear the giggles of the Sugar Girls, those eponymous ladies of HarperCollins new and bestselling biography, and feel Tate & Lyle’s sugar between my toes like sand. Such is the power of these East End factory women’s stories, brought, as Melanie McGrath says on the cover quote, ‘vividly to life’ by biographers Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.

This is not the sort of book I would normally read: I suppose that, like Call the Midwife, I would have dismissed it as ‘heartwarming’ and therefore not for me and moved onto another novel. But right from the start, my regional manager could see that there was something very special about The Sugar Girls, and now I can confirm that he is absolutely right. For what can be more interesting than social history? Facts are here too, but it is The Sugar Girls themselves who really bring to life the noisy, hot atmosphere of the Tate & Lyle factory.

That is not to say that you won’t learn anything from this book, although that will, of course, depend on what you know already. I, for one, had no idea that Tate & Lyle used to be two separate companies, and that they only amalgamated in 1921. I was aware that women, for the most part, had to give up work when they got married, but I did not know that the pay gap was as bad then as it is now: Tate & Lyle women earned only 75 per cent of their ‘male counterparts’. More worryingly, I also had no idea that the factory had a bar which could be frequented throughout the working day, and that even those working on machines were allowed to visit this bar and resume working afterwards. Henceforth, dear reader, I expect never to hear the phrases ‘nanny state’ and ‘health and safety’ in conjunction again: consider yourself lucky to be working in modern times.

But, as I said earlier, it is not the facts, but rather the Sugar Girls themselves, which endear you to the Tate & Lyle story. In particular, it is the four women around whom the biography centres, Ethel, Lillian, Joan, and Gladys, for whom you really root whenever life gets rough for them.

As with fiction writers who switch perspectives, such as Sarah Rayner and Karrie Fransman, The Sugar Girls’ structure means that although you find yourself immersed in each individual woman’s story, conversely, you never tire of any of their tales. This is because just as you find yourself desperate to know what the consequences will be of Gladys’s latest work prank, or whether or not Lillian will hear from Reggie, the authors move us on to Joan’s wardrobe or Ethel’s ‘coveted white coat’. They are all quite different women, but are all united by one factor: their love for, and loyalty to, Tate & Lyle.

Be warned, however: this is a real tearjerker. It is best not to read it, therefore, when you are already feeling low. Having said that, with only a Bee Gees concert as my alternative distraction while waiting for the recovery truck, I chose to finish The Sugar Girls. I just had to be sure that Lillian’s, Gladys’s, Joan’s and Ethel’s lives turned out, if not as sweet as the sugar which they used to pack, then at least as successful and memorable.

Thanks to Sarah Patel at HarperCollins for a review copy of The Sugar Girls, and both to Sarah and Tate & Lyle for sending sugar packets and syrup tins for Waterstones Tenterden to use in their window display.

The Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Two confessions: 1)The title put me off reading this book initially. Fussy, I know. 2) It took a good third of the book for me to get into it, but once I did, I was hooked. It made a post-London party delay at a lonely Ashford station pass much more quickly. The premise, composer Oskar goes to LA to get divorced, while his friend looks after his flat, sounds unpromising, perhaps, but the novel is about so much more than that.

The Care of Wooden Floors has not received as much attention as some of the other Waterstones 11 titles; many, myself included, have raved about The Age of Miracles, and The Lifeboat has also had some good reviews. But there is something both very precious and fragile about any debut novel which makes me, as a bookseller, blogger and reader, want to take them under my wing, nurture them and offer them up to my customers lest they be forgotten.

However, The Care of Wooden Floors is infinitely unforgettable. Essentially a tale about two friends, one seemingly perfect and successful, the other failing to make any mark on the world, its protagonist remains, like Rebecca, unnamed, as does the Eastern European city in which the novel is set. This gave the book a certain unnerving element: we neither know who this character is nor where he is. Moreover, it adds to our impression of his utter helplessness to stop events at Oskar’s flat from spiralling completely out of control.

As I said at the start of this review, The Care of Wooden Floors is not an easy book in which to lose yourself: or not initially, at least. Wiles’ style is fairly wordy, and although the book takes place over the course of only eight days, at times it can feel like longer. Yet there is an ever-present level of Schadenfreude running throughout the novel which soon makes reading it hard to resist. From the wine which claims the precious, eponymous wooden floors, to the appalling piano mishap (read it to find out what I mean!), we surely prickle with joy rather than sympathy at his misfortune. Many have judged the appalling series of events at Oskar’s flat to be mere slapstick, but they become sadder and more sinister as the novel progresses.

What I loved most about The Care of Wooden Floors is that Wiles shows us the pointlessness of perfectionism. For Oskar’s tidy apartment, ironically, is sold in the end, and his nameless friend, who becomes obsessively perfectionist himself for a while, is shown to be more likeable than Oskar will ever be, despite his haplessness.

Briefs Encountered by Julian Clary

When I saw the fabulous cover design of Briefs Encountered on Twitter, I knew that I had to read the book. I’d never read a Julian Clary novel before, but the premise, two separate but interconnected stories, one set during the 1920s and involving Noël Coward, the other about the present day actor Richard Stent, sounded too interesting to refuse. Moreover, Clary has set both parts of his book in his own house near Ashford, and since I work at Waterstones Tenterden, the novel has a particularly local appeal.

I was initially rather put off by the inclusion of Clary himself and Paul O’Grady as characters; it struck me as gimmicky and threatened to stop my reading Briefs Encountered altogether. But I’m glad I persisted, because this really is a fantastic novel. I’ve always enjoyed books which alternate between different perspectives (Sarah Rayner does it excellently in One Moment, One Morning and The Two Week Wait), and Clary not only succeeds very well in telling a dual narrative, he also manages to make his characters based on real people as believable as his utterly fictitious ones.

As I work in a haunted shop, I was particularly intrigued by the ghostly occurrences in Briefs Encountered, and as with the novel’s crazy relationships and crazier yet women, I feared that Clary’s writing about paranormal activity would be hammier than Nigella eating a bacon sandwich in a Christmas jumper. But it is all written so deftly and so tastefully that I have found myself ordering Clary’s backlist at work. If his previous novels are as good as this one, then I can’t wait to read them, particularly if he decides to make a cameo appearance.