The Confessions of Frannie Langton: a review

The Confessions of Franny LangtonThey say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

Sara Collins includes Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and Beloved amongst the novels that most influenced her as a writer; and in this stunning debut you’ll find Toni Morrison’s intensity of vision, Charlotte Bronte’s downtrodden but determined heroine and Mary Shelley’s tragic monster. You might think the market is saturated in gothic fiction but The Confessions of Franny Langton is an entirely new take on the genre. Frannie is a heroine for our Me Too and Black Lives Matter times – feisty, brilliantly clever, black and a woman. In Georgian England being a woman is already a disadvantage (you get married or you go into service) but being black, an ex-slave and yet highly-educated means a constant struggle against privation and lack of self-determination.

In the coach house on her master’s estate in the Caribbean, Frannie has been forced to take an active role in gruesome, racial experiments on other black people, first on corpses then on living people. She’s tallied the vertebrae in the warehouse of a man’s back… pulled a heart out of its cage, thick and slippery. She’s also been taught to read and write (Moll Flanders is a favourite) so has to scribe Langton’s ‘research’ into Crania, the work he intends to publish. But after a move to London Frannie is shocked to learn that instead of being free, she has only been educated as a wager and now as a gift to Benham has to work for him and his wife, Madame as a servant.

Sara Collins consistently uses domestic imagery to paint Frannie’s narrow world of cleaning, preparing food and sewing, brilliantly evoking a sense of powerlessness and claustrophobia: the pinch of memory is sharp as salt; her cold words knocked me like a beaten rug and London is crumbling like a stale loaf. Frannie’s overriding emotion is a barely controlled fury at what has been done to her. When she falls in love with the cross-dressing, laudanum-addicted Madame, it’s with a ferocious erotic intensity; when even that is threatened, her anger is all-consuming.

The novel takes the premise that Frannie is writing her ‘confessions’ to her lawyer to support her defence. It’s meticulous on court procedures (as you’d expect from a writer who worked as a lawyer for seventeen years), and on the minutiae of a servant’s life in the early 19th century. But what must have been extensive historical research is so well enmeshed in the story that it is utterly convincing. Through Frannie’s contact with abolitionists and scientists, Sara Collins brings the terrible legacy of slavery bang into our own century; two hundred years later the odds are still stacked against women achieving success and particularly against black women no matter how well educated.

Although Frannie is a tragic monster like Mary Shelley’s ‘creature’, she always has our empathy; and if she really is guilty of killing her master and mistress we can understand why. But this compelling and brilliant novel won’t let you know until the final pages.

Slow reading & reading aloud

Our Mutual Friend

In the crazy rush to do everything I said to myself: Let’s slow down and enjoy this experience of reading. Really enjoy it like I used to when I was a child. For the third year in a row I’ve done a Dickens December and read one of his novels. This Christmas (2018) on a Twitter-friend’s recommendation I went for Our Mutual Friend. I had a vague recollection from 1970s TV of a very ‘rivery’ novel but that was about it. At first I thought I was drowning – it was totally confusing with each chapter introducing new characters, and I was also struggling with an old hardback copy with minute print. Enter the Kindle – Dickens is free to read as are many other classics and with that we were off. Suddenly I loved it. But what really made it amazing was reading aloud – I’m no actor but only had myself to please, and not the whole book, only when it felt right…so what if my Cockney accent is diabolical I had fun.

I’ve never seen Les Mis the musical and hardly knew the story, but after watching the BBC’s adaptation of Les Miserables I decided to read it.  In French. I have a very rusty degree in French (and Psychology) and thought at first I was attempting the impossible. But on a Kindle with a French dictionary downloaded it’s as easy as falling off a log, albeit a very, very long one (1,232 pages). And when the fancy takes me I’m reading it aloud in my very average French accent.

Will I finish in time for next December’s Dickens? And will I succumb to pressure and go to watch the musical … or is that a step too far?

les miserables

DOGGERLAND: a review

Doggerlandby Ben Smith,
published April 2019

All around, to every horizon, the blades of the wind farm turned.

Far from land, out in the North Sea a boy (Jem) and an old man (Greil) live and work on a vast wind farm. They maintain and service the 6,000 turbines of which 850 are broken and more are malfunctioning – ‘dark blooms and scabs of rust… seepages of oil and grease … slumped down at an angle, their foundations crumbling like silt.’ This is an elemental world coloured grey – mineral and metallic – where everything is constantly changing and being eroded by the sea; even the old man’s cheeks are ‘flushed purplish grey, like metal discoloured by a flame.’ The sea itself is polluted and sterile, with nothing moving in it apart from human rubbish and plastic. In an evocative description we see:

swathes of shining fluid that coated the surface of the water… shoals of plastic bags and bottles… the brittle shells of electrical appliances.

In this bleak environment set in the not too distant future, the two main characters are so rarely named they could be any of us, or represent each end of one life: youth and old age; innocence and experience. Their only contact is with the captain of the quarterly supply boat who brings the processed meals they live on and occasionally trades with them. To ease the boredom and acute isolation the man and boy play tricks and try to outmanoeuvre each other like an elaborate game of chess. The old man salvages artefacts from the seabed, evidence of the Stone Age civilisation who lived there when it was ‘Doggerland’ before sea levels rose and it was submerged. The boy’s main obsession is to find out what happened to his father who worked on the farm before him and who mysteriously disappeared. When he finds a shoe at the beginning of the novel he thinks it could be his father’s.

This inventive novel, written with a pared-down style that still admits genuinely beautiful poetry, has echoes of Waiting for Godot and The Truman Show. A very impressive debut from Ben Smith about isolation, selflessness and the indefatigable human urge to create and explore.

Background information about Doggerland:
Named after the Dogger Bank (familiar to listeners of BBC Radio’s shipping forecast) which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers, the prehistoric existence of a now submerged area of land linking Britain to mainland Europe was established in the late 19th century. It featured in a short story by H G Wells. In the 1990s interest was revived by archaeologist and academic, Bryony Coles, who named the area “Doggerland”

doggerland mapMap of how Doggerland might have looked.

Around 6,000 years ago, the nomadic Mesolithic people were forced out of Doggerland by rising water that engulfed their low-lying settlements. Modern fishermen often find ancient bones and tools that date to about 9,000 years ago.

skull of wooly mamothNorth sea 1999,DoggerlandThe skull of a woolly mammoth, discovered in the North Sea in 1999, in the area then known as Doggerland. Image: OGMIOS/CREATIVE COMMONS

Now (2018 onwards) archaeologists working for Swedish energy firm Vattenfall are examining a set of ‘cores’ recently extracted from the seabed as part of the developer’s surveys for its Norfolk Boreas offshore windfarm. The core samples provide an almost unbroken record of pre-historic environmental change from the end of the last Ice Age through to the flooding of Doggerland. The research will shed light on how quickly our ancestors would have needed to adapt to the changing coastline, as rising sea levels flooded the North Sea through the English Channel and cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. Climate scientists say a similar situation could affect the billions of people who live within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of a shoreline today, if polar ice caps continue to melt at an accelerated pace.



10 books for 2018… plus two to look out for in 2019

My plan in January 2018 was to read mainly books by women – to make up for all the years of reading the male cannon. However I made an exception for books by male writers:
1. in translation,
2. of colour and
3. for research. (I also allowed myself to read two by Julian Barnes just because…)

And I’m pleased to say it’s been a great year. Of the 72 books I’ve read, 60 have been by women and at no point have I felt I’m missing out in any way. I’ve read some brilliant, nuanced and imaginative work – fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

Here are a few of my favourites (all published 2018 unless indicated otherwise).

Ordinary People Obama becomes president, & two ordinary black, middle class, London families with small children start falling apart.

Painter to the KingEvocative and moving portrait of the friendship between the painter, Velasquez and Philip IV of Spain.

Bad DreamsSuperbly brilliant short stories. Quintessentially English. (Published in 2017).

Friday BlackDark, surreal short stories about being black in contemporary USA.

Mr Loverman

Joyful, funny story about Barry, his marriage and his gay lover (published in 2013).

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Gripping novella. Tensions rise at an iron-age re-enactment weekend.

Ways to Hide in Winter

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains a young woman is attracted to a stranger with a mysterious past.
The Water CureDystopian, dark tale of three sisters living on a largely deserted island – feminism, love and  male control.

Inside the WaveHelen Dunmore’s posthumously published collection of beautiful, moving poems – a meditation on death and dying. Costa book of the year 2017.

The Distal Point

My dear friend Fiona’s first collection of poems – shortlisted for the TS Eliot poetry prize 2018… Politics, life & death, & behind the iron curtain.
And two to look out for in 2019:

THE DREAMERSThe Dreamers is a quietly devastating page turner: a small Californian town is under threat when a mysterious virus starts spreading from the local college; people fall asleep and can’t be woken.


The Confessions of Franny Langton

The Confessions of Frannie Langton – a murder-mystery but also a literary page-turner about a young, mixed race girl in the early 19th century about to be hanged for murder.

In 2019 I’m going to read more books in translation and books by women writers from Africa as well as some neglected classics.


A year of reading (mostly) women

Ordinary PeoplePainter to the KingBad DreamsMr LovermanThe Distal PointInside the WaveFriday BlackGhost Wall by Sarah MossWays to Hide in WinterThe Water Cure

My plan in January 2018 was to read mainly books by women – to make up for all the years of reading the male cannon – with the exception of books by male writers 1. in translation, 2. of colour and 3. for research. (I also allowed myself to read two by Julian Barnes just because…)

And I’m pleased to say it’s been a huge success. Of the 70 books I’ve read, 60 have been by women and at no point have I felt I’m missing out in any way. I’ve read some brilliant, nuanced and imaginative work – fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Now for the new year…

The Word For Freedom: a review

The word for freedom

An excellent and very enjoyable anthology of short stories, by both established and new writers, inspired by 100 years of women’s suffrage, The Word for Freedom is the brainchild of the author, Rose McGinty. Sales of the book will raise money for the work of Hestia, an organisation with a crucial role in running refuges and giving support to women and their children escaping domestic abuse in London.

The stories themselves range from the historical (set at the time of the Suffragettes) to the contemporary, and we see women at all stages of life and in a variety of settings. There is darkness of course, but also humour and above all hope that women can overcome whatever life throws at them.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who calls him or herself a feminist.

Eggshells: a review


Eggshells by Caitriona Lally is a darkly hilarious and moving novel about feeling that you don’t fit in. Vivian lives alone in her dead great-aunt’s house and spends every day (like a 21st century Leopold Bloom) walking the streets of Dublin. Other people and all their words and conversations make no sense to her and she can’t understand how to live in the ordinary world. Vivian believes she’s a changeling, and is looking for a portal to take her back to where she thinks she belongs.

In the vein of the best-selling Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, this novel is a depiction of acute loneliness. Vivian’s parents are dead, her sister can’t stand her and she has no idea how to make friends, so writes a notice and pins it to a tree:

WANTED: Friend called Penelope. Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don’t Have Much to Say. Good Sense of Humour Not Required Because My Laugh Is a  Work in Progress. Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply. Phone Vivian

For me it took time to get used to Vivian’s strange world but once I did there were many moments of laugh out loud humour. Her neighbours comment on her behaviour:

“Ah, Vivian, would you look at yourself, a grown woman up a tree on a day like today.”

When reminded by David, her social worker to keep an open mind she says:

“I am open-minded … sometimes I wear my slippers on the opposite feet to change my worldview, even though it makes me hobble.”

At heart this is a book about language and how we use and misuse it. As she journeys around Dublin, Vivian collects lists of words making patterns and connections and trying to find hidden meanings. She’s not ‘neurotypical’ and is therefore unlikely to change her (to us) eccentric ways of thinking, so don’t expect character development, but if you love a novel that plays with language you’ll enjoy reading Eggshells. As an unreliable narrator her skewed understanding of the world makes for some very funny one liners and achingly funny set pieces.

She may be a tragic and lonely figure but Vivian is a feisty, determined character getting on with her life against the odds; by the end there are glimmers of hope that something  may change for the better, even if she never finds her portal. Eggshells reflects our own image back as we observe Vivian’s struggles and is a bid for acceptance and understanding of human differences.

Newly published by the Borough Press, Eggshells was first published in 2015 and has recently won The Rooney Prize for emerging Irish writers. As chair of the selection committee, literary agent, Jonathan Williams said: “Caitriona Lally’s only novel, Eggshells, is a work of impressive imaginative reach, witty, subtle and occasionally endearingly unpredictable.