Rebecca Fletcher’s Further Reading suggestions:
‘Art and love are all we leave behind’ – a beautiful line from The Porcelain Maker by Sarah Freethy, debut novelist and this month’s guest for Are You Sitting Comfortably. The Porcelain Maker is such a bittersweet story of the enduring legacy and power of art and love to communicate beyond words, to transcend death, that it got me thinking about other books where these two collide.
Here are some of my favourites, old and new.
Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved begins in 1970s New York where we meet art historian, Leo Hertzberg, and Bill Weschler, a painter, who become friends. The novel follows them as well as the women in their lives and their sons, both born in the same year. The relationship between them is troubled and intense and neither are equipped to deal with the very different paths their sons take. I love this stunning multi-layered novel which explores the man behind the artist and vice versa, alongside deep and razor-sharp observations of relationships that offer intimacy and darkness in equal measure. Hustvedt has been described as a 21st century Virginia Woolf and this is a standout novel, in my humble opinion. It really reminded me of To The Lighthouse in many ways. What I Loved is utterly absorbing and moving.
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud takes the reader back to the First World War. Thomas Maggs, is the son of the local publican who lives with his parents and sister in Walberswick, a village on the Suffolk coast. He is the youngest child and only surviving son. Life is shaped by the seasons, fishing and farming and the summer visitors. In 1914, the architect and watercolourist, Charles Rennie Mackintosh moves from Glasgow to Walberswick with his red-haired artist wife, Margaret MacDonald. Conspicuous amongst the locals, Mac, as they whisper in the inn, sets off on his walks at unlikely hours and stares out to sea as if searching for clues. He becomes a source of fascination and wonder for Thomas and an unlikely friendship begins to blossom between them, just as war is declared with Germany. As the summer guests are replaced with regiments of soldiers on their way to Belgium, the quiet coastal community begins to suspect that there’s more to Mac and his curious behaviour. Told through Thomas’ viewpoint, Esther Freud paints a fascinating portrait of Mackintosh’s latter years.
Those of you who joined us as we chatted to Sarah about the inspiration behind The Porcelain Maker, will know that the book begins in 1920s Weimar Republic with Bauhaus artists, Max and Bettina, as Germany teeters on the brink of monumental change. It’s been described as perfect for fans of Kristin Hannah and multimillion-copy bestselling author, Heather Morris whose own debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, told the story of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 who falls in love with a girl he tattoos in the concentration camp. The day Heather met Lale changed both their lives – it’s an extraordinary story of courage and survival brought to life by Heather’s skills as both screenwriter and storyteller.
Heather’s latest book, Sisters of the Rising Sun, is also based on a true story. A novel of sisterhood, bravery and resilience in the darkest of circumstances, Sisters of the Rising Sun, opens in 1942 as Singapore falls to the Japanese Army. English musician Norah Chambers is desperate to keep her eight-year-old daughter Sally safe and places her on a ship leaving Singapore. As the island burns, Australian nurse Nesta James joins the terrified cargo of people, including heartbroken Norah, crammed aboard the HMS Vyner Brooke. After only two days at sea, the ship is bombarded and sunk.
Reaching the shores of Indonesia, Nesta and Norah are captured and held in one of the notorious Japanese POW camps. Music becomes their only armour against the starvation and brutality, as Norah’s ‘voice orchestra’ transports the internees from squalor into light. Can their friendship offer enough hope, strength and camaraderie to keep them alive? This novel is nothing short of inspiring and uplifting – the power of hope in dark times.
My last recommendation this month is a really special one. I simply couldn’t pass up an opportunity to share a long-held favourite. Whilst there’s no art in this one, I believe it to be one of the most beautiful WWII stories ever written. Every Friday afternoon one autumn term, my English teacher, an ex-Irish nun called Mrs Allen, read this book aloud to our class – I was 8 years old. I’m interminably grateful to her for sharing The Silver Sword by Ian Serrailler. It made me want to tell stories of my own and has stayed with me ever since.
‘If you meet Ruth or Edek or Bronia, you must tell them I’m going to Switzerland to find their mother. Tell them to follow as soon as they can.’
In the chaos of war, Ruth, Edek and Bronia have lost their parents and are left alone to fend for themselves, hiding from the Nazis amid the rubble and ruins of their city. A twist of fate sees them stumble across Jan, an orphan with a box of treasures including a paper knife in the shape of an elaborate silver sword, given to him by an escaped prisoner of war. The Balicki children believe the escapee is their father and the silver sword he gave to Jan, a message to them that he is alive and searching for them. Together with Jan, they begin an exhausting and dangerous journey from war-torn Poland to Switzerland, across the battlefields of Europe, in the hope of being reunited with their parents.
Ian Serrailler’s The Silver Sword is a children’s classic which is equally enjoyable and moving to read as an adult.
Rebecca Fletcher @margotgoodlife
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