A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

A Country Doctors Notebook A Country Doctor’s Notebook is the book that was selected for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I was happy when I discovered that I would be reading this one, not only because it’s much shorter than most of the others on my Classics Club list, but also because I loved Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which I read four years ago in 2011. I knew this book was going to be very different from The Master and Margarita, but I hoped I would still enjoy it…and I did.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories originally written in Russian in the 1920s (the edition I read uses Michael Glenny’s English translation from 1975). Like the protagonist of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov was a ‘country doctor’. After graduating from Kiev University he became a physician and from 1916-1918 he worked at a small hospital near a remote village in the province of Smolensk.

The fictional doctor in the book, Vladimir Bomgard, is clearly based on Bulgakov himself and in the first story we see him as a young, newly-qualified doctor of twenty-four arriving at Muryovo Hospital, a full day’s drive from the nearest town. He is pleased to find that the hospital is clean and well equipped, but with no practical experience and nobody to turn to for advice (apart from a feldsher, or partly-qualified assistant, and two midwives) the thought of bearing sole responsibility for the lives of his patients terrifies him.

During his first weeks and months at Muryovo, the country doctor faces all sorts of problems for which his university education had completely failed to prepare him. With no electricity, no telephones, poor roads, the risk of being cut off from the world during snowstorms, and the ignorance of peasants regarding simple medical matters, life at Muryovo is primitive and isolated. Most of all, the young doctor lives in fear of encountering a strangulated hernia, a case of peritonitis or a difficult birth and he comes to dread hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated to myself stubbornly and unhappily. “I’ve got my degree and a first class one at that. Didn’t I warn them back in town that I wanted to start off as a junior partner in a practice? But no, they just smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your bearings.’ So now I’ve got to find my bearings. Suppose they bring me a hernia? Just tell me how I’ll find my bearings with that?”

As the book progresses the doctor slowly begins to gain confidence and discovers that true knowledge comes with experience.

It was fascinating to read about conditions in a remote Russian hospital at the start of the twentieth century and the medical procedures and treatments that were used. I had a lot of sympathy for the doctor, being thrown in at the deep end with so little experience and being expected to operate on patients with no supervision and no advice other than illustrations in his textbooks. If you’re squeamish I should probably warn you that some of the operations he performs are described in full, gory detail (the tracheotomy particularly sticks in my mind). But this is also a book with a lot of humour and there are some very funny moments as the doctor panics, guesses and muddles his way through each crisis.

As I mentioned above, I read the Michael Glenny translation which I was quite happy with and found perfectly readable. I enjoyed all of the stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook and I’m so pleased the Classics Spin motivated me to pick up this book at last.

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse by Piu Marie Eatwell

the dead duke How could I resist reading a book with a title like that? Luckily, the story between the covers proved to be as intriguing as the title; I was completely engrossed in The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife and the Missing Corpse from beginning to end. I don’t often choose to read non-fiction but I’m very glad I decided to read this one!

In The Dead Duke, Piu Marie Eatwell gives a thoroughly researched account of one of the most bizarre legal cases of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In 1897, Anna Maria Druce approached the courts to request the exhumation of her father-in-law’s grave. She sensationally claimed that her father-in-law, T.C. Druce, was actually the 5th Duke of Portland and had been leading a double life until deciding to kill off his alter ego. Druce had faked his own death, she said, and if his coffin was opened it would be found to be empty. This would leave Anna Maria’s son as the true heir to the Portland fortune.

This was only the beginning of a fascinating legal battle that would continue for years, attracting a huge amount of media attention and capturing the imaginations of the public. Of course, I’m not going to spoil any of the book’s surprises by telling you whether the grave was ever opened or whether Anna Maria’s claims were proved to be true, but along the way some shocking revelations were made and some dark secrets were uncovered!

With tales of secret wives and illegitimate children, fraud and forgery, stolen evidence and unreliable witnesses, lies and deception and double identities, this could have been the storyline of a Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon novel (and Eatwell does draw some parallels with the lives and works of these authors and others). As a fan of Victorian sensation novels, it’s not surprising that I enjoyed this book so much.

I particularly loved reading about the eccentric lifestyle of the 5th Duke of Portland. Becoming increasingly reclusive in his later years, he rarely went out in daylight and constructed a labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath his estate. He often wore six coats at the same time, had a large collection of wigs and only ate in the mornings and evenings. His alleged alter ego, T.C. Druce, who ran a London department store, was said to have some similar habits, which added some support to the theory that the two men were one and the same.

I was impressed with the huge amount of research the author must have carried out while she was writing this book, drawing on newspaper articles, letters, photographs, census records and other documents to build up a full and balanced picture of the case. Every time a new character is introduced we are given details of their family history, personal background, appearance and personality, all of which helps to bring them to life rather than being just names on the page. Further notes are provided at the back of the book, along with a list of primary and secondary sources.

In the final three chapters, set in 2013, Piu Marie Eatwell describe some of the new evidence she was able to discover during her investigations and her enthusiasm for the subject really shines through here. It must have been a fascinating book to research and it was certainly a fascinating book to read!

Thanks to Midas PR for providing a review copy of this book.

The Edge of Dark by Pamela Hartshorne

The Edge of Dark I enjoy reading time-slip novels; I love the sense of the supernatural, the atmosphere of mystery and suspense, and the intertwining of two lives – one past and one present. Pamela Hartshorne has written three novels of this type (the other two are Time’s Echo and The Memory of Midnight) but this one is the first I’ve had the opportunity to read. I found it an entertaining, compelling and genuinely eerie read and I’m now looking forward to going back and reading her earlier novels.

The Edge of Dark is the story of Roz Acclam who, at the beginning of the novel, is preparing to start a new job as Events Director at Holmwood House, a recently restored Elizabethan building in York. This is not the first time Roz has been to York; she lived there as a small child until most of her family died in a fire and she was adopted by an aunt in London. She remembers nothing of the fire or her tragic childhood, but almost as soon as she arrives in York, memories begin to come flooding back – the only problem is, they are not her own memories but those of another woman who lived more than four hundred years earlier.

The Edge of Dark is also the story of Jane, the eldest daughter of a butcher who lived in York in the 1500s. Jane’s father is planning ambitious marriages for both of his girls and Jane soon finds herself married off to the handsome, wealthy Robert Holmwood. Joining her new husband at Holmwood House, she discovers that married life is not quite what she’d expected and she begins to long for a child of her own. But Jane’s desire to be a mother eventually grows so strong that she makes a promise she could live to regret.

As Roz tries to settle into her new job the flashbacks into Jane’s life become more frequent and she begins to question why she is having these experiences. Is Holmwood House haunted? Are Jane’s ordeals in the past somehow connected with Roz’s own problems in the present? And what really happened the night the Acclams’ house was set on fire?

Usually when I read a novel set in two time periods I find that I prefer one over the other – as I love historical fiction it tends to be the one set in the past. With this book, Roz’s story and Jane’s are so closely linked that it’s difficult to separate them; the transitions between past and present felt smooth and natural and I could easily become immersed in the lives of both women. Roz and Jane are both strong characters, but there are other interesting characters in each time period too. While some feel less developed than others, the two I found most memorable are (in the present) Helen, a jealous colleague who tries to cause trouble for Roz at work, and (in the past) Margaret Holmwood, Jane’s scheming mother-in-law.

I also liked the fact that the novel is set in York, a city I have visited many times and am quite familiar with. It was obvious that the book was written by an author who knows York, its streets and its buildings very well! Something else I found interesting was seeing what goes into opening a new tourist attraction to the public. I would have liked to have read more about Roz’s work – it sounded fascinating.

I realise I’ve come to the end of this review and haven’t mentioned the significance of the beautiful Tudor necklace on the front cover of the book, but I need to leave something for future readers to discover for themselves!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross PoldarkI’ve often thought about reading the Poldark novels but there was always some reason why I didn’t; it never felt like the right time to start a twelve volume series or I could only find copies of the later books and not the first one. I had been aware that the BBC were making a new adaptation to be shown this year but I had forgotten about it until seeing a trailer a few weeks ago. That left me with a dilemma as the first episode is being shown on Sunday and obviously I wouldn’t have time to read the whole series by then. But I could at least read the first book and that is what I’ve done.

Ross Poldark is set in 18th century Cornwall (in fact, it is subtitled A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787). At the beginning of the novel, Ross Poldark returns home from fighting in America to discover that things have changed in his absence. His father has died, leaving his estate, Nampara, to Ross – and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, has just become engaged to his cousin, Francis. With his heart broken, Ross devotes his time to restoring Nampara, which has fallen into disrepair having been left in the hands of the servants, and investigating the possibility of opening a new copper mine.

Life is not easy for Ross – as well as managing his father’s lazy, drunken servants, Jud and Prudie, and dealing with the problems of the tenants and workers who live on the estate, he also has to cope with seeing Francis and Elizabeth together at family gatherings. Then one day, Ross rescues fourteen-year-old Demelza Carne from a brawl at the fair and brings her home to work in his kitchen. With an age difference of ten years, the relationship between Ross and Demelza is at first one of master and servant, but as time goes by a friendship forms and Ross will eventually discover whether or not he is able to love again.

When I began to read Ross Poldark last weekend I thought I might have started it too late to finish by Sunday, but I needn’t have worried; I found it so easy to get into and the story so compelling that it turned out to be a very quick read. I loved the Cornish setting; I won’t comment on the accuracy of the descriptions or the dialect, not being from Cornwall myself, but I thought the overall sense of time and place was very strong. Although they’re quite different stories, the setting and the mining element made me think of another book I enjoyed: Penmarric by Susan Howatch.

As the title character, this is very much Ross Poldark’s story (and Ross is the sort of hero I could immediately like and care about, right from the moment he arrives home to find that the woman to whom he was planning to propose is marrying his cousin) but I found Demelza an even more intriguing character. She changes quite a lot over the four or five years the novel covers and she does slowly grow in confidence, yet never quite shakes off her insecurities and her feeling that the Poldarks are looking down on her because of her background. She is still just in her teens when the novel ends and I’m sure there will be more development to come in the second book. I also liked Verity, Ross’s cousin, and found her personal storyline as interesting as Ross and Demelza’s.

As well as the main characters, there are also lots of memorable secondary characters representing all different levels of society, from the Poldarks and their friends to the farmers and miners who work for them. Quite a lot of time is devoted to the servants Jud and Prudie, and also to one of Ross’s young tenants, Jinny Martin, and two rivals for her love, farm boy Jim Carter and the villainous Reuben Clemmow. Whenever the focus switches to these characters, it provides a diversion from the main plot, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, as well as showing us how Ross handles the problems on his estate and interacts with the people around him.

At the end of this book there are still a lot of unresolved storylines and loose ends and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with the second book, Demelza.

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

The Royalist As someone who loves both historical fiction and mysteries, it’s not surprising that I also enjoy historical mysteries! If the book has an interesting and unusual setting, as this one has, even better.

The Royalist is the first in a planned series featuring the character of William Falkland. Falkland, as the title suggests, is a Royalist and has been fighting for King Charles in the English Civil War. As the novel begins in 1645, he has been captured by Parliamentarians and is in Newgate Prison awaiting his fate. When after several months of imprisonment a guard comes to take him from his cell, he is convinced that the day of his execution has arrived at last. To his surprise, though, he is taken instead to a meeting with Oliver Cromwell, the man with whom Parliament’s hopes of victory lie.

It seems that Cromwell has learned of a previous occasion on which Falkland stood up to his King to see that a criminal was brought to justice – and he is now hoping that Falkland will be able to solve a second crime, this time within Cromwell’s own New Model Army. Large, well-trained and highly disciplined, the New Model Army has been created with the aim of bringing a rapid end to the war. However, with men being pressed into the army regardless of their religious or political beliefs, discontent, disloyalty, fear and resentment are widespread. At the army’s winter camp in the town of Crediton in Devon, three young soldiers appear to have committed suicide – but why? This is what Falkland must agree to find out, in return for his own life.

I enjoyed The Royalist; it’s a very atmospheric book, taking us from a dark, cramped prison cell right into the heart of an army camp in the middle of a cold, harsh winter. This is the unusual setting I mentioned earlier; I’ve read other novels set during the Civil War, but none that focus specifically on the New Model Army. I knew almost nothing about the army before starting this book, and I found it fascinating, particularly the fact that even former Royalists were recruited, often against their will. It was also interesting to read about the ways in which the people of Crediton were affected by the army moving into their town and forcing them out of their homes.

This is not a book about an army on the move so there are (fortunately, in my opinion) no long battle scenes or discussions of military tactics; this is a book about an army that is stationary, based in one place, biding its time. That doesn’t mean there’s no action, of course! As Falkland continues to investigate and begins to uncover the truth about the young men who have died, he finds that he himself is in danger. There’s a lot of suspense as he explores the camp and its buildings in the dead of night, examines the tree where the three soldiers allegedly took their own lives, and tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted.

As the novel’s narrator, Falkland is the character we get to know best, but I still felt that there was plenty of information about his past that he was withholding from us and could reveal in a future novel. There are other interesting characters too: Thomas Fairfax, for example, the commander of the New Model Army and known as ‘Black Tom’ – one of the few real historical figures to appear in the book. There’s also Kate Cain, a woman who has refused to leave Crediton, and with whom Falkland lodges during his time in the town. And I was particularly intrigued by the character of Henry Warbeck, the man given the job of escorting Falkland to the army camp, as I discovered that there was more to him than met the eye at first.

I’m now looking forward to reading the second William Falkland novel, The Protector, which will be out later this year.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White “Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”

With these words the unnamed narrator of The Crimson Petal and the White takes us by the hand and leads us on a journey into the depths of Victorian London where we meet a cast of fascinating, diverse characters from all levels of society. One of these is Sugar, a nineteen-year-old prostitute who is writing a novel in her spare time and is prepared to do whatever it takes to improve her situation in life. Another is William Rackham, heir to a perfumery business, who seeks out Sugar after seeing her name listed in More Sprees in London, a guide to the city’s pleasures. From their first meeting at Mrs Castaway’s brothel, a chain of events is set in motion that will change not only Sugar’s life but William’s too.

Sugar is a wonderful character and I came to love her over the course of the book. She’s intelligent, well-read and ambitious and although she sometimes makes mistakes and is not always very ‘nice’, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her and want to see her succeed. I should warn you that Sugar’s story is not a pleasant or comfortable one to read and her work as a prostitute is described in a lot of detail, often quite explicitly. However, I didn’t think it ever felt gratuitous and it all helped to build up a picture of what Sugar’s life was like and to look at the issue of prostitution in a way that 19th century authors didn’t have the freedom to do.

While Sugar is our heroine, there’s another woman who is given almost as much time in the novel – William’s beautiful wife, Agnes Rackham, who is suffering from an illness that is causing delusions, fits and irrational behaviour. We, the readers, know what is wrong with Agnes but as far as her husband is concerned, she is insane. As her story develops, Agnes becomes almost as complex and interesting a character as Sugar, though less sympathetic. Another subplot follows William’s brother, Henry, who has turned down a position in the family business to become a clergyman and has fallen in love with Emmeline Fox, a widow who works for the Rescue Society, an organisation which helps to reform prostitutes. Through the lives of all of these characters and others, Faber is able to explore many different aspects of Victorian society.

The novel is divided into five parts, with section headings ranging from The Streets to The World at Large, giving us some clues as to how Sugar’s story is going to progress. Her rise in the world is great to watch but exactly how she does it is something I’d prefer to leave future readers to discover for themselves – assuming that I’m not the last person to read this book, which is how it feels sometimes! Like The Book Thief which I finally read earlier this month, this is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years and I can’t really explain why it has taken me so long, especially as the Victorian period is one of my favourites.

I loved this book and thought it was beautifully written, but I did have one problem with it – the end. I’m sure I’m not the first person and won’t be the last to have been disappointed by the ending. After reading more than 800 pages, I was hoping for more resolution to the story. I know there’s a book of short stories, The Apple, which is a sort of sequel but I’ve seen mixed opinions of it. If you’ve read it, please let me know if you would recommend it!