JULY READING - Before I Go To Sleep; In A Strange Room; The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim; The Widow of the South; Lilla's Feast

LILLA'S FEAST by Frances Osborne

The author was 13 when her great grandmother, Lilla, died in 1982 at the age of 100. Anyone who lives to this age has a story or two to tell, and Lilla had many. Born in China at the height of the might of the British Empire, Lilla's life mirrors the upheavals that change the fortunes of Britain forever. Her life experiences would not necessarily be unique for a woman of her class and background, but regardless, they still make a great story and deserve to be recorded. The thing about Lilla, is that in many ways she was typical of her time and class and upbringing. But she also had incredible spirit, enormous personal dignity and a steely determination to survive no matter what.

Lilla's eventful life was shaped entirely both by being born in China and being of British extraction. And like many of the thousands whose families worked for the colonial governments and business enterprises, such British people were never really considered fully British. Aside from a short period of time in England and India, virtually all her life was spent in China. She married twice, had children, and devoted herself to the art of homemaking, thus ensuring the happiness and comfort of the men in her life, as she had been taught to by her mother. Not at all unusual for the times. The crises and tragedies were many, culminating in Lilla aged 60 and her husband in his mid-70s being incarcerated during WWII in a Japanese internment camp for three years where they almost starved to death. There, she finished compiling, amidst great deprivation, her cookbook which for a period of time was displayed prominently in the Imperial War Museum in London. This cook book was not, as one would expect, a wartime cook book, but one that was full of recipes from a time of plenty. And all put down entirely from memory. It is said that the memory becomes more acute in times of suffering, and I guess it is understandable that when starving, thoughts turn to food and one's memories of that food.

Lilla was undoubtedly a survivor. Wouldn't we all love to have a great grandma of such courage and determination. And what a legacy to leave your descendants. A really good life story, of a time not so far in the distant past, told with admiration, love and plenty of spirit


For those of us, which I expect is most of us, who have grown up and lived our lives without war, it is very difficult to imagine how we would be in a war situation. Would we react to situations of danger or deprivation or horror as we think we would? Based on other people's accounts of what we have heard or read, or movies we have seen? Or would our reactions and behaviour be quite different? How deep would we have to dig into ourselves to deal with the chaos going on around us? Hopefully we never have to find out. Which is why reading about it is so interesting and with plenty of 'wow' factor.

Here in New Zealand, the American Civil War is not something we know a great deal about. 'Gone With the Wind', the slavery issue and the assassination of Lincoln are really the sum total for most of us as to what this war was. But to Americans this war is very real with memorials commemorating battles all over the country side.

One of these memorials is at Franklin, Tennessee which in November 1864 was the site of the greatest loss of life in battle that America has seen. In the space of five hours, 9,200 men died - 6700 from the Confederate army and 2500 from the Union army. This was more than the Americans lost at D Day and more than twice as many as at Pearl Harbour. A dark day. This battle took place on farm land on the outskirts of the town. Overlooking the battle field was (and still standing) the 'big house' of Carnton, owned for three generations by the McGavock family. Its occupants at the time of the battle were John, his wife Carrie, their two young children and a few black slaves. Once the fighting was over, the house became a field hospital for hundreds and hundreds of wounded and the fields became the burial ground for 1500 soldiers. Carrie McGavock worked alongside the army medical people nursing and caring for the many wounded and dying men. She made the men she had cared for and buried her life's work, resulting in the creation of a proper cemetery for the 1500 on the property that is today kept in pristine condition. The plantation and house have been extensively restored, the author of this novel being the driving force behind the restoration.

From reading the background to this novel, it would appear that after the war Carrie McGavock 'was transformed into a living martyr and curiosity' and according to Oscar Wilde 'the high priestess of the temple of the dead boys'. This book is well worth reading to get an insight into the reverence with which Americans cherish their war dead.

And yet very little is known about Carrie herself. Which the author attempts to redress in this fictional context.

Carrie is a desperately unhappy woman. She is 35, and in recent years has seen three of her five children die from illness. The type of illness is not known. She wears black, spends her days wandering from room to room mourning her children and is so absorbed in her grief she really does not know what is going on around her. It is hard to know what role her husband John has in her life. During much of the novel he appears to be absent and largely ineffectual. The arrival of the Confederate Major General Forrest on her doorstep the day before the battle to commandeer her house for a field hospital starts to lift her out of her gloom. She literally has only hours to organise the house for its new inhabitants. She is assisted throughout by Mariah, the black slave she has had since childhood and one feisty woman.

Carrie's new role, and her friendship with one of the soldiers she nurses, Zachariah Cashwell, change her life and give her a reason to live again. For anyone to survive their injuries and recover amidst so much horror would give the power of life back! The story continues after the war culminating with Carrie trying to find a way to protect the buried 1500 soldiers from being ploughed up by the person whose land they are buried on. The recovery from war is also symbolic of Carrie doing her own personal recovery, resulting in her finding her inner strength and succeeding in relocating the buried.

I found the narrative of the book a bit slow at times. But there is no doubting the power of the writer to give us plenty of visuals as to the horror of battle, the fear, the blood, the pain, the injuries, the dying etc. He also writes very well of the chaos of post war life - the poverty, the lawlessness, the despair of survivors. And the hope personified in Carrie herself. This book is uplifting, especially in light of the legacy she has left behind, not just at Carnton, but for the many, many cemeteries that sprang up around America after the war.


A slightly crazy story of a man from Watford (the author later apologised to the residents of Watford for portraying the city in a possible negative light), aged about mid-40s, on the verge of a breakdown, in fact I am not giving anything away by saying that is exactly what happens to him. The story is really a commentary on the type of society we live in - despite the endless variety of communication gadgetry we have at our disposal, we are probably more lonely and isolated as individuals than we have ever been. Poor Maxwell Sim (as in in sim card) has over 70 friends on Facebook, he admits most of them are complete strangers, whom he admits he is never likely to meet up with for a coffee, and anyway why would you when you can keep in contact virtually? The book is full of such observations, in fact you could almost say the social isolation so characteristic of how we live began with the invention of the car -'Cars are like people. We mill around every day, we rush here and there, we come within inches of touching each other, but very little contact goes on. All those near misses. All those might-have-beens.' The 'terrible privacy' is lonliness and how this lonliness can actually make us go mad, as it does for Max and another real-life person Max is introduced to - Donald Crowhurst, an amateur sailor who in the late 1960s decided to take part in a round the world solo yacht race, realising very quickly he was completely out of his depth, and to cut a long story short, descended into insanity and ended up killing himself. So Max never actually meets him of course, but comes to increasingly identify with him and his sadness while trying to make sense of his own misfortunes.

Max is on sick leave from his job suffering from depression after his wife took his daughter and left the marriage. The book takes place on journeys - a trip to and from Sydney that Max takes to visit his distant father; Donald Crowhurst's tragic yacht race; Max's road trip to the north of Scotland to promote a new environmentally friendly toothbrush, where his only meaningful relationship is with Emma (after Emma Thompson), his GPS; and finally his return to Sydney.

It is interesting that almost all the people Max comes into contact with in the story are also alone or lonely. His father, whose story Max manages to unearth during the course of his travels; a young woman, Poppy, whom he meets on the flight from Sydney to London and must have one of most tragic jobs ever - 'junior adultery facilitator'. You will need to read the book to find out exactly what that involves but it makes Max's job as an After Sales Customer Liaison Officer (ie returns clerk) sound positively enriching. Then of course there is the dead Donald, and an old childhood friend Alison who spends much of her time alone while her husband is on business. She also gets one of the best descriptions I have ever heard for getting ready to go out - 'upstairs making last-minute adjustments to her appearance' which as all us ladies knows can take anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour.

So I haven't said much about 'the plot', because the book is really more about the characters than the action and how people relate and inter-relate to each other, and also how to maintain your own individuality, your own sense of self, in the face of all this anonymous communication stuff we are surrounded with. I really liked this book. Despite being of a serious subject matter, there is some biting satire and comedy, the characters are interesting, and many of Max's conversations and internal dialogue are really quite funny, particularly his doomed relationship with Emma.

The ending however, is another matter altogether - most surprising, never seen done before, and ultimately disappointing.

IN A STRANGE ROOM by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut is a South African writer. He started writing as a young man, and met with immediate success. This is his second Man Booker nominated and short listed novel. Much of his writing is set in South Africa and surrounds, and much of it also autobiographical. This novel is also partly set in Africa and may or may not be autobiographical. It could also be a book of travel writing of sorts too - he journeys to many of the countries of Africa, as far north as Morocco, and to India where the last part of the book takes place. It is such personal writing, with such personal insight and depth I almost felt as if I was intruding on someone's inner being. Such spare and beautiful writing deserves to be more widely read as it also allows us to look into our own selves.

This book is not just one story as most novels are, but more like three short stories, each from a different part of the narrator's life as he struggles to find his path in life. The chapters are entitled 'The Follower', 'The Lover' and 'The Guardian' and the narrator is each of these people. 99% of the story is narrated in the 3rd person, but so weirdly very occasionally, in mid sentence or mid paragraph he suddenly talks about 'I' and then immediately goes back to 'he'. I can't think of a possible reason why he would want to do this, it doesn't make sense. Damon is a loner, a young man who really does not know what he wants in life or how to get there. I get the impression money is not a problem as he doesn't really seem to do anything except travel aimlessly. Lucky him. In the third story, he would appear to be quite a lot older, settled and I would say now a successful writer. But he is still essentially a loner, still looking for that essence of peace and belonging.

I think every now and again we need to read books like this, beautiful writing, very spare, very reflective. It makes us think about relationships we have with people and how deeply affected we can be by the things we may say or do to those people - the subtle nuances of our friendships and relationships.


Christine wakes every morning next to a man she doesn't recognise who tells who he is her husband. She goes into the bathroom and, to her dismay, she sees a woman some 20 years older than she remembers. Around the mirror are photos of her and her husband with labels to help her identify where and when and who. She remembers during the day everything she learns that day, but next morning wakes up and has to start all over again.

Christine suffers from a rare amnesia disorder which manifests itself in not being able to remember anything from the past or form new memories, which means when she sleeps at the end of each day, her memory is completely wiped. But how or why did this happen, as it would appear from the photos in the bathroom and the fact she has a husband, she knows that she once had a life.

The other two characters in the story are her husband Ben, and a psychologist, Dr Nash. For reasons I could not figure out, Ben does not know Christine meets with Dr Nash, and of course every time she meets Dr Nash she is meeting him for the first time! Confused? It does feel a bit like that at times. Dr Nash tells Christine to keep a journal in which she is to write everything that happens during the day before she goes to sleep. He rings her each morning after Ben goes to work to tell her where the journal is so she can read what has happened in the previous days. Gradually she builds up a picture of herself, keeping it secret from Ben, because for some reason that she does not know, the journal says in big hand written letters 'Don't Trust Ben'. What's more the daily reading of her life and the time Dr Nash spends with her gradually begins to unlock some of her memories. What she learns does not equate with the reality of what Ben tells her about her past life and how she came to be an amnesiac.

Slowly the tension builds. The reader really does not know where the story is going so of course we keep reading! Very clever. The web is very intricate, especially as the daily journal gets bigger and Christine takes longer to read it and to write it as her brain begins to remember her past life. Who does she trust? Her husband? Her doctor? Her own confusing memories?

A thriller with a difference, really making you think about the power of memory, and how much trust we can place in our own memories. Read it and be afraid. Then go to sleep...