Johannesburg is the second novel by Fiona Melrose. Although entirely different to her debut, Midwinter - which garnered critical acclaim, including being long-listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize For Fiction - Johannesburg is its equal. A remarkable achievement.

First of all, I must mention the bold and striking cover. It is designed by Neil Gower, who references the artist Vanessa Bell, who designed the covers for Virginia Woolf when published by the Hogarth Press. 

The echo of this distinctive style is not exclusive to the binding. Fiona Melrose also references the writing of Virginia Woolf, in particular Mrs Dalloway - a novel which takes apparently unrelated characters and events occurring in one single day, then weaves all them into a whole.

With the city of Johannesburg as a simmering tense backdrop, the characters that Melrose draws are all affected by the news of the death of Nelson Mandela; the political repercussions of that, along with the achievements and the battles fought during his life. 

It is the day when a homeless hunchback, known only as September, is tormented by his memories of a miner’s strike some years before, when he, and many other black South Africans endured appalling violence and inequality from their wealthier white employers. And yet, for all the ensuing years of poverty and suffering, September has remained a man who sees the beauty in the world. Who still loves every fellow man. Who still has hopes for justice.

The female artist, Gin, is the other main protagonist who is ‘home’ from her life in America to host a glamorous party for her mother’s eightieth birthday. Gin - all clean lines and perfection herself - is a woman who chooses flowers as if her life depends upon the grace and colours they create, who likes to feel her bones protruding through the sparseness of her flesh. In her work and in her body there must be no blurring of the lines, which is why it is significant that she never works in charcoal, a medium too imprecise. Another expression of her work is an installation using bones of the human body suspended randomly in air, which, when viewed from a certain standpoint will form a complete skeleton, whereas from other angles they are scattered, seeming disparate. 

What a perfect image this creates for the themes within Johannesburg - where separate lives and fates combine to form one moving and cohesive whole, as they strive to find internal peace, lost loves, or family members, or simply to renew the sense of being in the ‘here’ and ‘now’. This is a novel about unity, the significance of life and death. But most of all it is about the beauty found in 'coming home.' 


Here’s the thing, whenever I’m reading Jane Harris' work, it’s not that I don’t enjoy every single finely-crafted moment, but it’s only when the novels end that I tend to look back and find myself truly immersed in the stories’ themes, the settings, the plots, the characters. Moments come back to haunt me. Images flood into my mind. And, I think, what I’m trying to express, is that the work has a certain quality that is ‘classic’, lasting, and profound. 

Her latest novel, Sugar Money, is certainly no exception. 

Set in 1765, this is a story based on fact, following the adventures of two slaves, Emile and Lucien, the brothers who are sent away from their island home of Martinique to Grenada, with the secret task of smuggling 42 stolen slaves back to their original master; the Frenchman, Father Cleophas. 

The novel is vibrantly alive with a cast of engaging characters, but throughout it is narrated in the voice of the younger Lucien, whose bawdily unique language is as joyous as his spirit, albeit with a naivety that eventually will be addressed ~ because Jane Harris is not an author afraid of pulling punches. How could she be when the theme of this novel is slavery, theft, brutality? A scenario in which some dreadful horrors have to be endured. But what endures above all else is the humanity, the love and hope, the instinct for survival, for freedom, also dignity. 

That message is as important now as it was 200 years ago. Black Lives Matter. This book matters ~ as you will soon discover, when it’s published by Faber & Faber on October 5, 2017.

For more information on Jane Harris and her novels, please see her author website


In my novel, Elijah’s Mermaid, I describe a Victorian artist who is obsessed with painting his muse in the form of a beautiful mermaid. The Last Days of Leda Grey sees the mythical creature appear again, this time when an Edwardian actress plays such a part in an early silent film. 

A Mermaid, by Waterhouse

This is not a new preoccupation of mine. Just look at the sidebar of this blog! It began when I was five-years old, when one of the very first books I loaned from the local children’s library was Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid ~ a tragic, far darker story than the Disney version might imply.

But then mermaids are conundrums ~ these mythical sirens, half-women, half-fish at once being familiar, and also extremely exotic. From under the waves in which they swim surrounded by bones of long-drowned men these fantastical deceivers gaze back up through the mirror of the sea; although, should they be captured and removed from their natural environment they might become quite different: crippled, lonely creatures who must weep for the ‘other world’ they’ve lost ... unless, of course, they are the fakes displayed as curiosities in museums, or private collections.

I describe one such fraudulent creature, known as the Feejee Mermaid, a taxidermist’s masterpiece combining a monkey’s upper corpse joined onto the tail of a giant fish. And now, this monstrosity lives again through another historical novel that I simply couldn't wait to read even though it won't be published until January next year. 

How lucky I am to have received a proof of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, a gloriously entertaining Georgian romp by Imogen Hermes Gowar.

 Portrait of Mary Robinson by Hoppner ~ and perhaps a model for Angelica Neal

This delightful literary romance conjures so vividly to life the unlikely and charming friendship between our hero, Mr Hancock, a widowed, middle-aged ship owner who trades from his humble East End home, and the golden-haired, somewhat down-on-her-luck, London courtesan Angelica ~ officially known as Mrs Neal, and rather charmingly described as being "as cool and fragrant as rosewater custard."

The two of them are introduced when Mr Hancock ~ “a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverfish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips” ~ finds himself the unwitting owner of a hideous stuffed mermaid that Mrs Chappell ~ a brilliant caricature of the most decadent brothel ‘madam’ (just read and rejoice in the humour of her peeing in a pot in a carriage) is intrigued with the freakish mermaid and hires it to show in her ‘nunnery’, hoping the curiosity will draw a larger clientele.

Mr Hancock is also invited to enjoy the grand unveiling, but is then so shocked by what he sees performed by Mrs Chappell’s whores (all of which Hermes Gowar conjures with such salacious wit and colour) that he flees the brothel in disgust. However, he cannot forget the voluptuous charms of the lovely Angelica ... and so their relationship begins, though it's not at all the type to which Angelica is used.

As the novel progressed I found myself developing such affection for this oddly mismatched couple, both of whom are deeply troubled by events from inescapable pasts. Both are trapped in webs created from their self-delusion, also self-preservation, with Hancock often imagining the baby son who died at birth to be living, still part of his real world in scenes which are movingly disclosed. And then, when it comes to Angelica, so well-versed in the art of deceiving men, she also succeeds in deluding herself. Much like the fake stuffed mermaid, she may beguile her clientele, but for how long can she go on without losing her very own heart and soul?  

Such is the central theme of this novel where illusion and shameless trickery are linked to scandal and financial gain, where the glittering surface of beauty and wit conceal a darker underworld of sin, of neglect, of despair, and grief. Through such a mire the survivors try to swim ~ and sometimes sink below the surface too ~ which only makes us love them more. 

In this clattering Georgian London are extremes of wealth and poverty, with everyone striving to survive whether morally, or immorally. There may be gorgeous shell grottos and pretty girls in West End shops, but these scenes bear stark comparison to the animal activities going on at the hands of blood-stained butchers, or in the filth of night-time alleys in which women far less fortunate live out their doomed existences. As Angelica knows all too well, the future is precarious. “Simply go on as best you can ~ the wheel will turn. It always does.” 

But which way will the wheel turn for her?

As the story rolls ever onwards towards its final dramatic scenes, at times with shocking outcomes, the book almost transcends its bounds, becoming something more profound as it forces its protagonists ~ and also the reader observing them ~ to take a long hard look at their reflections in a mirror: to find the courage and the hope to face the truth of what they are.

As seductive as any siren's song, this remarkable, glittering Georgian tale has a heart of purest gold.

 Imogen Hermes Gowar ~ a wonderful new literary talent


Having recently come across old books once belonging to elderly family members, I was moved to find this book  of Prayers, Written at Vailima by Robert Louis Stevenson, with an introduction by Mrs Stevenson.

It was given to Great Aunt Toby - as the family members nick-named Miss Rachel Dorothea Fox -who trained as a family doctor but who never went on to marry. 

Toby was a lesbian who received this book as a gift for the Christmas of 1916. It was from her brother, Francis. The two of them were very close.

I was lucky enough to meet Toby somewhat later in her life, when she lived with her companion, Gwen. They remained together for many years, only parted in the end by death. Before that, we went to visit them and my daughter, Letty, very young at the time, managed to break a precious fossil from a collection that they had in two. They were very understanding!

Below are some images from that book, and then the full poem from which Francis took his dedication ...

OLD SONG ~ Edward Fitzgerald

TIS a dull sight
To see the year dying,
When winter winds
Set the yellow wood sighing:
Sighing, O sighing!

When such a time cometh 
I do retire
Into an old room 
Beside a bright fire:
O, pile a bright fire!

And there I sit 
Reading old things,
Of knights and lorn damsels, 
While the wind sings—
O, drearily sings!

I never look out
Nor attend to the blast;
For all to be seen
Is the leaves falling fast:
Falling, falling!

But close at the hearth, 
Like a cricket, sit I,
Reading of summer 
And chivalry—
Gallant chivalry!

Then with an old friend 
I talk of our youth—
How 'twas gladsome, 
but often Foolish, forsooth:
But gladsome, gladsome!

Or, to get merry,
We sing some old rhyme
That made the wood ring again 
In summer time—
Sweet summer time!

Then go we smoking, 
Silent and snug:
Naught passes between us, 
Save a brown jug—

And sometimes a tear 
Will rise in each eye,
Seeing the two old friends 
So merrily—
So merrily!

And ere to bed 
Go we, go we,
Down on the ashes
We kneel on the knee,
Praying together!

Thus, then, live I
Till, 'mid all the gloom,
By Heaven! the bold sun 
Is with me in the room
Shining, shining!

Then the clouds part, 
Swallows soaring between;
The spring is alive,
And the meadows are green!

I jump up like mad,
Break the old pipe in twain,
And away to the meadows, 
The meadows again!


I love the short stories of George Saunders, and can hardly wait for his novel ~ Lincoln in the Bardo ~ coming out in the UK next week. While waiting, I'm watching this short film. Around seven minutes of  George Saunders giving invaluable insights on writing ...


On a recent visit to Amsterdam I caught up with some artist friends and was taken along to the FOAM gallery to see the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto (born in Tokyo 1948).

This exhibition ~ curated by Philip Larratt-Smith ~ is a survey of the last forty years of Sugimoto's finest work, since he left Japan in 1970 and travelled to New York, where he studied the art of photography.

Having rejected digital technology Sugimoto works with traditional methods. However, by thinking outside the box he has created some astonishing art. His large format images investigate the natural world, but also perceptions of history, or the complex microscopic views of electrical impulses when they're charged against blank photographic plates. 

This exhibition ends on March 8 2017. It you are in Amsterdam it is well worth a visit.

Hyena-Jackal-Vulture. 1976. Gelatin silver print.

This, and other diaramas, are photographs of stuffed animals displayed in museums. The transition from reality to an image on a photograph seems to create some alchemy, as if bringing the creatures to life again. These photographs were oddly disturbing to me.

Lightning Fields

These iconic images of electricity charged against blank negative plates are simply astonishing. They seem to contain the essence of life, and could be representative of the root structures set down by plant, or the nervous systems beneath our flesh.

When Sugimoto made these images he was paying tribute to photographic pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot.

Photographs of wax models of Henry VIII and some of his wives. Again there is the alchemy of a waxwork becoming surreally  alive when viewed through the lens of these photographs. 

If only those faces could look back out and speak to us about their lives. 


Not so very long ago I saw Louisa Treger speaking about H G Wells on a programme screened by the BBC. Future Tense: The Story of H G Wells can be seen here on Youtube, and is highly recommended. But I also very much enjoyed  Louisa Treger's novel based on her research about the man. 

The Lodger includes a great deal about the personal life of H G Wells. However, the focus of the book is on one of the women in his life - specifically Dorothy Richardson, the lover who became a writer, at one time as well-respected as her contemporary, Virginia Woolf.

The Lodger paints the picture of the life of a single working woman who resides in a London boarding house. This is no romanticised Downton Abbey but an honest and gripping depiction of the harsher realities of the time; including the vicious treatment often handed out to suffragettes who were arrested and then imprisoned. However, this is not to say that the novel lacks elements of romance. After all, the central theme of the book is the dramatisation of the affair between Dorothy and H G Wells. 

When writing about what had to be an essentially covert relationship, Treger shows great skill in depicting the excitement and sensuality of its early days -

They would take long walks though London and have dinner afterward at a restaurant. Or Dorothy might buy cold meat and salad and they'd picnic in their room; alone in infinite time, full of a sense of their liberating difference in relation to a convention-bound world. She experienced a keen pure happiness that was surely absolution? They talked about everything and nothing, their conversation made luminous by a bottle of wine. Bertie said his imagination was in a fertile state, and new ideas were blooming in his mind. He felt he was developing a new creative life.

Dorothy wants absolution because she knows this infidelity is cruel and unfair to Bertie's wife. And yet she is utterly charmed by the man; until later in the novel when his attitudes to certain events force her to stand back and take stock of her life. 

Again, this is where Treger excels in exploring the sexual honesty and growing independence of so many women at this time. In fact, I wanted to shout 'hurray!' when Dorothy finally decides she will no longer live in the shadows as the secret subservient lover, only there to stroke the ego or fulfil the sexual needs of a man. No, she will be true to her nature. She will also become a writer  - but a different kind of writer who embraces the modern changing world -

She would have to smash the old way of writing and make something entirely new. The part of her nature that flailed out and destroyed things would have no problem smashing the novel. But could she successfully remake it? Did she have the courage and the talent? She hadn't told Bertie about her writing. He would want to see it, or at the very least have it described to him, and she was afraid taht his forceful reaction would destroy it. Her work was like a frail young seed germinating deep within the earth; it would disintegrate if it was exposed to daylight too early. She was struck by the contrast between her writing, snatched in nooks and gaps of the day, and Bertie's. He had a whole household attending to his comfort and well-being; everything in it geared toward catering to his needs and nurturing his talent. Dorothy envied and half-resented the single-minded concentration this allowed him.

Much in the mood of a character who broke through the restrictions of her times, whether social, financial, or sexual, this is a novel that offers the reader a great deal of truth and integrity. 

If you also read The Lodger, I wonder if - like me - you will come to the end and find yourself yearning to know what the future might have held in store for Dorothy. I'm glad to say it worked out well. But that is a tale for another day...

Thank you, Louisa Treger, for introducing Dorothy to me, and for telling her story so vividly. 

Louisa Treger

If I have one complaint about this book it has nothing to do with the writing. It is simply the fact that the cover doesn't seem quite right for the period. I prefer this version, which seems more appropriate to the time and the essence of the story told.