A steady influx of lovely books arriving here as usual and I'm working a new system which is what I do every so often when I get fed up with an old one.
When I was a real Health Visitor with a General Practice caseload, as opposed to the virtual one I am now with a very different online remit, I used to get booking forms from the midwives telling me that a baby was due to be born and when. For thirty years I actually used the same system wherever I worked because I never got fed up with it and never thought of a better one even though a computer arrived on my desk in the meantime. I had a simple A4 folder, divided into months of the year and the booking form went in under the due month and hey presto that was me organised. The file would come out when the midwives walked in and we'd go through it every so often just to keep me in the loop, I'd check ahead on who needed a home visit before the baby was born, brilliant, foolproof, worked.
Well it occurred to me with the constant flow of books most with press releases and publication dates several months hence that I could apply the same system because they are almost like pre-book-birth announcements.
Shelve the babies books under due date and let them reach full gestation, file the booking forms press releases in an A4 folder divided into months and bingo, because books probably do feel like babies to their authors. I'd also be slightly more organised in my mood-driven slightly haphazard reading life and could if I felt so inclined read a book nearer to publication date rather than thinking I wanted and had to read everything that arrived on the day it arrived.
Well it's working like a dream but none of that was relevant to the arrival of Sweets From Morocco by Jo Verity and published by Honno Press because this book was already birthed and out there fending for itself.
I balked briefly at the nigh-on 500 pages because that's a good two weeks plus reading and, though I compartmentalise each book because I weave in about six at once, long books still need to be good to draw me back and hold my interest.
Well no word of a lie, hand on heart my soul gave a little leap when Sweets of Morocco's turn came around because I loved picking it up every single time.
It's 1954 and children Tessa and Lewis Swinburne are most unimpressed by the arrival of baby brother Gordon. So much so that Tessa hatches a magic voodoo plot to make him disappear which involves gathering together some Gordon-related items and leaving them with a plasticine replica baby in a distant telephone box (bet they pressed button B while they were in there). To their utter horror some weeks later Gordon disappears from his pram left outside the paper shop by Mr Swinburne and the family's troubles begin in earnest.
As a brief interlude and lest there be any doubt what 1950's English babies looked like in prams, here's baby dovegreyreader in hers and thankfully, to my knowledge, I wasn't snatched from it.
Understandably father Dick and mother Peggy are utterly devastated, Tessa and Lewis are wildly confused and frightened and at this point it becomes clear that life may never be the same for the Swinburnes ever again.
What follows is an exceptionally well-written book, structured around sections, thus moving from events in 1954 and catching up with the family in 1962 in Book II, 1968 in Book III, 1976 in Book IV and so on right up to 2005 in Book VII. This is a format that I find makes for hugely satisfying reading with the slow revelation and the subsequent discovery of what may have happened in the intervening years and Jo Verity handles it all with absolute precision.
The tendrils of the tragedy insinuate themselves into the lives of each member of the family as Gordon casts his lengthening shadow of absence and blights the future. Each reacts differently to this 1950s tragedy and it is the historical placement that resonates here. This was the era of post-war stoicism, no place for self-pity no matter what the circumstances, just pick yourself up, dust off, brush it under the carpet and get on with it. The days when lies, secrets and silence could pervade, because to share and acknowledge the grief would be to admit defeat, hadn't we just won a war with an armoury of stiff upper lips, defeat of any description wasn't in the 1950's psyche.
Compare to now with the plethora of counselling and revelation, our knowledge of the effects of grief and loss, the impact on children, all the sharing and talking therapies, coping strategies, resolution and closure all denied the poor Swinburnes and the desolation becomes inevitable. It is the children who are the prime focus and this works well, whilst never minimising the impact of the pain on Dick and Peggy, to have focused on it excessively would have meant 1000 pages. Jo Verity has resisted that temptation offering sufficient blue touch paper for this reader to ignite and retire to ponder from a safe distance.
I think comparisons to other books could be unhelpful because I'm mindful that as many readers here disliked Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency as much as I lauded it, but if you did enjoy that for the portrayal and progression of ordinary lives over a period of time then I think you will love Sweets From Morocco.
As Jo Verity herself describes it,
'It's my job to help the reader appreciate how extraordinary 'ordinary' people can be; how well or badly or crazily they behave when a spanner is cast in the works.'
I'm also interested in this my first read from Honno Welsh Women's Press which I discover was established in 1986 as a community co-operative with a remit 'to develop the writing talents of women from Wales, giving them new and exciting opportunities to see their work published and often to give them their first break as a writer.'
Jo Verity already has the Richard & Judy Short Story Award on her mantlepiece and if she is writing novels like this perhaps she should keep some more mantlepiece space free, my thanks to Jo, Sweets From Morocco has been a cracking good read.