The Butterfly Summer – Harriet Evans + Extract

Today, thanks to Headline, I have the pleasure of giving you a peek at the opening of Harriet Evans’ new novel, The Butterfly Summer, which is out today. First though, here’s what I thought of it…

Twenty five-year-old, Nina Parr is about to discover that her family have been keeping secrets from her. Some very big secrets indeed.

Buttefly Summer PB NEW.indd

The novel begins two years to the day since Nina’s divorce was finalised from Sebastian, with whom she’s now good friends. She’s spending her lunchtime, as she does every lunchtime, in the London Library. Her father, dead when Nina was six months old on an expedition to the Venezuelan rainforest searching for the Glasswinged Butterfly, bought her membership to the library and she makes the most of it. This particular day, she bumps into Sebastian at the library and their jokey conversation incurs the ire of an elderly woman at the next table. After Sebastian leaves, the woman approaches Nina.

‘You really are just like your father, you know, Nina.’

I felt my scalp tighten, my skin prickle again: half anger, half fear. I didn’t know how to respond.

‘Did you hear me? You are very like him.’

As a stray beam of sunshine caught her I looked down at her glinting brooch and saw it was in the shape of a butterfly. And I was scared then. Because butterflies are what killed him, and I sort of hate them.

‘Look, Miss – I don’t know your name. I’m sorry, but my father’s dead.’ Then, because she wasn’t saying anything, I added, ‘I don’t remember anything about him. He died when I was six months old. All right?’

She barely spoke above a whisper:

‘So that’s what they told you, is it? Of course they did.’

The woman, who calls herself ‘Travers’, asks about Keepsake and whether someone’s still there. When Nina gets home, she discovers that the woman’s slipped an envelope into her bag. There’s a photograph inside of a girl. Written on the back is ‘Teddy at Keepsake, 1936. You look just like her, You should know about KEEPSAKE by now.’ Nina’s mum and her partner, Malc, dismiss Miss Travers as a crazy old lady but it’s not long before Nina receives another photograph with a message on the back and she begins to piece some memories together.

The Butterfly Summer takes its name from the other story within the novel. An autobiographical piece written by Nina’s paternal grandmother, Theodora Parr. It begins with the tale of the Parr family, their link to Charles II and their unique matriarchal lineage. It goes on to detail Thea’s coming-of-age, moving in to the time when her son, George, was young. It’s an explanation to him and a significant other as to her behaviour.

What’s really special about The Butterfly Summer is that Evans pulls off a sleight of hand. It’s so well done and so very clever; its reveal spins the story’s perspective, leaving the reader questioning and giving the book an additional depth. It’s an impressive trick and I really loved the change it wrought.

However, there’s a twist towards the end of the book where I felt the writer’s hand was exposed. Some readers will love it, but it felt too much to me (Evans isn’t the first writer to use this twist; I’ve never been a fan it). I suspect that whether or not you enjoy the ending will be a matter of personal taste too: it all felt a little too wrapped up for me.

Having said that, I did really enjoy the majority of the book. It’s an exploration of families, particularly mother/daughter relationships, and there’s a beautiful love story at the centre of it which is wonderful and heart-breaking. If you enjoy a well-written, romantic novel, this is well worth your time.

Harriet Evans (c) Johnny Ring (1)

Photograph by Johnny Ring

Meet Nina…

London, 2011

The kind of books I like usually begin by telling you about the family you’re going to meet. ‘The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road.’ ‘They were not railway children to begin with.’ They have each other, that’s what the author wants you to know.

I like stories about families. They’re like fairy tales to me: I never knew my father and Mum is . . . not really like mothers in books. The people who really looked after me, who did the boring things necessary to sustain a child (teeth, zebra crossings, shoes that fit), are Malc, my stepfather, and Mrs Poll, the old lady upstairs – and I was wrong about them. Oh, I was wrong about all of it! And it’s still such a muddle, the story of what happened, that summer everything changed. It jumps in and out of years and months like Max in Where the Wild Things Are: we never really escape our childhoods, do we?

But if you want a beginning, I suppose that day in April is where it began to unravel, and it was a tiny thing which started it all off: the zip on a new pair of boots.

Malc, my stepfather, says there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason. I would always have met her, he says; I went to the library most lunchtimes. But I still believe something else was at work that day. Some kind of old magic, the sort that’s still at work when you need it, lurking just out of sight, hidden along dark corridors, up tall towers, and in long-forgotten corners of dusty old houses.

Thanks to Headline for the extract and the review copy. You can discover more about The Butterfly Summer on the blogs listed below:

butterfly Summer blog tour poster

 

 

 

In the Media: 11th January 2015

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

K Barbican PK

(Photograph by Pedro Koechlin)

As it’s the first In the Media of the year, I’m going to begin by looking back at 2014 for a moment with pieces that appeared between Christmas and New Year. Katherine Angel’s brilliant piece, ‘Gender, blah, blah, blah‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Jessie Burton, ‘Eggshells, Luck, Hope and Thanks‘ on her blog reflects on what a year it’s been for The Miniaturist; Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa ‘A Year of Hidden Friendships‘ on Something Rhymed; Rebecca Solnit, ‘Listen up, women are telling their story now‘ in The Guardian; Jia Tolentino, ‘The Promise in Elena Ferrante‘ on Jezebel; Charles Finch, also on Elena Ferrante for ‘A Year in Reading‘ for The Millions;  Ali Colluccio covers ‘The Best of Women in Comics 2014‘ on Panels, and  Elena Adler on ‘Why #ReadWomen 2014 has changed things, and why #ReadWomen matters‘ on her blog.

Looking forwards, there’s been a spotlight on diversity again this week with Celeste Ng writing about a male professor telling her there were few Asian-American women writers. There’s a fantastic list of writers at the bottom of the article. Nalo Hopkinson wrote ‘To anthology editors‘ on how to go about creating anthologies with a diversity of voices on her website; Alexis Teyie wrote this great piece, ‘Invoking the women in early African writing‘ on This Is Africa, while Lyn Gardner declared ‘Diversity is key to Creativity – and British Theatre’s Challenge for 2015‘ in The Guardian and Stella Duffy wrote, ‘Making Arts for All for ALL‘ on her blog.

While The White Review has kicked off the year with an all translation issue. You can read online pieces by Herta Müller (tr. Philip Boehm); poetry by Alejandra Pizarnik (tr. Yvette Seigert) and Angélica Freitas (tr. Hilary Kaplan); a short story by Tove Jansson (tr.  Thomas Teal); extracts from novels by Minae Mizumuru (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter) and Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith), and an interview with Magdalena Tulli (tr. Bill Johnston).

(Photograph by Kuba Kolinski)

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

If you want some fiction/poetry to read:

And the lists:

A Place for Us (Part Four)/Overview – Harriet Evans

Headline have serialised Harriet Evans’ latest novel in four parts. There will be no spoilers in this post and hopefully it will serve as an overview of the whole book and process, but if you don’t know anything about the novel, it might be worthwhile looking at my review for Part One first. (There are also reviews of parts two and three but they contain spoilers.)

In the final part of A Place for Us, Evans brings things for the Winter family to some conclusions. Florence’s trial takes places; Cat has to make a decision about whether to remain in France; Karen has to decide whether she’s happy with Joe and their living/childcare arrangements, and Martha has to work out how to bring her family back together. Safe to say Evans brings each storyline to a satisfying conclusion via more upset and some overt feminist commentary.

Reading about the Winter family in four parts over a spread of four months has been hugely enjoyable. The extracts were all approximately 100 pages in length, which is short enough to read in one sitting, and they were published four weeks apart, meaning you could still remember the content of the previous section and you were still keen to know what happened next.

A Place for Us is the first novel by Harriet Evans I’ve read. Previously I’ve been put off by the covers and titles of her books. I was wrong. This novel is populated with believable characters and interesting plot threads skilfully interwoven. It might have been my first Harriet Evans but it won’t be my last.

 

Thanks to Headline for the review copy. A Place for Us is available for ebook as four volumes now or in paperback and ebook as a single volume on January 15th 2015.

In the Media: 2nd November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The week kicked off (almost literally) with Julia Stephenson writing a piece in the Telegraph with the headline ‘Can a Woman Be Happy Without Having Kids?’ to which Bryony Gordon responded also in the Telegraph. They weren’t the only woman writing about children this week; The New Yorker ran an extract ‘No Babies, Please‘ from Megan Amran’s book; Kate Long wrote about ‘The Five Stages of Motherhood‘ for Mslexia, and Shappi Khorsandi wrote on ‘Raising Girls‘ on Huffington Post.

This was followed on Tuesday by Hollaback’s film of a woman being catcalled for ten hours in New York which raised issues about race as well as the way some men behave towards women in the street. Emily Gould wrote about it for Salon and Hanna Rosin for Slate.

On lighter issues, it seems I was pre-emptive putting Amy Poehler top of the list last week as this week she’s EVERYWHERE. (Which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.) If you don’t know who she is, I’ll direct you towards her 10 Funniest Clips on the Telegraph first, then you can feast on the rest: Amy Poehler reading from the Prologue of Yes, Please on Pan Macmillan’s Soundcloud; an extract on taping SNL while pregnant on Vulture; talking about writing being ‘hellish’ on Huffington Post; interviewing George R.R. Martin on Vulture; 11 Amy Poehler Stories You’ve Never Heard Before, But Will Totally Relate to Your Life in The Huffington Post; 30 Hilarious Truth Bombs Amy Poehler Dropped During Her Reddit AMA on Buzzfeed; doing #AskAmy at Twitter HQ;

The other high profile funny feminist woman who’s had plenty written about her this week is Lena Dunham, who was in the UK promoting her book. Alex Clark interviewed her in the Observer; Emma Gannon interviewed her for The Debrief and wrote about meeting Lena and her event at the Southbank Centre with Caitlin Moran on Friday night on her blog. She’s on video on The New Yorker talking about Girls and Sex at The New Yorker Festival and there are facts about her on Oprah. While Rebecca Carroll wrote about Lena Dunham’s Race Problem on Gawker and Sonia Saraiya responded in Salon.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

In translation:

If you’d like some fiction to read:

Photo by T. Kira Madden

And the lists:

A Place for Us (Part Three) – Harriet Evans

Headline have published Harriet Evans’ latest novel, A Place for Us, in four digital episodes. If you haven’t read parts one and two, this will contain MASSIVE SPOILERS. I will point you towards my review of part one instead.

Part Three is where many more secrets are revealed. To begin with, it takes us back to the past, to David creating the sketches of the east end of London which were finally about to be exhibited, and creating Wilbur from some of Daisy’s drawings when under pressure in a meeting.

Evans moves between David’s childhood – his abusive father, the story of his younger sister and finally, the origins of Florence – and Martha struggling to even acknowledge that David is dead, unable to reach out to her children.

Tears poured down Martha’s cheeks. She retched, her throat swelling up so much with the power of grief that she thought, then and there, she was losing consciousness. She leaned against the wall, panting, sobbing, gasping for breath. But there was no one to hear her in the empty house. No one.

We also find out what’s really happening between Karen and Joe and Cat and Lucy both pay a visit to Winterfold. Florence’s legal proceedings are well underway but between them and the secret she’s uncovered, the strain is beginning to show.

Part three of A Place for Us is an absorbing read; we know the characters well by this point and this allows Evans to delve deeper into their stories and allow us to understand their motivations. I’ve enjoyed reading the book in serialisation and part three has been my favourite so far.

 

Thanks to Headline for the review copy.

A Place for Us: Part Two, ‘The Party’ – Harriet Evans

Headline is publishing Harriet Evans’ latest novel in four parts. The first was published at the end of July and the second at the end of August. If you haven’t read part one, I would recommend you read my review of that first as unless you’ve read part one, this review will contain BIG SPOILERS.

Part one ended as we were made aware that the reason for Martha’s 80th birthday party was to tell the rest of the family that one of their number was dead. Part two begins with an extract from that character’s childhood diary and it’s clear they weren’t very pleasant:

Pa doesn’t love me. He loves Florence, sort of loves Bill, but mainly Florence, because she likes paintings and she’s a really vile little sneak, a swot, and the worst word I can think of and I’m not writing it down.

And Pa doesn’t like me because he thinks I make trouble. I DON’T. I gave him the idea for Wilbur and he just doesn’t care….

Florence, I am writing your name down on the list I am keeping. I wish you would die. If Wilbur’s dead you should definitely be dead too.

Florence doesn’t belong here. She’s not even one of us. Look at her. And look at me.

In the present that the book’s set in, Florence has decided to stand up for herself and has emailed Professor Lovell, the Courtauld Institute and Peter Connolly’s literary agent and publishers accusing him of plagerism.

But it’s Cat that’s the centre of the most dramatic developments; firstly when she arrives – son, Luke with her – and Joe Thorne reverses out of the drive at Winterfold and straight into Cat’s hire car:

A little boy stood in front of them, thumb in his wide-open mouth, face purple with yelling, and blood dripping from his forehead. He screamed, pulling at his black hair, smearing blood across his wet cheeks.

Behind him a woman came running towards him, her mouth also wide open, her eyes wide, white, wild. She caught him in her arms and he buckled to the ground, still wailing with pain.

And secondly, when she realises where Karen’s been going.

A Place for Us: Part Two is as gripping as part one. We delve further into the problems and complexities that are tearing this family apart and watch as they begin to unravel. Some strands move quicker than others – some threads begun in part one are barely touched upon in this section, but that’s only to be expected when a longer novel is serialised. Evans’ latest book is turning out to be an engrossing family saga. I can’t wait to read part three.

A Place for Us will be available to buy in ebook instalments on the following dates:

Part One – 31st July
Part Two – 27th August
Part Three – 24th September
Part
Four – 23rd October

The complete book will be available in paperback and ebook on the 15th January 2015.

 

Thanks to Headline for the review copy.

A Place for Us: Part One, ‘The Invitation’ – Harriet Evans

Tomorrow, Headline is publishing the first instalment of Harriet Evans’ new novel, A Place for Us. The 450-page book has been divided into four parts which will be available as ebooks at the end of July, August, September and October.

The day Martha Winter decided to tear her family apart began like any other day.

A Place for Us is the story of the Winter family. Martha, mother and grandmother, is about to turn 80 and she’s decided to have a party. On the Friday night, drinks and canapés will be served to friends and family; on Saturday, there will be a family-only lunch. The invitations are sent with the words, ‘There will be an important announcement. We ask that you please be there.’

Martha has spent her life looking after her family and her artist husband, David. David is the creator of a cartoon strip featuring ‘Wilbur the Dog and Daisy, the little girl who thought she understood him’. A gallery in London is planning an exhibition of pictures he drew during the war when he lived in the East End. Martha’s own career as an artist was abandoned when they bought Winterfold in Somerset:

At first Martha thought she’d never be able to take it on. It was a mess when they saw it; green paint covering the original Arts and Crafts wooden panelling, rotten floorboards, the garden one large compost heap of mouldy, brown mulch.

They moved there when there three children were young – Bill, Daisy and Florence.

Bill is now the village doctor. Married to his second wife, Karen, seventeen years his junior. Their marriage has become mostly silent, as David seems unwilling or perhaps unable to discuss the underlying issue. David’s daughter, Lucy, from his first marriage, works on the features desk at the Daily News although, after a year, her boss still hasn’t actually let her write a feature and it’s clear she doesn’t fit in with the polished high-fashion women she works with.

Daisy hasn’t been home since Bill and Karen’s wedding. Indeed, she rarely comes home at all. She works for a literacy and schools charity in Kerala, India, having left her daughter, Cat with Martha and David. Cat lives in Paris with the insufferable Madame Poulain and sells flowers at the market. Her life has fallen apart following an abusive relationship and now she’s keeping a huge secret from her family.

Florence lives in Florence (the city she was named after) and works as an academic in the field of art history:

…a professor employed at the British College of Art History in Florence, author of two books, contributor to several more, a visiting professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and an occasional voice on the radio…

She’s awkward in social situations, however, which leads to some excruciating scenes. She is also treated appallingly by some of her fellow academics which leaves her asking whether it’s time to return home.

The novel’s narration moves between the characters in a third person subjective voice. In part one, we are privy to Martha, David, Karen, Lucy, Daisy, Cat and Florence’s thoughts as well as an outsider, Joe Thorne. Newly moved to Somerset and working as the chef in the Oak Tree pub, Joe’s doing the catering for Martha’s party. He allows us an outsider’s perspective on events.

Part One of A Place for Us is an engaging read. I was fascinated by each character, their struggles and their secrets; Evans has set the family up perfectly for some explosive revelations when the party gets underway.

I’m pleased to see a publisher trying a different approach too. Serialisation isn’t new but, unlike some of the ideas brought back from the Victorian era over the past few years, this is one that just might work. Unsurprisingly, there’s a jaw-dropping revelation at the end of ‘The Invitation’ and now I’m desperate to read part two.

A Place for Us will be available to buy in ebook instalments on the following dates:

Part One – 31st July
Part Two – 27th August
Part Three – 24th September
Part Four – 23rd October

The complete book will be available in paperback and ebook on the 15th January 2015.

 

Thanks to Headline for the review copy.