Archive for June, 2021

The Passenger

June 28, 2021

There is nothing that sets a bibliophile’s pulse racing like a rediscovered, or discovered, novel. Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger is a little of both. Written in England in 1939 in the space of four weeks, it was granted an initial publication though, as Andre Aciman points out in his introduction, “barely noticed.” Boschwitz, interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the outbreak of war, was later deported to Australia where he began the process of rewriting the novel, sending the first part back to his mother in England with a fellow prisoner. She never received this, and Boschwitz’s own return to England was ended by German torpedoes in 1942. He had, however, outlined his intentions for the novel in a letter, and this informed the editing of his original manuscript when it was discovered in an archive in Frankfurt, the result of which was finally published in Germany in 2018, and now arrives in English translated by Philip Boehm.

The Passenger gives us a contemporaneous account of the treatment of Jews in Germany in the aftermath of Kristallnacht in November 1938 when the repression Jews had suffered since 1933 became overtly violent: nearly 100 Jews were killed, and 30,000 Jewish men were arrested. The passenger of the title, Otto Silbermann, has so far remained largely unaffected by Nazi oppression, due partly to his wealth, and partly to his non-Jewish appearance:

“I’m living as though I weren’t a Jew, he thought, somewhat incredulously, For the time being, I’m simply a well-to-do citizen – under threat, it’s true, but as of yet unscathed.”

Silbermann, however, is aware of the threat. He has made the general manager of his business, Becker – an old comrade from the First World War – a partner in an attempt to protect his assets, and sent him to Hamburg to raise money. Becker declares himself a National Socialist, putting his long-standing friendship with Silbermann down to the fact that “for me you are a man – a German man, not a Jew.” This supposed declaration of ‘solidarity’, however, implies that a Jew is neither German, nor a man. Silbermann is also selling his house for much less than it is worth in order to realise the cash he might need to escape, but as the potential buyer, Findler, tells him:

“I’m taking the shack of your hands, and if I don’t then the state will. And they won’t give you a lousy pfennig.”

It is while negotiations for the house sale are ongoing that his sister phones to tell Silbermann that his brother-in-law has been arrested. Even at this point, his reaction is disbelief:

“But it can’t be! People don’t just go hauling off respectable citizens from their homes! They can’t do that!”

The fact that Silbermann is such an unlikely outlaw creates a blackly comic drama at the centre of the novel. Even as the police are at the door, he is reluctant to escape. Findler attempts to stall them, but such is their instinct for violence he is immediately assaulted even as he reaches for his party badge.

Silbermann escapes into a changed world. His lawyer as well as his brother-in-law have been arrested. He enters a hotel and the manager refuse to shake his hand and indicates he is no longer welcome:

“You are an old and dear guest of the hotel. But… you understand? It isn’t my fault, and things surely won’t stay this way, but…”

And so begins Silbermann’s time as a passenger, in constant motion around Germany but unable to escape. He follows Becker to Hamburg to ensure his money is safe, but Becker, like Findler before him, seizes his chance to cheat Silbermann, claiming half the amount. Silbermann is no longer a friend and comrade but “a nervous little Jew quivering over his money.” Despite this, Silbermann now has forty thousand marks, but even his wealth is of little use to him:

“To make it out of here you have to leave your money behind, and to be let in elsewhere you have to show you still have it.”

Silbermann is on the run, but he does not know where to run to. He criss-crosses the country in trains in a perpetual motion in an attempt to delay his inevitable capture. The life of a fugitive is completely alien to him:

“…now I have to head to the border… I’ve never been capable of that sort of thing, I simply don’t know how. Secretly slipping past the guards… All I want is to live in peace and earn my bread…. The border! Me, sneaking over the border – my God!”

Boschwitz sustains the tension throughout, using the train, with its combination of movement and captivity, to capitalise on Silbermann’s increasing anxiety. Every carriage he enters, every stranger he meets is a potential danger. Journeys which begin purposefully, become an end in themselves. Though the novel is written in the third person, it frequently transitions into first person as we share Silbermann’s racing thoughts. This makes The Passenger as gripping as any thriller, but its everyman protagonist is not the exception, but the reality for thousands of Jews around the country. The novel relays that experience as vividly and urgently as it must have felt at the time it was written, and we can be thankful that it has finally found itself in the hands of the readers it deserves.


June 23, 2021

There is something gentle about Ronan Hession’s fiction, but that it is not to say that it is comfortable or safe. His characters’ lives are not without difficulties, but these are faced quietly and without fuss, the way most people do, without the adolescent hysteria that is the hallmark of so many other novels. You might even say his novels are ’grown up’, and it no surprise therefore that this is also what they are about. In his second novel, Panenka, the characters, no matter their age, are still ‘growing up’, that is moving away from the past and attempting to forge a future.

The title character, Joseph (known widely as ‘Panenka’ thanks to a footballing career which was curtailed by an such a penalty kick) lives with his daughter, Marie-Therese, and his grandson, Arthur. The novel opens with Joseph suffering from a severe headache of a type he is growing accustomed to:

“These past months, the pressure pain in his head has been coming almost every night, building like an Atlantic wave that roiled within his dreams until it broke and crashed through his sleep, shocking him awake. It manifested as a clamp on his face.”

He calls it his ‘Iron Mask’, a reference as much to the Billy Bragg song as the Dumas novel, as he attempts to ignore the outside world as much as prevent it from seeing him. It’s one of a number of sly allusions, as, for example the Doctor Wolf who diagnoses the inoperable tumour causing the headaches (‘What’s the time, Doctor Wolf?’). (In fact, Joseph’s back story plays out as a mirror image of Handke’s The Goalkeeper’s Anxiety of the Penalty Kick). Joseph, typically, keeps the news to himself; only in a barbershop – newly opened by a woman called Esther as his usual barber is unavailable –   does he momentarily let his emotions show forcing him to abandon his haircut. But just as quickly:

“He had returned to himself.

“He has already closed.”

Joseph returns to the barbers, however, (“I don’t usually do haircuts in instalments,” she tells him) and a friendship with Esther, begins. Joseph finds himself caught between pursuing the relationship and the awareness that there is no long-term future in it; more generally, he must decide whether to open up to the world.

As this story unfolds, Hession also reveals the origins of Joseph’s nickname and his career as a footballer with local team Seneca – brought into focus as, in their current season, Seneca have a chance to return to the top league for the first time since Joseph stopped playing. Football is strangely neglected in literature given its cultural importance and, as with all the best sports writing, the focus here is on the psychology of the game, as we can see in this description of Seneca’s manager:

“Panenka would come to know Cesar Fontaine’s manners as an intrinsic part of his philosophy, which was based on sincerity and consideration as the foundation of all human relationships. He made other people feel interesting. It was charisma.”

Joseph finds himself coming to terms with both his past and his future, but he is not alone in this. His daughter, Marie-Therese, has recently been promoted to a managerial role at work, a role she is not yet comfortable with, managing those she once worked alongside:

“It felt unnatural to her to have to redefine those relationships, outgrow them shed them. It didn’t seem like something a nice person would do.”

Now she must decide whether it would be better for her to move to another store in a different area leaving her father behind. Moving in with him had been her first ‘grown up’ decision:

“…the first big decision she had taken without the support of her mother, which meant that if it broke she would have to fix it alone.”

In contrast, her husband, Vincent’s, pub (whose “previous owner had managed it according to strict standards of parsimony, making a virtue of inertia”) remains a retreat from personal growth. Initially Vincent, like the pub, remains frozen in his own past, believing that Marie-Therese will return to him. Discussions with the regulars about whether to install a television seem part of a wider wariness of any change. It is left to Marie-Therese to suggest that perhaps he, too, needs to face the future in a more grown-up manner:

“Even though you’re a grown man you like to think life is about someone turning around and telling you that you’ve done the right thing, and if somebody tells you that, if I tell you that, well then, under the rules, bad things can’t happen.”

The characters in Panenka are ordinary people with ordinary problems; Hession demonstrates that, if not overcome them, they can at least face them. It is this that makes the novel feel optimistic and, more importantly, true.


June 20, 2021

It is hard to believe that Emmanuel Bove’s debut novel, My Friends, was a major success, praised by such writers as Colette, Andre Gide and Rainer Maria Rilke, such is the obscurity into which his work later fell even in France. Armand was Bove’s second novel and, like his first, it focuses on life in the margins, ‘focus’ being a particularly apt description of Bove’s style given Samuel Beckett’s comment that he “has an instinct for the essential detail” (or “has the feeling for the touching detail” – as the comment was made in French, different English versions are available).

In Armand, originally published in 1927 and translated by Janet Louth fifty years later, Bove contrasts the title character’s comfortable existence with the poverty of an old friend, Lucien, whom he meets one day in the street. The meeting is uncomfortable for both of them:

“We were embarrassed, Lucien for having greeted me so familiarly and I for appearing annoyed by it. We remained motionless. I waited for him to speak. Seeing him so poorly clad, the years of misery I had experienced passed before my eyes again. I had gradually forgotten them. Now they were as clear as if no interval separated me from them.”

Bove’s sense of detail extends not only to Armand’s appraisal of his friend’s altered appearance but such signifiers of their separation as: “Our breath was exhaled in the cold air but not in unison.” Armand is embarrassed by his now comfortable existence (“I was ashamed of my warm overcoat and especially of my silk tie”) and Bove typically illustrates this in his actions as well as his thoughts:

“I pretended that I took no care of my clothes and when a drip fell on my coat I let it make a stain.”

Bove’s ability to enact the emotions of his characters is perhaps why his novels feel intensely ‘lived in’ – the internal lives of his narrators never feel abstract as he captures the tell-tale tics and gestures which reveal them to the outside world.

Armand invites Lucien to lunch the next day, an equally awkward encounter. Armand is torn between his sympathy of his friend and his reluctance to be reminded of his past life:

“His bashfulness and over-familiarity would keep on reminding me of the man I had once been.”

Lucien hardly speaks and, when he does, he offends Jeanne, the woman who has made Armand’s comfortable life possible, pointing out a table is not particularly tall. Simple actions like taking a cup of coffee from his host are difficult for him, but, when lunch is over, Armand finds he cannot get him to leave:

“Suddenly, before I had time to stop him, he went back into the drawing-room.”

Though the manners of the time may be different, Bove perfectly captures the difficulties of renewing a friendship from such unequal positions and the mixed feelings it creates in both characters. Armand’s refusal to give up, visiting Lucien at his room the next day, is partly a desire to do the right thing, but also an inability to entirely let his previous life go. Bove’s own life was one with moments of wealth and others of poverty, and Armand is not so much drawn to poverty as fatalistically assuming he will one day return to that state.

This, we can assume, plays some part in his pursuit of Marguerite, Lucien’s sister, who appears when he is visiting his old friend. He feels pity for her, but there is also an essential loneliness in Armand that is evident in his repeated contacts with Lucien. He walks Marguerite home and the scene where they part echoes that of Armand and Lucien’s first parting but with Armand the one reluctant to let go:

“She drew back with her arm stretched out so that I still had her hand. I squeezed it, making an effort to hold it like that, as in a game.”

Yet there is nothing in Armand’s relationship with Jeanne to suggest he is unhappy. Bove describes a number of tender moments between them. Armand is also appreciative of his lifestyle with Jeanne:

“I had lived in one room so long it gave me great pleasure to walk from one room to another.”

That he should risk this for a young girl he has just met seem self-destructive, perhaps partly arising from a belief that his luck is bound to change at some point anyway, a belief Bove builds into the narrative from the opening pages:

“On the horizon yesterday’s clouds were crowded together as if, under other skies, other clouds were preventing them from passing.”

The past is ever-present for Armand even as he believes he has forgotten it.

Armand is simply constructed around a few encounters between the title character and a handful of others: Lucien, Jeanne, Marguerite. Only occasionally are three characters together. These conversations (and silences) described in pain-staking detail and nuance are where Bove’s genius lies. Out of these small moments his characters’ lives change.

Tomorrow, They Won’t Dare to Murder Us

June 15, 2021

Joseph Andras’ debut novel, Tomorrow, They Won’t Dare to Murder Us (translated by Simon Leser) begins urgently in the present tense:

“Fernand waits two or three meters from the paved road, under the shelter of a cedar tree.”

The novel tells the true story of Fernand Iveton, the only Algerian-born Frenchman to be executed during the conflict between those who campaigned, at times violently, for Algerian independence and the French state, which could be equally violent in its response. Within two pages we are aware that Fernand’s mission is to plant a bomb at the factory where he works:

“No deaths, that was the main thing, no deaths. Better that little storeroom where nobody ever goes.”

That Fernand was clear in his intention that the bomb should not kill anyone, and that it did not, in fact, explode, made his sentence, and the refusal of then minister of justice Francois Mitterand to commute it, even more inexplicable, and inexcusable. By beginning the novel at the point when the bomb is planted, quickly followed by Fernand’s arrest, Andras involves the reader in the suddenness with which Fernand finds himself in captivity and subjected to torture.

However, although the novel tells Fernand’s story from the moment of his arrest to his death, at the same time it reveals something of his life before, and, in particular, his relationship with his wife, Helene. This juxtaposition of the violence of prison with the growth of their love for each other is not only effective in emphasising the horrific nature of his experiences but also in explaining how he is able to bear them. In this way, Andras makes the novel more bearable for the reader but simultaneously sadder, as we glimpse the life which will be ended in execution.

Even as Fernand is arrested and tortured, we see the same hours unfold for Helene as the police arrive at her door, as if to emphasise how connected the couple remain. Soon she, too, finds herself imprisoned:

“Helene is taken to a cell. Rounded-up prostitutes a few meters away. The water has been cut off.”

Yet this is immediately contrasted by Fernand’s first sight of her at the family pension where he is staying while he is in France receiving treatment for tuberculosis:

“Her eyes are little frosted pearls, she smiles and goes off with his order, explicit creases at the back of her skirt, ankles as slender as her wrists…”

In these flashbacks Andras creates a bucolic atmosphere with descriptions of nature: “The River Marne,” he tells us (for example), “sticks out a green tongue to the sky’s peaceful blue.” These provide a further contrast to the concrete of the prison, and to the pain Fernand is suffering. The torture he receives is the first sign that we should not expect the legal process to proceed in a civilised way. He is beaten and electrocuted, desperately trying to give nothing away until his comrades hear of his arrest and can go into hiding:

“An unrelenting throbbing inside. Organs like so many wounds. He begs for water and the blows to stop.”

Andras is unrelenting in his description of the pain Fernand suffers; there’s little attempt to humanise those inflicting it. Though the novel largely avoids detailed political arguments or historical background, the narrative directs it anger towards the same source as Fernand:

“Today thirty or so rebels were killed by gunfire or bombs in the backcountry.

“But still no war, no, not that. Power minds its language – its fatigues tailored from satin, its butchery smothered by propriety.”

Until the end, Fernand believes he will be shown mercy, as he tells his lawyer:

“Don’t worry, Joe, everything’s going to turn out well, Coty will pardon me, I’m sure. I didn’t loosen a single screw, didn’t knock a single tile down: how could they cut my head off for that?”

Unfortunately, although his death may not be just, it is politically expedient, and the novel not only demonstrates the French barbaric methods used in suppressing Algerian independence, but more generally the danger of allowing the law to be trumped by political and media demands. The novel makes this point with brutality at times, but also with love, allowing the humanity of the characters to shine through and suggest hope to the reader even as there is none for Fernand.

Havana Year Zero

June 10, 2021

At one point the narrator of Karla Suaerz’s Havana Year Zero (translated by Christina MacSweeney) says she feels “pretty confused… back in black and white, back in a movie with the plot changing before my eyes,” and, at times, the novel feels like an old-fashioned screwball comedy as the complexity of its relationships and misunderstandings unravels. Indeed, it begins with a McGuffin, a document which supposedly proves that an Italian, Antonio Meucci, invented the telephone in Cuba years before Alexander Graham Bell:

“The telephone, invented in this city where telephones hardly ever work.”

The narrator, a mathematician – who gives her name as Julia after the French mathematician Gaston Julia – first hears of Meucci from her ex-lecturer (and ex-lover) Euclid (also not his real name – the decision to ‘cover-up’ the characters’ identities a clever ploy to make them feel more ‘real’). Euclid claims he wants to find the document as a matter of national pride, at a time when Cuba is suffering after the fall of the Berlin wall:

“Well, it wasn’t the only thing to collapse that year; we were buried in the rubble. Cuba was dependent on aid from the Soviet Bloc, so the economy did a nosedive, taking everything down with it.”

Julia quickly becomes wrapped up in his plans: unhappy in her job and with little else in her life, the search gives her a much-needed purpose:

“An original scientific document. That was certainly something to hang onto, the lever capable of moving our small world, as Archimedes would put it.”

From then on, each character Julia meets reveals a connection to the document: Angel, who becomes her lover, is attempting to recover it for his ex-wife, who claims it is a lost family heirloom; Leonardo, who is writing a novel about Meucci, would benefit from possessing documentary proof of his subject’s achievement; and Barbara, an Italian tourist, who seems eager to buy it. “It’s like one led me to the next, isn’t it?” Julia thinks innocently but, of course, all is not what as it appears. Euclid warns her about Leonardo:

“We had to be very cautious and shouldn’t take everything Leonardo said at face value.”

His warning, however, applies equally to everyone, including himself. Julia, though, is caught up in the hunt, seeing it through the lens of spy fiction:

“…suddenly I felt like a secret agent, a 007 of science.”

Julia’s endearing naivety, which survives a number of shocks, is what makes the novel both enthralling and entertaining. “I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts,” she says when she finds out Euclid knows Angel’s ex-wife; “Fortunately I had nothing in my mouth or I would have choked,” she tells us when she discovers the nature of their relationship. My particular favourite is when she finds out the truth about Barbara:

“I guess I must have looked like someone in a cinema watching a film, when suddenly the projectionist loads the wrong reel and, instead of continuing with the same plot, a scene from another movie appears, one you know nothing about.”

Like a true mathematician, Julia updates her hypotheses according to any new information, while at the same time always seeming to assume that the latest update is the last (at least as she tells it – her conversational style is revealed at the end to be a conversation). Her loyalties also change: one moment she is searching Angel’s room, the next Euclid’s apartment – everyone who wants the document is suspected by someone else of having it. Julia herself is less and less sure why she is even looking in the first place:

“The truth is that my motives weren’t particularly clear.”

As well as searching for the document, Julia also seems to be searching for order, perhaps understandable given the problems Cuba was facing at the time and her mathematical mind. “Why can’t love be more rational?” she asks. We also take a detour into chaos theory, though describing the butterfly effect as though the reader is unlikely to have heard of it seems a misstep (as does a rather superficial comparison of mathematicians to novelists, “two sides of the same coin.”) These philosophical departures feel out of place because the novel is, at heart, escapist – for its characters as much as its readers. The search for proof is a distraction from both personal and national troubles for Julia, and, one suspects, the other characters as well. The novel itself is a delightful balance of order and chaos, as Suarez maintains a tight grip on the plot while at the same time making the reader feel like anything could happen.

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart

June 6, 2021

In a trio of novels – Gilgi, One of Us; The Artificial Silk Girl; and After Midnight – Irmgard Keun gives us the inside story of 1930s Germany from the point of view of young women determined to make a life for themselves, often against the odds. In 1936 she was forced into exile, and travelled around Europe for two years with the writer Joseph Roth, a story she tells in Child of All Nations. In 1940 she returned to Germany, protected by reports of her suicide abroad, where she lived for the rest of the war. Her 1950 novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, (translated by Michael Hofmann) is a portrait of the country post-war, set after the 1948 currency reform which is often mentioned as a watershed moment which changes how characters are perceived (for example Haberman who is treated with respect by Ferdinand’s fiancée’s family when he is supplying them with vegetables but then becomes “an insignificant and inferior individual”).

Unlike the women of the thirties, the novel’s narrator, Ferdinand, is a young man who is more intent on withdrawing from life than embracing it:

“This morning I am so tired of people, I don’t even feel like getting up.”

He speculates that even if he could afford a hotel room, the solitude wouldn’t be “sufficient” and imagines instead a “little room attached to a balloon high up in the sky.” Despite their melancholy tone, such riffs are a joy for the reader in a novel where the plot meanders uncertainly as Ferdinand finds himself unable to picture his future. Take, for example, his depiction of his deteriorating financial state through the medium of cigarettes: “My life as a smoker was one of continual remorseless descent.” At first he is disgusted by those who keep their dog-ends (until he does so), collect cigarette ends from ashtrays (until he follows suit), or pick them up from the streets (until that, too, becomes his habit):

“I stood so low that no one could stand below me.”

“Poverty,” he tells us, “is not just a disgrace, it’s the only disgrace.”  Ferdinand is contrasted with those who seek opportunities to enrich themselves, for example his friend Liebezahl who exemplifies another strand of the novel – the popularity of superstitions such as horoscopes and palm reading – and who “keeps extending his empire with fresh initiatives.” His wealthy cousin Magnesius, who is “currently something in non-ferrous metals”, criticises him for thinking too much of others:

“You must think about the generality, Ferdinand, the well-being of the generality… Where would we be if everyone though like you?”

Ferdinand’s kindness is demonstrated in his dislike of hurting others. In the army he becomes the unwilling confidante of a sergeant, who is otherwise “the angry face of the machine”. Despite finding the friendship awkward, Ferdinand is unable to refuse it:

“I was just afraid of hurting the rumpled, friendly, grinning man.”

He finds himself in a similar position with his fiancée, Luise. Although he is desperate to end the relationship he cannot do so for fear of hurting her: “I could have run off but I didn’t want to give offense.” Instead, he searches for an alternative husband for her hoping she will make the decision to break up. In his inability to be emotionally selfish, Ferdinand is contrasted with Johanna who moves from one man to the next, each time loving “unconditionally”:

“I admire Johanna’s faithlessness.”

Keun places Ferdinand at the quiet centre of her novel, often in the role of observer, but surrounds him with an extensive cast of fascinating characters. What they share is a sense of mutability, much like the country itself at this time. The rage for horoscopes and seances, and Ferdinand’s role as a “cheerful advisor” – a kind of in-person agony aunt – all speak to a need to reconcile the past with the future.

The remnants of the war are scattered throughout the novel, from the de-Nazification of Luise’s father, to the physical objects which his wife stole from abandoned houses, the owners of which will occasionally request returned. Ferdinand’s attitude is (satirically) sympathetic:

“It’s quite possible that people feel more attached to things they have personally stolen than things they have honestly acquired.”

At a poetry reading, Ferdinand finds that the women attending have more than got used to the bombed buildings around them:

“…it seemed to me as though the ladies were somehow proud of the ruins. The way some women are proud if they’ve been through a dangerous operation.”

He is also sympathetic to women accuse of sleeping with Allied soldiers: “hadn’t they dinned it into the poor creatures that the uniformed, powerful, victorious hero had to be the women’s highest ideal?” (In fact, Ferdinand is as understanding towards women as Keun’s female narrators from before the war).

As currency reform returns some sort of normality to the country, Ferdinand admits that he is “not a man for normal times.” But his kindness remains, now directed towards Lenchen, a woman his met in his position as “cheerful advisor”:

“It makes me glad to know I can help this creature.”

His future may be uncertain but we are grateful he has retained his humanity, a possibility that Keun is perhaps holding out for Germany. Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is a demonstration that her talents – both of social observation, and pin-point phrasing – were not diminished by the war.

People Like That

June 2, 2021

People Like That was published in 1996 when Agnes Owens’ writing was briefly recognised, thanks in part to the support of other Scottish writers like Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, all three contributing to Lean Tales in 1985. Sadly, the neglect which her work has generally suffered seems once again to be predominant, which will be all the more astonishing to the reader of the short stories which make up this collection, as vivid and vital as they are.

Owens’ career as a published writer, which began in the mid-eighties, was interrupted by the death of her youngest son in 1987 and, unsurprisingly, missing or dead children feature in a number of stories, including the title story, where a mother waits on the arrival of her son at a railway station. When the train empties, her son is nowhere to be seen until she notices “one young man coming towards her who might possibly be him.” He isn’t, of course:

“It was terrible the way she got everything wrong these days.”

In ‘The Hut’, in which a husband and wife sit in a shed on an allotment discussing a boy who hasn’t turned up – the husband jealous of the wife’s apparent keenness for the boy’s return – she suddenly tells him “the boy reminded me of my son.”

“The son I would have had but for the miscarriage.”

All types of loss matter. A drowned son features in ‘Leonie’, a story which stands out for being set in France during the Occupation (a clear indication that Owens’ sketches of small-town Scotland are a choice not a limitation). As with ‘The Hut’, it is the mother’s love which survives the longest. Leonie still senses her son in his room:

“The presence was nothing she could see or touch.”

Her husband, in contrast, cruelly doubts that he is the father.

Loss, however, does not always mean certain death. In ‘Intruders’ sixteen-year-old Greta is missing. Perhaps she is at her auntie’s, but that doesn’t stop her mother going in search of her. Her husband is quick to remind her he is not Greta’s father, another reminder that men opt out of parenthood more easily:

“She’s no ma daughter…I didnae clap eyes on her until she wis ten.”

The story is suffused with a sense of dread, which its ambiguous ending does not relieve. The same dread is felt throughout Owens’ most anthologised story, ‘To the Lighthouse’, which features a girl and her little brother on a beach. A stranger (“she began to wonder if he might be one of those strangers they’d been warned not to speak to”) arouses fear in both the children and the reader, which Owens sustains until the final lines. The title, a prosaic adoption of Woolf’s rather longer story of a character who wishes to visit a lighthouse, seems far from accidental. Similarly, there are echoes of Waiting for Godot in ‘When Shankland Comes’ as cleaner Ivy reassures herself:

“Of course when Shankland came it was a different story.”

When the owner of the bar where she works fails to appear, however, and after Ivy learns she has lost her job, she goes to seek him out – no more waiting for her! She is, as one character says, “an awfy determined woman.” If Ivy is one example of the difficulties faced by a woman alone, we see another facet of this in ‘The Warehouse’. As with a number of the characters in the collection, Albert and Mavis are alcoholics. When Albert seems to have left her for another woman, Mavis begins to wonder if “life without Albert might not be so bad after all” but she soon realises that as a homeless woman, she is little more than a victim:

“…on her own she could scarcely walk two steps without somebody picking on her.”

‘Leonie’ presents the opposite case. When she goes to a memorial service for the Mayor, who has been killed by the Germans, her husband tells her, “You had no right to leave the house at such a late hour without my permission.” At the same time, he reveals his plan to leave her. As the story ends, she writes to an aunt having decided on her own escape plan. No longer controlled by her husband:

“She was so excited by her plan that she forgot to wait for the presence of her son.”

Her independence allows her to begin to overcome the grief she feels at her son’s death.

What stands out throughout these stories is Owen’s understanding of her characters, men, women and children. She writes about the lives of ordinary working-class people without either the humour or horror which is sometimes used by writers as an apology for bringing the poor into fiction. She was a key part of the incredible flourishing of Scottish writing throughout the eighties and nineties and deserves to be not only remembered but celebrated.