Everyone has their favourite bit of seaside. I like mine with an added dash of bleakness, and for that there’s no finer place than the Suffolk coast. One branch of my family hails from here and I’ve been holidaying in the seaside town of Southwold my whole life, but I never get tired of it. How could I, when every time you look at the landscape the sky has changed, every time you venture near the sea you might be greeted by waves either gentle or pounding along an ever-changing shoreline. It’s the perfect place to dive into summer reading: read on for reviews of letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, Second Place by Rachel Cusk, Mud and Stars by Sara Wheeler and The Stranding by Kate Sawyer.
This year we stayed in a beautiful barn on the other side of the Blythburgh Estuary, a perfect place for birdwatching, reading, thinking, and just generally soaking up the atmosphere – although I confess I’m only passingly interested in birds and was hampered by the necessity of looking after my children that stopped me doing as much as I would have liked of the others. I did manage to get through a few of the books on my pile though.
I began with Love Letters: Virginia and Vita, the collection of letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West recently published in a beautiful new edition by Vintage Classics. It comes with an enjoyable introduction by Alison Bechdel, who beautifully articulates what you can’t help but reflect on as you read: ‘If Virginia and Vita had had smartphones, what a stream of sexting acronyms, obscure emoji … Twitter links to TLS reviews, and endless snapshots of Alsatians and spaniels would sift through our fingers in lieu of this magnificent paper trail. But fortunately for all of us, they wrote, and wrote, and wrote even as their feelings shifted over the years from passion to something quieter.’ I loved the immediacy of these letters, the excitement I got to share as they discovered their feelings for one another, and the gentler, more elegiac quality their correspondence takes on as they age and drift apart, but remain tethered by love and friendship. You witness also the creation of Orlando, and what it meant for Vita to have been immortalised in such a way. I had thought the letters might be a little disjointed, but the editors have cleverly included diary entries that give the letters context, and at helpful moments there are notes on contemporary events. All in all, it is a beautifully thought-through book that I was so absorbed by, I found it hard to turn to my next read.
But turn I did, and for a complete change of scene I thought I would read this year’s International Booker Prize winner, At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. Last year’s winner, The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, left me feeling deeply wary of Booker International winners and despite the beautiful cover I feared this one would also be a gruelling read. How wrong I was! The story is narrated by Alfa, a Senagalese soldier fighting for France in World War I. His ‘more-than-brother’ Mademba is horribly wounded, and Alfa remains with him as he dies. With death all around him Alfa has his own ideas about how to avenge his friend, with tactics so successful his fellow soldiers are unnerved and he is sent for a month’s convalescence in hospital to recover from the strains of war. You might think, as I did, that this doesn’t sound promising for summer reading, but to my surprise I enjoyed it. The writing is vivid and atmospheric, the characterisation subtle, drawing the reader in and it’s an unfamiliar viewpoint from which to read about the war. It is a heartbreaking story, but told with such brilliance I found it an exhilarating read. It ends with a clever twist that makes you want to go back and read it again; I think it would make for a brilliant book club discussion book.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk tells the story of a woman living with her partner in an isolated house beside a tidal marsh. They have built a second dwelling on the property, a studio space, and she invites an artist to come and stay there, wanting to see how he will respond to the landscape. I found it an intensely compelling read. Cusk’s writing so assured and every so often there’s a sentence that sears out at you with truth so startling it takes your breath away. For me it fell down slightly with the characters, who didn’t always behave in ways I was convinced by, particularly the artist. There’s also a device that the narrator is recounting events to someone else, a character called Jeffers, but you never find out who this is which I found mildly irritating. And given that I was staying beside a tidal estuary when I read it I was puzzled by her descriptions of the landscape. Where were the insects? Where were the birds? Where was the mud? I was intrigued, however, to read at the end that Cusk was inspired by a book called Lorenzo in Taos. Its author, Mabel Dodge Luhan, recounts the time that D. H. Lawrence came to stay with her in Taos, New Mexico. Cusk writes that she wrote Second Place as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. I don’t know anything about D. H. Lawrence, but somehow knowing that real people were woven into the inspiration behind this story left me liking and admiring it more. It’s on the Booker longlist and seems to me a likely candidate for the shortlist although as I haven’t read many of the others who can say! Also, Laura’s book club are currently reading and discussing it and it doesn’t do for a book club book to be too perfect. I think they’ll have lots to say about this one.
My copy of Second Place came from Southwold books (an unbranded Waterstones that has the feel of an independent with a beautifully curated selection of books on things relevant to the area). This year they have a charming scale model of the town’s famous lighthouse drawing attention to Juliet Blaxland’s new book The Easternmost Sky. I loved Blaxland’s first book, The Easternmost House, about her house on the outskirts of the town that she had to abandon due to coastal erosion (it has since been demolished). Although it was an interesting story with an attention-grabbing hook what I enjoyed most was Blaxland’s writing style. I found her a wonderful companion and enjoyed her musings on life in the countryside, living in proximity to the sea, and her thoughtful observations on climate change. I’m now looking forward to reading the follow-up, which sits on my bedside shelf waiting for me. I said ‘hello’ to bookshop manager Steph who featured in episode 22 when I interviewed the Southwold Book Group. She tells me they have been on hiatus during covid, but are hoping to start up again soon.
From new books to old and for me no trip to the Suffolk coast would be complete without a visit to Westleton, a tiny village that is home to not one but two fabulous secondhand bookshops. The first, Chapel Books, is a local institution and if you pop in for a browse you may chance to get offered a cup of tea by owner Bob Jackson. If he’s not around you politely bang the can with a stick to get his attention.
Why do people who have more books than they know what to do with (me) enjoy shopping for secondhand books so much? I think it’s the thrill of the chase. You never know what you might find. In this case I was delighted to discover a copy of Mud and Stars by Sara Wheeler, one of my favourite authors, the perfect addition to my summer reading pile.
Wheeler’s travels round Russia following in the footsteps of the great Russian writers is in no way related to anything I’ve been doing here on holiday (although come to think of it I did read Anna Karenina here last year) but I’ve loved her company and the change of scene. Wheeler is such an assured writer – her Antarctic book Terra Incognita is one of my all-time favourites. I loved the details she picks out while visiting the homes of writers such as Pushkin, Gogol, Chekov and of course Tolstoy. From the Russia of the past to the present-day she also casts her sharp eye over contemporary society, the food, the people, the social and political tensions in the post-Communist era, and weaves both eras together beautifully. I found it fascinating and an interesting follow-on read from Jonathan Slaght’s book Owls of the Eastern Ice that I read a few months back (and would also recommend).
Round the corner from Bob’s you will find Barnabees, run by Tyona Campbell, one of my favourite interviewees for the pod. Listen in to episode 51 to hear how she came to set up her shop, and the pleasures and perils of the secondhand bookselling world. I never have enough time for a proper rummage through Ty’s rooms and could easily spend a day here if I got the chance. On this visit I found a copy of The Pike by Lucy Hughes-Hallet that Andy in my book club said was brilliant. It was so big and thick, though, I decided to leave it for another day, and possibly another lifetime.
Before I go I must just tell you about one other book I read that has stayed with me this holiday, and that is The Stranding by Kate Sawyer. It tells the story of Ruth, a young woman leading an ordinary enough life, living in London and working as teacher, who falls in love with a married man. The relationship seems to promise much but when Ruth realises things are not working out the way she had hoped she travels to New Zealand for a break – just in time for the world to end.
I don’t know how you feel about apocalypse novels. With the pandemic still raging thoughts of the world ending feel uncomfortably close to home and I have to say it’s not a subject I generally like to read about. But I was curious as this came highly recommended and it did not disappoint. Sawyer’s writing is propulsive and I was quickly immersed in the characters and storyline. She also structures it cleverly, so that it reads like two versions of the same story told at different points in time. If you’re the sort to morbidly muse on apocalypse scenarios you may have asked yourself whether you would want to survive such an event? This book goes some way to answering that question in a way that I found thoughtful and moving and beautifully expressed. If it’s possible for a novel about such a bleak subject to leave you feeling hopeful then this book does it. I think it would be a really interesting one for book club, too. We’re talking to Kate for the podcast soon and I can’t wait to hear more about the ideas that lie behind this book.
A selective Suffolk reading list
Any book can be read anywhere, of course, but there are certain books that fit so perfectly with a visit to this coastline I thought I would mention a few that I love in passing. Don’t miss Penelope Fitzgerald’s comic masterpiece The Bookshop, set in a thinly disguised Southwold. You may find being here puts you into the right frame of mind to sink into Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald. As mentioned above Juliet Blaxland’s Easternmost House is a beautiful exploration of what it means to live on this fragile shoreline. The Sea House by Emma Freud is an enjoyable literary romance that beautifully evokes the village of Walberswick. And Roger Deakin’s Waterlog is a classic of nature writing that would appeal anywhere, but as he lived in Suffolk reading it here gives it an extra edge. These are just a few that I have read over summers here and loved, but comment below and tell me any you think I have missed.