Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of a wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next favourite reads. The feature covers fiction with reviews by Emma (Westwood) and Jacqueline (The Wild Laughter).
Westwood by Stella Gibbons
Published by Vintage Classics, September 2011
Described as the ‘Jane Austen of the 30s’, Stella Gibbons is a criminally underrated writer. If people have heard of Cold Comfort Farm (an all-time favourite of mine), then Westwood is almost entirely forgotten.
Its protagonist, Margaret Steggles, is Flora Poste’s (of Cold Comfort Farm) foil. Where Flora is staunchly practical and charismatic, Margaret is idealistic and socially awkward, ‘not the type that attracts men’. New in London, she seeks intellectual connections and is swept into the bohemian and selfish circles of Highgate’s intelligentsia. Over the course of the novel, she falls in love, has her heart broken and learns some very hard lessons.
Stella Gibbons captures the atmosphere of Highgate, London during the war in such an evocative way. In some ways, this book is escapist, as Gibbons captures the atmosphere of Highgate, London during the Second World War in an incredibly evocative way. Nonetheless, I was struck by how very contemporary the setting of the book and the society it takes place in feels, as Gibbons captures perfectly the strangeness of living through a pivotal moment in history. The half-bombed city is described as “sombre and thrilling, as if History were working visibly, before one’s eyes.” Likewise, Westwood’s characters live in strange and inconvenient times, and yet their thoughts are mostly preoccupied by the entirely mundane – romance, family and themselves.
Gleefully skewering romance and sentimentalism, class relations, and the London literati, Gibbons brings her characteristically understated sense of humour to the novel. The secondary characters are fantastically written. Hilda, Margaret’s charming and altogether more pleasant friend, was a highlight, as is the self-obsessed and misogynistic Gerald. The novel flips between tragic and comic on a dime; Margaret is as often unlikeable as relatable.
I would recommend reading Cold Comfort Farm over this novel – this is a slower paced, less sparky cousin with a much less satisfying ending. However, Gibbons’ gift for storytelling shines through and the setting and secondary characters make up for a lot of its faults. For fans of mid-century reads with a strong sense of place and equally strong, flawed characters.
The Wild Laughter by Caoilinn Hughes
Published by Oneworld Publications, June 2020
A few pages into Caoilinn Hughes’ The Wild Laughter, narrator Hart Black asks, “So how could such a man’s son see fit to question his choices?”
That question is central to the plot of The Wild Laughter, as after losing everything in the Celtic Tiger crash of 2008 and falling gravely ill, the patriarch of the Black family, known as “the Chief,” asks a favour of his sons that will change all three of their lives. In the immediate aftermath of being asked the favour, Hart questions why he and his brother Cormac were asked at all, wondering “Why couldn’t he do it? There must have been another reason. Fear of fire talk?,” while Cormac doesn’t seem bothered by the question or what the outcome may turn out to be.
What follows is a harrowing journey of two sons trying to do what they feel is right, by and for their father, and the heart-breaking consequences such a journey brings.
In this short, fast-paced novel, Hughes uses tenderness and humour to bring up questions of morality, ethics, the law, and how far one would go for family. In doing so, she ensures that The Wild Laughter will stay with its readers long after they reach the last page.