Ernest Hemingway once said: “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” Over the summer I made some good new friends. I have been trying to decide whether one of them became ‘best’ friends, but it’s tricky to compare them. A bit like real friends they all satisfied a need and kept me entertained in different ways.
If I had to pick one that stood out though I would say it was Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. As this is a series of 12 novels I haven’t quite finished it, but I’m on the second to last book so I feel qualified to comment. It is astoundingly good. Totally brilliant. Published between 1951 and 1975, the story narrated by Nick Jenkins is an intimate description of social, cultural, military and political life in England from around 1920 to the 1960s. We meet characters in the first book who weave in and out of the action, much as they do in real life, until the end. It is beautifully written, amusing, lively, full of brilliant dialogue, which always hits the perfect note. There are some characters, such as Pamela Flitton and Widmerpool, who have more resonance than real people. They may not be the sorts of friends you want, but they’re unforgettable. Pamela is a beguiling, black widow type, as irresistible as she is nefarious. You watch her cause havoc with a mixture of awe and fear. Everyone knows a Widmerpool. He is a small-minded, awkward man who you start off by viewing as a bit of a joke, even a comic figure. You can almost predict what his reaction will be to events or dialogue, much in the way you can with an annoying relation you’ve known for far too long. But he develops into something much more significant.
A very different ‘friend’ was A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. This is the first of two books describing the author’s journey from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. One of the most amazing things about the journey is that it takes place in 1933/34 so you can almost feel the disaster about to unfold. It is also a final glimpse of a world that was soon to change forever. Although he undertook the journey in the 1930s, he wrote it in the 1970s so it has a compelling combination of youth and maturity. Leigh Fermor is at his best when describing the various characters he meets, charming counts and plucky peasants in equal measure. The juxtaposition of sleeping in barns one night and castles the next is wonderful. To paraphrase Kipling, he treats the two much the same.
I loved A Time of Gifts but it’s not really sun-lounger reading. It’s quite dense and does require concentration. A book that I raced through on my sun-lounger was Atonement by Ian McEwan. It’s what my husband would call ‘fauxbrow’ so sits in between commercial and literary fiction. It’s much closer to literary fiction than commercial, but it romps along at a great pace rather like a thriller. I thought the character of Briony was particularly good, a precocious little girl who is maddening but at the same time makes us rather pity her. As I’ve seen the film, every time her older sister Cecilia was mentioned all I saw was Keira Knightley. Not that I mind her, but I just prefer to have my own vision of people. I also loved the fact that the first part of the action up until the ‘crime’ was incredibly slow, then things speed up as the war arrives and Briony seeks the elusive atonement.
Rather fittingly my last summer read was The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker Prize Winner. I have read it before but wanted to reread it. It’s one of those books that I liked the more I thought about it afterwards. The central character, Tony, gets more likeable as the story progresses too. It’s a very good lesson in the fact that nothing ever really goes away; an intimate study of regret, memory and ageing mixed together in a tightly-written novella that is definitely worth reading twice.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019