I’ve headed this Virago Volumes, although that’s a little bit of a cheat as my copy is Penguin. However, I would have read the Virago version if I’d been able to find one, so I think that counts! I was lucky enough to come across my copy in the local Oxfam charity shop – I love it when you find a book you’ve been after for a while!

Leonora Carrington is of course well-known as a surrealistic painter and author. The Hearing Trumpet seems to be her best known work and starts conventionally enough with 92-year-old Marian Leatherby being given a splendid hearing trumpet by her best friend Carmella. Despite her advanced age, Marian’s hearing seems to be the only thing she has issue with and she is still living at home with her wonderfully named son Galahad and his family. However, the hearing trumpet allows Marian to overhear them plotting to put her into a home. Alas, despite Carmella’s wonderfully bizarre plans, Marian is unable to resist and is taken off to the Institution in Santa Bridiga to be parked with a lot of other old ladies. However, the Institution is not at all your typical old person’s home. The buildings are all in bizarre shapes – a birthday cake, a boot, a mummy case, a tower. The place is run by Dr. and Mrs. Gambit and the other old ladies seem decidedly unusual. There are chores to be done, various bizarre and spurious religious teachings and a very strange portrait of a winking nun looking down on the inmates as they eat their meal.

After a relatively straightforward start, things start to get odder and odder. Some of the old ladies are decidedly sinister and there is a poisoning incident. The story of the strange nun is revealed, a dramatic apocalypse takes place and we are left surviving in some kind of post-nuclear type wilderness with wolves and starvation at the door. Luckily Carmella sweeps in to the rescue and our very resilient old ladies survive – but what does the future hold for the world?

This is a remarkably multi-layered book, and not at all what I was expecting! It encompasses a remarkable variety of topics, from the more straightforward (the way we treat our old people) to the deep and complex (the failure of science and male religion, a resurgence of the female goddess cult). The story is peopled with a marvellous array of characters, from Marian’s old friend, the poet Marlborough (whose mysterious sister turns out to have a very important role to play) to Taliessin the travelling postman, carrying news from place to place and obviously referring back to the earlier bard! It’s also a very funny book, and in many ways the writing of the old ladies at the start reminded me a lot of Muriel Spark. Each character is beautifully defined, and Carmella, with her cigars, letters to strangers and port smuggled in a hot water bottle, is my favourite.

But Carrington was remarkably perceptive in many ways, and you could read her descriptions of the poles changing and the new ice age as a kind of warning of forthcoming climate changes. Bearing in mind the book was published in 1974, she was somewhat ahead of her time! Mainly, though, this books is a joy to read – despite its weirdness, it’s great fun, thought-provoking and very well written – and as you would expect of this type of artist, very surreal!

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