“…while a wave fingers the beaches, never farther, never nearer, we will grow old and die.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65 #ReadIndies


Continuing with my journey through #ReadIndies, another favourite independent press whose books turn up regularly on the Ramblings is that of Michael Walmer. Mike initially published out of Australia but relocated to the Shetlands – and what a change that must have been – where he continues to issue fascinating works, from lost classics to books from more recent years which are unjustly ignored. Today’s book for #ReadIndies is one of the latter, from an author being championed by Mike – “A Virtual Image” by Rosalind Brackenbury.

Brackenbury is a writer still living and working, and I reviewed her first novel, “A Day to Remember to Forget” (1971), back in June last year. It was a beautifully written and very atmospheric work, and so I was keen to move on to “Virtual”, Brackenbury’s second novel, which was published in the same year. The beautiful cover of the book is apt, as it follows the lives of two women who have been friends from childhood and are both artists – Anna Parrish and Ruby Smith. Anna is blonde and beautiful and ethereal, Ruby the down-to-earth dark-haired sensible one; hints of Snow White and Rose Red, then. They grew up together living in their own intense childhood world of fantasy, play and make-believe; and in some ways it does seem they’ve never quite left it.

Anna usually takes the lead, and the bulk of the narrative tells the story of a summer where the two friends have planned to meet up in France; at an artists’ colony of sorts, but if that doesn’t work out, the back up plan is to meet in the South, in the Camargue. The story is (mostly) narrated from the point of view of Ruby, and we follow her journey driving through France, firstly stopping off with some friends, then moving on to the artists’ colony. At neither place has she really found a trace of Anna, and the colony is a disappointed, with most of the activity involved being worship of the two artists running the place. So Ruby moves on, driving further into the South of France, and it is when she arrives at Aigues-Mortes, where the women were meant to meet, that she runs into Caleb ‘Caley’ Hanson, an American poet. Caley is a friend of Ruby’s friends, but as the reader knows from earlier parts of the narrative, he’s also been involved with Anna and their affair had not gone well. So both Ruby and Caley are on the same quest, to find Anna, which inevitably draws them together. But will they find their missing friend? And how will what they find affect them?

There are days which seem to have been washed, early in the morning, which start with such hope that by midday they can only be a blazing miracle, by evening they have changed and mellowed and set one at rest; it was a day like that, or I think I should have looked a little longer backward. As it was, my eyes followed my pointing car bonnet towards the south, and I rolled the windows down and filled my eyes and lungs with the beauty of rural France…

It has to be said up front that Brackenbury writes beautifully, a quality I remarked on in my review of her first novel. The opening pages of “Virtual”, where Ruby looks back on her childhood and growing up alongside Anna are quite stunning; vivid, evocative, capturing the days of childhood brilliantly, it’s a remarkable start to a book. And her prose is like this all the way through; often dream-like, sinuous and wonderfully poetic, she conjures place and time with apparent ease. Looking back, those times were odd; the turn of the decade, from 1960s into 1970s, was an era where things were out of place a little. The 1960s had brought changes but it was still unusual, perhaps, to see women travelling through France on their own; in the relationships between Caley and the women there are questions about how they should behave; and as both women are artists, it’s fascinating to see the place art takes in their lives, and the struggle to decide if they need men, or if the best choice is to stay single and follow your art, not your heart.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers here, because although this is not a mystery or thriller novel, the end is perhaps a little unexpected – or maybe not! Certainly, Ruby becomes much clearer about what her friendship with Anna has actually been, and is hopefully going to be able to move on with her life. And the dramatic finale, set in a brilliantly depicted South of France, with its heat and smells, is striking and memorable.

“A Virtual Image” was an immersive and compelling read, and Brackenbury’s powers of description are impressive. Whether driving down the French roads with Ruby or looking out over the countryside, the landscapes come vividly alive as if you’re living out the story alongside the characters. As I mentioned, most of the narrative is from the point of view of Ruby apart from occasional inserted passages which, as you read, it becomes clear are from Anna or Caley. In her fascinating introduction, Janet Burroway posits a theory that those parts might even be projections from Ruby, putting forward what she thinks might be running through the heads of Anna or Caley. It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not entirely sure  I would agree; for me, those narrative voices were a necessary counterpart to that of Ruby, and convincingly showed how what people are thinking can be very different to what we imagine is going through their heads!

So another winner from Mike Walmer! It really is beyond me why Brackenbury’s work is not more widely known, as she’s such a marvellous prose stylist, and so wonderful at atmosphere. Fortunately for me, Mike has also reissued Brackenbury’s third novel, “Into Egypt” – so I have another treat in store! 😀

“… how infinitely hard to go on living.” #rosalindbrackenbury @spikenard65


As I hinted in my post about my Penguin Modern Stories project, I do often wonder why it is that some authors fall out of fashion, whereas others continue to be read long after they were first published. There doesn’t always seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, and that’s certainly the case with regard to the author I want to share with you today. Rosalind Brackenbury is a novelist who is still writing nowadays, but Mike Walmer has reprinted several of her early novels, including the first one “A Day to Remember to Forget”. Originally released in 1971, it’s set in the late 1960s and explores a day in the life of a young couple and the man’s family; it will an eventful day indeed, and the small domestic crises will build to dramatic effect while family (and local) secrets are revealed.

Lucy and Philip, described in the blurb as a ‘progressive young couple’, have found a house they want to buy and settle in; the fact that Philip is still at university and money is tight seems irrelevant, and having settled on their house they go to visit Philip’s conservative suburban family, the Ridgleys, for his mother’s 50th birthday. George, the father is a bit of a traditional patriarchal bully; Felicity, the mother an OCD nervous wreck; and elder brother Andrew is a conventional married man who has his wife and small child in tow. Felicity is in a state of agitation, juggling constant catering, anxiety about everyone’s needs, wanting to dote on her younger son and struggling to cope with her birthday. Philip is quarrelsome and prickly, and his main reason for visiting seems to be to announce that he and Lucy are going to get married and get his inheritance from his grandfather for the house. A visit to a next door neighbour, old Mrs. Fletcher, brings a little respite, but she has baggage of her own relating to her late husband, also called Philip. As the day progresses, the tensions expand and Lucy is left wondering whether she is making the right choices.

“A Day…” is a compelling and really wonderfully written book, it has to be said; Brackenbury is brilliant in capturing the essence of a day in September, with a summer coming to its end and all the family tensions simmering and coming to a head. People lash out verbally; there’s much eating, drinking and attempting to paper over the cracks; and both Philip and Lucy push against the conventions but find themselves struggling to identify what they really want. The story of Mrs. Fletcher and her past loves and losses, set against Philip and Lucy’s tale and Felicity’s younger experiences, build up a picture of women’s lives and loves over the decades; and although superficial things have changed, it does feel as if the underlying issues and conflicts are still there.

Noise, chaos, the misuse of property, her fears; she had in some measure passed them on to her sons. And the scheme of things, the safe plan and the ordered day, these were what took away the fear; she must love propriety, details. Tidy drawers of linen, pots of jam on the shelf, labelled.

Interestingly, although the book seems focused on Lucy and Philip, I couldn’t help feeling that much of the story was pointing towards the experiences of Felicity Ridgley. Maybe, like “Anna Karenina”, I would have found the young lovers’ story most compelling if I had read this book years ago. As it was, I found myself empathising with Felicity’s plight despite her smothering and intense behaviour. Lumbered with a husband who dominates and frightens her, one son for whom she has no real interest and a second who she dotes on to an unhealthy degree, she’s a person with no resources to fall back on when things go wrong. She’s very much the product of a class and period when women were supposed to find satisfaction in the home and family; but as has been proved time and time again, this really is not enough and women needs interests, careers and outside friends. As it is, it seems that at 50, her life is really pretty much over.

Life embraced the young, tolerated the middle-aged, did not want to know about the old.

For Felicity, it’s too late as she’ll never unlearn her conditioned upbringing; but for Lucy I couldn’t help but wonder if a new way of living would be possible for her. The lure of marriage and conventionality is there, and despite her and Philip’s protestations that things will be different for them, this particular reader was not entirely convinced – his behaviour is not always as progressive as he might want to believe. And as the book comes to a close, Lucy does seems to be seriously doubting if this is the future she wants. The couple’s vision of their life together is not a realistic one; it’s a chimera, really, with no actual detail of what they want their future to be or practical plan to achieve it. I must admit I ended the book fearing that whatever path they chose would not necessarily end well – they were both so very young (Lucy is 19) and had much growing up to do before deciding what they really wanted to do for the rest of their lives.

Once again, I can’t applaud Mike Walmer enough for reissuing a book; on the evidence of her first novel, Rosalind Brackenbury is a marvellous writer who definitely deserves wider exposure. Although commentators on this one have focused on the fact it is of its time, it does much more than just capture a point in the 20th century when lives and norms were transforming. “A Day…” explores memory, family dynamics, filial tensions, male/female relationships and a topic which seems to regularly turn up in my reading – how well we can ever really know another human being. Having loved my first experience of reading Brackenbury’s work, I’m pleased to note that I have more treats in store – Mike has reissued her second and third novel, and they might just be lurking on the TBR… ;D


Thanks must go to Mike Walmer for kindly sending a review copy and waiting so patiently for me to get to it! You can also read Helen’s excellent review of the book here.

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