Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green Grass by Raffaella Barker

18. Green Grass
by Raffaella Barker
fiction, 2002
paperback, 376 pages
finished, 3/23/09

I have read many books over the years which are about my favorite theme - that moving to the country can provide joy, solace, and the source of a new beginning to one's life. All of them are a celebration of domesticity and rural living. Books such as the following (including notes from my book journals):

The Quiet Hills by Iris Bromige - theme of nature and the rural life being a healer. Many times the author notes the calm and the peace of this life, and its indoor pleasures in inclement weather.

The Pilchers, mother and son, quite often feature this view of the countryside.

The Tall Stranger by D. E. Stevenson - has a typically wonderful description of a rural home and gardens. A character who is fading away in a hospital is whisked away to the country and is healed by fresh air, good food and rest, and family love.

My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell - ranks with my top favorite books. It is a cheerful hymn to country living, and the love of family and friends and dogs.

In nonfiction, certainly Gladys Taber would be in the forefront of this kind of writing.

Barker's women are not city girls like Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones or Sophie Kinsella's Rebecca Bloomfield [though I love them, too], and if they do start out in the city they end up in the country, wiser, more self-assured, and with a sense of purpose and joy in their lives. I've read that the author has moved to London after years in Norfolk, and I wonder how this will affect her subject matter. A blurb about a more recent book, A Perfect Life, says, 'Norfolk's extreme ruralness is the backdrop for this novel, which questions the stereotype of the idyllic country life.' I shall wait and see until I read it, since the blurb on Green Grass says, 'so funny and acerbic.' I agree with funny, but not acerbic - not (as the dictionary says) 'sour and bitter' at all.

I found five pieces from The Spectator online which show what a really great wordsmith Raffaella Barker is. Here is the latest one from June 2008, and you may click her name at the end of the piece to read the others. Her writing on an Amy Winehouse performance matches any concert writing I've ever read. She wrote for Country Life for many years, though I'm unable to find her columns online. They would make a great book of essays. Also, from the same time is a blog interview here.

Laura and Inigo live in London with their thirteen-year old twins Dolly and Fred. They are not married but have been together for fourteen years. He's a critically acclaimed, and popular, artist and Laura essentially does all the behind the scenes work. He has the so-called 'artistic temperament,' and isn't easy to live with, though she loves him dearly. Laura, who couldn't wait to escape the country now finds herself taken with the idea of living in a cottage on her brother's land in Norfolk. It begins with just weekends including all the family or only the children, but as time goes on, she is more and more smitten with life there.

She stands on the doorstep with a cup of tea, watching the sun begin to sweep between the trees beyond her garden. It is impossible not to smile. Laura is suffused with a sense of peace, and holds onto this moment while her tea cools, before wandering out to have a proper look at the garden. Surrounded by a small wooden fence, and facing a clearing on the edge of the beechwood, Laura's Gate House is like a child's drawing, squat with a pointed gable above the front door and castellations like steps meeting at the top above her bedroom window. The garden at the front is neat, with a central path from the gate to the front door, and another path leading round the back, past a small orchard and an overgrown vegetable patch, to the shed where Grass [a nanny goat] lives. Beyond that is an area of rocketing nettles and long grass, a small silted-up pond, and then the path reappears by a dilapidated greenhouse, bringing Laura back to the front garden.

I can walk around my house, she thinks, when she has done it. What an amazing feeling. ... Laura does it a few more times, reminding herself of Pooh and Piglet's search for the Woozles as she follows her own footsteps through the long grass and back to the front door.

I love this passage. I can imagine it perfectly, and I can feel her tranquil joy.

Laura's first boyfriend lives in the area, and in another kind of novel this would be the center of the book. Is she going to leave Inigo, and join Guy? Will Inigo leave for an extended stay in New York? Because the author is Raffaella Barker and because her characters are always real people full of complexity and depth, the story is fuller and more absorbing. There are many 'homey' passages about cooking and milking goats and gardening and her new Pug, Zeus. There is real love between Inigo and Laura right alongside the problems. There is a lot about the children, and about Laura's brother's step-daughter. Descriptions and details abound. I loved it and thoroughly enjoyed being in Laura's company. I enjoyed seeing some of the characters from two previous books, Hens Dancing and Summertime. I like to think that Laura is quite like the author. Barker's women are witty and wise and full of good nature and humor. When I read Hens Dancing, I wrote, 'My perfect book! British countryside, warmth, humor, wit. It reminds me of a modern day Diary of A Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield.' That's about the highest praise I can give. And though Green Grass isn't quite as excellent it's still right up there as one of my favorite books.


  1. I love your book lists. I've added all of these to my own "plan to read" list.

    It's so nice to find another D.E. Stevenson fan (not to mention Gladys Taber!).

    Thank you for this post.

  2. Thank you Clair. That means so much to me. I do love Stevenson, and have this little scheme in mind for next year of spending a month reading just her books. I've read the Miss Buncles and the Mrs Tims and a few odds and ends, but there are a lot I haven't read. I just love her, and Gladys. :<)

  3. These are my favourite kind of books.

    Have you read Larkrise to Candleford by Flora Thompson? or The Country Child by Alison Uttley? Rural living themes - very lovely books.

    Unfortunately our library doesn't carry Raffaella Barker - but I filled in a book purchase form so hopefully they will order it.Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Island sparrow, I have read Lark Rise but not the Uttley book. I have it in my queue at Book Depository for next year! I'd begin R. Barker with Hens Dancing. Worth buying, really!

  5. Nan, Green Grass sounds like a book that I would just love. Thank you for this write-up. I will be on the look out for this author.

  6. Aisling, yes you would, but honestly I think you'd find Hens Dancing and then Summertime even more wonderful.

  7. Thank you for brining together this listing and spurring the comments with more suggestions. I love these types of books and now my lists are longer :-)
    I appreciate you!

  8. Utah Grammie, what a nice, nice thing to say!! You've made my day.

  9. Nan, I will look for Hens Dancing and Summertime too then! Thank you. :)

  10. Aisling, I'll never forget you leading me to The Keeper of the Bees. Someday, I'll try to buy an old copy and read it again. I'd love to do a book report on it to pass on the favor. :<)

  11. I'm afraid I don't share you love of Rafaella Barker's novels although I only tried two, one of which was Hens Dancing. I had to give up on that, it was too chick-littish for me. But I love the novels of Rosamunde Pilcher (the longer novels, not the light romances). Have you tried Joanna Trollope (disparaged for writing Aga Sagas, but who really writes about relationships, and very elegantly.) I would also recommend Sarah Challis, with books such as Blackthorn Winter and On Dancing Hill. For a 'period piece' albeit it mid-20th century, then One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes is a superb novel.
    I would also recommend the Minack chronicles of Derek Tangye. Start with A Gull on the Roof. This charts how Derek and his wife give up their glamourous life-style in post-war London and head for Cornwall in order to have a daffodil farm. This is very Good Life but a couple of decades before Tom and Barbara Good decided to have a pig in their back garden in Surbiton!
    Oh, and do read Marcia Willett ... her books are set in Devon and Somerset and landscape always plays a vital role. Wonderful storytelling.
    Margaret Powling

  12. Oh, Margaret I thought it wasn't like chick-lit at all. Nothing like Katie Fforde's heroines who have that love/hate thing with a man. Venetia was living very happily on her own with her kids in the country, I thought. I loved her creativity, and the rural descriptions and her humor. Yeah, a guy comes, but it felt to me that she wasn't desperate for him. The only JT I read was Other People's Children, and I thought it the best work on divorce and new families that I'd read. I do love the Pilchers, Robin even more if that's possible. I'll look into Challis and Willett. I was going to email you back when I saw the picture of Derek T's books on your shelf. Check this out :<) :

  13. She stands on the doorstep with a cup of tea, watching the sun begin to sweep between the trees beyond her garden. It is impossible not to smile. Laura is suffused with a sense of peace, and holds onto this moment while her tea cools, before wandering out to have a proper look at the garden.


    This sounds like just my kind of book, Nan. I think I'll get all three, though, and start at the beginning.

    I'll bet you loved reading about the Pug. You'll have to see if M. wants to read these!

    Thanks for the lovely book review!

  14. Thank you, Les! And it was fun to have a Pug in the book.

  15. Perhaps I gave up on Hen's Dancing too quickly, and perhaps it's not chick lit at all. So apologies to Rafaella and to all who love this book.
    I must try Robin Pilcher having enjoyed his mama's books. And glad you like Joanna Trollope's writing. I interviewed her a few years ago when she was promoting her then latest novel, Girl from the South (much of which is set in America.) She's a very nice person to interview, extremely courteous. I've not tried D E Stevenson although I do know my mother enjoyed her books.
    Slightly off the subject, if you want to try some crime/amateur sleuth novels set in the UK (actually set in Cornwall) then do try the novels of Janie Bolitho, such as Snapped in Cornwall. They are bout an artist/photographer who lives in the fishing village of Newlyn on the south Cornwall coast.
    Margaret Powling

  16. I'm so glad you reviewed this book - I was wondering which book to read next (I loved both Hens Dancing and Summertime, and I'd put Hens in my Top 10 favorites of all time).

    Raffaella would make a great chicken name, don't you think? :)

  17. You keep increasing my book list dramatically! I'll never get to them all! but what fun I shall have trying! Thanks for all the great suggestions, Nan!

  18. Margaret, you never need to apologize for reading preferences! I've read that some don't care for Robin so much, but I have loved the two I've read, and in fact have read each of them more than once. I have Starburst waiting on the shelf for me. I must try more JT. And I have actually heard of the mystery writer, and will search her out. Thank you for all the ideas!

    Alison, it's a great name for anyone! I love it.

    Pamela, I'll be interested to hear what you think if you read it. I would say to start with her Hens Dancing.

  19. Funny to run into this, as RB's linked novels, Hens Dancing and Summertime (the main characters from which show up briefly in Green Grass), usually get me through the grimiest part of winter in Maine, so I've just reread them. I went out to find her others, and must say that I didn't like A Perfect Life or Come and Tell me Some Lies as much: Come not at all, and A Perfect Life grew on me but there was the acerbic bitterness--probably because it seems to be about the breakdown of her perfect life, and the slow recreation of a different one. BUT: I don't know where I'd fall on the "chicklit or not" debate, but I do find those three linked novels especially fun, with lovely passages--but certainly escapist, especially in financial details, as all her ladies live on. . . what??? But they are enjoyable to read, and come next January, out they'll come!

  20. Leamonteach, thank you for your long, thoughtful comment. I really enjoyed hearing about the other books. It's been a while since I spent time with Venetia, but I thought she earned her living with her creative clothing. And the country life wasn't so expensive as a city one would be. I really want to reread both. GG wasn't as good, but there was still that warmth I love. Sorry to hear the other books don't have that good feeling. Thanks again.


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