1990s Recommended books

The Soldier’s Return by Melvyn Bragg

The Soldier's Return

Five words from the blurb: returns, war, Burma, Cumbria, changed

Last month I read A Division of the Light which had endorsements on the cover from both Kazuo Ishiguro and Melvyn Bragg. I’m already a big fan of Ishiguro, but despite my love for Cumbrian books I hadn’t tried any Bragg before. David, a regular commenter on this blog, recommended The Soldier’s Return trilogy, so I reserved a copy from my local library. I’m so pleased I did as Melvyn Bragg has just gone onto my “must read everything they’ve ever written” list.

The Soldier’s Return begins in 1946 with Sam returning to his hometown after witnessing horrific events in the war in Burma. Wigton, Cumbria is exactly as he left it four years earlier, but his six-year-old son doesn’t know him and his wife has developed an independence that he finds difficult to deal with. This absorbing book shows how Sam adjusts back into civilian life and how a family copes when no one is the same as they once were.

This book is amazingly well written. The intense emotions were beautifully described and I could sympathise with every character in the book.

Sam hesitated, trying to settle in himself the disturbing confusions of his return. The dreams of home were tinged with dread. The place below could suck him in, the old world close over him. Nothing had changed in the town that he could see. Yet his whole world had changed.

The descriptions of Cumbria were wonderfully accurate. I don’t know Wigton very well, but Carlisle was frequently mentioned and many of the landmarks were familiar to me. This historic nostalgia will be an added bonus for anyone familiar with these northern towns, but aren’t essential for loving this book.

I can’t fault The Soldier’s Return at all. My only reason for not awarding 5 stars is because the plot was a bit quiet for me. It is a perfect character study and I don’t think I’ve read a book where each person is so fully developed that I can predict the conversations they’d have and the likely outcomes. I don’t understand why this book isn’t that well known. It deserves to be a modern classic, studied in schools and read by everyone.

I’ve read lots of books about the horrors of war, but this quiet, reflective book brings home a message that is just as important. Survivors have to live with their emotional scars for the rest of their lives and once you’ve seen the terrible way in which humans can treat each other nothing is the same again.

Highly recommended.


Have you read any of Melvyn Bragg’s books?

2000 - 2007 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Historical Fiction Recommended books

Haweswater – Sarah Hall


Winner of the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize First Book Award and 2003 Betty Trask Award

I spent my teenage years living in the Lake District and so I have a soft spot for anything set in Cumbria. Haweswater is one of many lakes in the Lake District, but unlike the majority it is man-made; created by the construction of a dam and the subsequent flooding of the valley in the 1930s. Haweswater gives a moving account of how the remote farming community came to terms with the fact that their village was going to be destroyed and describes their final months as they prepare to leave a home that has been theirs for generations.

Photo Credit: Trevor Rickard

Haweswater had an extra impact on me as I visited the village of Mardale when it was revealed during a drought. The photo above shows a typical view of Haweswater as it is today; whilst the one below shows a similar view during a drought – with the roads, demolished houses and farm walls revealed.

Photo Credit: Janet Richardson

I loved the Cumbrian dialect in this book. You don’t hear it on television very often and I think it is the first time I have read a book containing it.

Teddy’s gone fer Frithy. Nowt else to dyah but wait. Thowt aboot garn misell, Sam. Twa arms better un yan, eh? Even auld bugger like misell?

When I first moved to Cumbria I couldn’t understand a word the locals were saying and I suspect that many readers will struggle to understand the dialect in this book. The good news is that the majority of the novel is written in beautiful, descriptive prose and so you will still understand everything that is happening even if you don’t catch what they are saying!

For the last three hundred years or more there often could be seen a man or a child pausing on the bridge to look below at the water, idling in conversation with a companion, or as a solitary, watching the trout rise and flick between the reeds under the bridge. Casting an eye over the river, as if for no other reason than there was water flowing past.

Despite the fact that you know what happens in the end, this is a fantastic story. The characters are very well developed and I felt a strong emotional connection to them. A dark sense of foreboding builds as the novel progresses and the ending is heartbreaking. This is a beautiful portrait of a lost community.

I’m slightly biased, but I highly recommend that you read it.

Have you read any books set in the Lake District?

2009 Booker Prize Recommended books

How to Paint a Dead Man – Sarah Hall

Long listed for the Booker Prize 2009

The great thing about reading the Booker long list is that I read books I would never normally pick up and am occasionally rewarded by finding a gem like this. I shouldn’t have liked this book – it has virtually no plot and has whole chapters about a person who paints bottles. It sounds like the sort of book I’d run a mile from, but for some reason I loved it!

I was transfixed from the first page. The heart-breaking emotions of a woman who has lost her twin brother affected me straight away. I think I had the tissues out within a few pages and it is so rare for me to be moved by a book that I knew this was going to be something special.

The second chapter introduces the life of an Italian painter, and while I found this section the weakest of the three, it was an important lull in the heightened emotions of the surrounding sections.

The final scene describes the father of the twins and his battle for survival after he becomes trapped in the hills. The book weaves together these three separate scenes, and that is all they are really, exceptionally well. There is no plot – just glimpses into the lives of these three characters.

I don’t know how this book managed to grip me from beginning to end when so many seemingly similar books have failed. I can only assume that Sarah Hall has an outstanding talent, or is perfectly in tune with my fears and emotions.

Sarah Hall is from Cumbria, so the occasional snippets of dialect may prove difficult for some to understand, but as I spent my teenage years in the Lake District this wasn’t a problem for me.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It deserves it’s place on the Booker long list and I plan to seek out all her previous books.


Have you read any books written by Sarah Hall?

Which one was your favourite?