Monday, 1 November 2021

'Reading it is a joy'

Authors chase reviews, me too – validation, credibility. Someone else likes the book, besides your mum and your publisher. Your dad? Good question. Reviews rarely increase sales unless they are cumulative, one review and then another and another, momentum gathering, the book beginning to trend. And the delivery of most reviews, despite the reviewer having paid attention and written carefully, is perfunctory and formulaic, especially the group reviews. But indulgently, going for it, I’m pasting here the complete (‘In Brief’) TLS review by Norma Clarke of Leila Berg's Flickerbook, which happens to be a foundation CBe title (see previous blog post), because it’s as good as it gets.

'Leila Berg was in her late seventies, a noted children’s author, champion of comprehensive schools and progressive education, and crusader for children’s rights – and especially the right of all children to read for pleasure (and find images of themselves in books) – when she decided to relive her own childhood and youth. She was emphatic: Flickerbook was a reliving, not an act of remembering, and it was traumatic to write. It was the last book she wrote, though she lived another fifteen years, dying in 2012 at the age of ninety-four.

'Reading it is a joy; brutally honest depictions of childhood feelings liberate the child within. No retrospective adult reasoning softens the account. Her parents are monsters. “He hates me”, she writes of her father. He gives her black looks and doesn’t speak to her. She hates him. (He had wanted a boy.) As soon and as often as she can, she absents herself from home. Growing up in a working-class Jewish district of Salford, she has the cultural riches of Manchester on hand: concert halls, theatres, free public libraries, music shops where she can listen to music without quite finding anything she wants to buy with her carefully saved bus fare.

'Clever, impassioned, often enraged, she has to work the world out for herself. “Nobody tells you anything.” Why is Jewish bread different from Christian bread? Why did two boys at infant school bang her head against a wall and accuse her of killing Jesus? A teenager in the 1930s, she joins the Young Socialists and campaigns against fascism. She is an activist. She likes boys, likes her own body, doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to be owned or live her mother’s life but enjoys sex (and writes beautifully about it). Her lover joins the International Brigade and is killed in Spain. A second lover likewise. “They die so fast in Spain.” The volume ends with Chamberlain’s announcement of war with Germany and the sound of the first air-raid siren “swooping, scooping, sickening”. Soon there will be many more deaths.

'Memory flickers like a loose lightbulb; “flickerbook” is another name for flipbook – a series of pictures that when flicked through produce the impression of a moving picture. Flickerbook proceeds through glimpses and vignettes, short paragraphs and big leaps, but there is more of a narrative structure than the title might suggest. It is artful in the best sense, and a radical experiment in memoir-writing. Very quietly the important themes are developed: integrity, honesty, inclusiveness, freedom of thought. Some parts are very funny, and it is through a shared sense of humour – they laugh at Marx brothers films – that young Leila forms a guarded late friendship with her widowed father. This reissue is wholly welcome.'

It’s easy to print books, hard to get to them to readers. Flickerbook is available from the website here. And the 10-books-for-£70 Subscription offer is still operating, from the website home page.

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