#BookReview Devorgilla Days by Kathleen Hart @tworoadsbooks

Devorgilla DaysAbout the Book

Nine years ago, Kathleen Hart was diagnosed with breast cancer. Further complications led to a protracted recovery and months spent in hospital, where Kathleen had to learn how to walk again. While recuperating, she came across a small, whitewashed cottage for sale in Wigtown, Scotland. Driving hundreds of miles on nothing more than a few photographs and an inkling, she bought it that very same day, and named it Devorgilla after the formidable 13th century Scottish princess.

Heartwarming and deeply moving, Devorgilla Days is an inspiring tale of one woman’s remarkable journey, a celebration of community, and a call-to-arms for anyone who has ever dreamt of starting over.

Format: Paperback (352 pages)    Publisher: Two Roads
Publication date: 14th April 2022 Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

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My Review

Resilience is the word that springs to mind when reading about Kathleen Hart’s long and arduous recovery from life-threatening illness, a process that was not without its setbacks.  Devorgilla Days charts her decision to leave her old life behind (a surprisingly glamorous one, we learn) and move to Wigtown, known as Scotland’s book capital. A town with twelve bookshops – how fantastic is that? The rather dilapidated cottage she renovates she names Devorgilla after a 13th century Scottish princess whose independence of spirit Kathleen emulates in spades.

The author writes of her surprise at the generosity of the local people and how readily they welcome her into the community. It’s the sort of place where people leave fresh lobsters at your door, bring you a hot drink at the beach on a cold day or check up on you if they haven’t seen you for a few days.  However, I think Kathleen underplays her own willingness to throw herself into the life of the town, chatting to people she meets in the street and embracing the various social activities Wigtown has to offer. ‘Have a go’ becomes her motto and so we see her taking art and tai chi classes, joining ‘Knit and Natter’ sessions in the village hall, attempting to learn Scottish country dancing (even if she describes her efforts as those of ‘a geriatric elephant’), attending pub quiz nights and, eventually, taking a course in beekeeping.

Central to her new life though – and an essential part of her physical and mental recovery- is her daily swim in the sea. One of the lovely features of the book is the chapters in which Kathleen relates details of her daily swim and the wildlife she encounters – everything from ‘belligerent gulls’ to ‘a bedraggled skein of geese’ to jellyfish (the latter with rather unfortunate results). Although she lives alone, it’s by choice; a conscious decision to focus on what’s important to her and to prioritise her own wellbeing. As she observes, ‘I’m learning to be my own best friend.’  The cottage itself, which she gradually fills with furniture from the Aladdin’s cave which is the community shop, she describes as her sanctuary, ‘a hug of a place where I feel comfortable and safe’.

Devorgilla Days is an unflinchingly honest account of recovering from the trauma of serious illness. It’s also a wonderfully uplifting book about the power of the human spirit, the role of nature in our health and wellbeing, and the importance of community.

My thanks to Xanthe Rendall at John Murray Press for my review copy.

In three words: Truthful, moving, inspiring

Try something similar: Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch

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Kathleen HartAbout the Author

Kathleen Hart was educated at a convent school in Cheshire before experimenting with various occupations, from air hostess to antiques dealer, but her favourite so far is author. She does her best writing in Devorgilla Cottage, where she keeps bees, swims in the sea and every day encourage thousands of her PoshPedlar Instagram followers to ‘make room for the magic’. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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#BookReview The Girl from Lamaha Street by Sharon Maas

The Girl from Lamaha StreetAbout the Book

“One thing stood out in all the books I read. These children were all white. They had blue eyes and soft straight hair. Not a single child in a story was brown like me. How could that be right?”

Growing up in British Guiana in the 1950s, Sharon Maas has everything a shy child with a vivid imagination could wish for. She spends her days studying bugs in the backyard of her family home on Lamaha Street, eating fresh mangoes straight from the tree and losing herself in books tucked up on her granny’s lap, surrounded by her uncles and aunts.

But Sharon feels alone in a house full of adults. Her parents are divorced and her father is busy campaigning for British Guiana’s independence. With her mother often away for work, there’s a void in Sharon’s heart, and she craves rules and structure. The books she devours give her a glimpse of life in a faraway country: England. And although none of the characters in the books she reads look like her, her insatiable curiosity eventually leads Sharon to beg to be sent to boarding school, just like her literary heroes.

Reality comes as a shock. Being the only dark-skinned girl in a sea of posh white girls is a stark contrast to life in her warm homeland, where white people are a small minority. Sharon thrives in her new life. She does well academically, and horse-riding brings her self-discipline and joy in equal measure. But something is not quite right. Writing weekly letters to her mother, she begins to doubt whether this cold country is the right place for her. Is England really her home, and is this where she truly belongs?

Format: Paperback (288 pages)   Publisher: Thread Books
Publication date: 7th April 2022 Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir

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My Review

I was introduced to the writing of Sharon Maas when I read Those I Have Lost in July 2021. In The Girl from Lamaha Street the author turns her attention to her own life, in particular her childhood experiences. The book is subtitled ‘A Guyanese girl at a 1960’s English boarding school and her search for belonging’ although the author’s experiences at boarding school in England form only the second half of the book.

The first half comprises a fascinating insight into what it was like growing up in 1950s British Guiana (known as Guyana since independence in 1966).  Sharon’s mother and father divorced when she was young and she found herself moving between the houses of her two grandmothers. She writes movingly about how, although she never felt unloved, her family situation made her feel different from other children. How she wanted ‘a mummy and daddy at home, living with me, just like all my cousins and all my friends. A proper family.’  Even had they stayed together, since her mother and father had very different approaches to parenting, one senses that feeling of difference would have remained.  We get a picture of a shy, solitary child, perpetually with her head in a book, but one who seems extraordinarily self-perceptive for her age.  I did question how accurate the characterisation of her younger self was. It was partially answered in the ‘Letter from Sharon’ at the end of the book in which the author explains some events have been ‘reconstructed’ from information passed on to her by relatives and that her younger self’s response to them is viewed to a degree through the perspective of ‘the long lens of time’.  I did marvel at the author’s remarkable memory for even the smallest detail of events and conversations;  my early years are a blur.

I enjoyed the evocative descriptions of British Guiana – the landscape, the sights, smells and especially tastes. ‘We lived in a paradise of mouth-watering fruit. A ripe juicy mango, succulently orange, sliced on a plate and smelling of heaven; slabs of fresh pineapple lightly sprinkled with salt, or a glorious guava, or soursop, or sapodilla’.  It’s a far cry from the grey, tasteless meals she will later endure at boarding school in England.

A section of the book I found particularly interesting was the chapter entitled ‘Land of Six Races’ in which the author explains the ‘racial hierarchy’ evident in 1950s British Guiana, a country made up of people of different colours from ‘the light brown of milky tea’ to deep black. She explains how race was the main marker of an individual’s place in society and the determinant of their ‘value’.  Even as a young child, Sharon recognises that in British Guianan society ‘the best thing was to be born white’.  At the same time she recalls instinctively regarding that as ‘all wrong’, a belief reinforced by her mother and father drumming into her that everyone was of equal value.  That notion is tested when she is enrolled in a school where 99 percent of the children are white and she is ‘a brown speck in a sea of white’.

Influenced by the Enid Blyton books she devours, Sharon persuades her mother to send her to boarding school in England. Contrary to what you might expect, Sharon faces little discrimination because of her race at school – except from the awful two Gwens. If anything, it’s perhaps her family’s class or financial status that makes her feel different from her school mates.  She does well academically; in fact she’s rather boastful about her facility with languages and her brilliance at Latin and geometry.  I confess I found a little puzzling the contradiction between the author’s description of herself as a shy child, often unwilling to speak in public because of her speech impediment, and the girl who laughs and chatters with the other girls after lights out, takes part in dares and midnight feasts.  The later sections of the book in which the author describes her life at Oakdale School and Harrogate Ladies’ College probably mirror those of any girl of her age sent to boarding school in the 1960s and for me lacked the distinctive flavour of the earlier parts of the book.

The cover image gives a taste of the charmingly nostalgic photographs scattered throughout the book. Some of the later chapters commence with examples of letters Sharon (although at the time she preferred to be known as Jo) wrote to her mother from boarding school. It’s not clear if these are the actual letters or just reconstructed from the author’s memory to give a flavour of their content. If the former, I think it was very brave to include these because whilst some are rather amusingly brief others come across as quite cruel and ungrateful given the financial sacrifices her mother has made to fulfil her wishes. Fortunately, the young Sharon does eventually recognise this for herself and is suitably contrite.  The book ends with Sharon’s return to Guyana in 1965.

The Girl from Lamaha Street is a fascinating, skilfully crafted portrait of an unconventional childhood that taught me a lot about the history and culture of Guyana that was completely new to me.

My thanks to Myrto Kalavrezou at Thread Books for my advance review copy.

In three words: Evocative, perceptive, honest

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Sharon Maas Author PhotoAbout the Author

Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist. In 1971 she set off on a year-long backpacking trip around South America, followed by an overland trek to South India, where she spent two years in an ashram. She is the author of The Violin Maker’s Daughter, The Soldier’s Girl, Her Darkest Hour and many other novels.

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