I’ve been travelling for a couple of months with only limited access to the Internet, which is why my posts have been few and far between, but I’m back from careering down the River Rhone, so wide they say you can see the curvature of the earth, and hot for some literary trotting.

The great thing about casting yourself adrift for a few weeks is the opportunity it gives you for reflection and – more importantly – READING. My big news is that I have finished the inestimable Claire Messud’s latest book The Woman Upstairs. Let me tell you why it broke my heart. Not just because her writing is pitch perfect: clear, revelatory and highly polished, but because her access to the inner reaches of the human psyche, with all its frailties and inextinguishable aspirations, is second to none. She tells the story of spinster schoolteacher Nora Eldridge’s attachment to the family of one of her pupils and her eventual betrayal by them and there are so many lessons to be learnt as a writer that I hardly know where to begon, but the two biggest ones are:

  • Detail, when it well observed and pertinent, is a vital tool for drawing a reader into your story. The relationship between Messud’s two protagonist’s, Nora and Sirena, is forensically recorded glance by glance, meeting by meeting, until you feel that you are part of the web she is spinning between them.
  • Hold your nerve. If your story is strong, as Messud’s is, then have the courage of your convictions and give it due space and time. Don’t feel the need to cut to the chase – in some ways, the slower you go, the more impatient and curious your reader will become.

I was both awed and enchanted by The Woman Upstairs – the writing  made me ravenous – rush out and read!