Charlotte Hobson reminds me of a good friend who hails from the same Cornish corner of England where Hobson lives. They are both tall, have similar mannerisms, and are skilful storytellers – using softly expressive, very well spoken voices (quite posh). Both make you want to listen. I feel tempted to ask if they are acquainted – or even related.
But that would interrupt the literary flow. Charlotte Hobson is reading a short passage from her debut novel, The Vanishing Futurist, within the intimate atmosphere of my local independent bookshop.
There’s something almost tardis-like about Sevenoaks Bookshop. It lies at the very end of the High Street, beyond the main shopping drag, and is not especially big. A bell rings loudly as you push open the door to find shelves neatly stacked with all kinds of reading matter. Someone usually looks up to smile a welcome, and freshly brewed coffee with homemade cakes are on offer too.
Fleur Sinclair, the owner, has a warm and nurturing approach. She runs her bookshop with a light touch, whilst being quite clear about maintaining its integrity. She and her team are keen to introduce readers to books they believe in. So when Fleur met Charlotte Hobson at the Port Eliot Festival last year, she jumped at the chance to invite her to speak at one of the bookshop’s regular lunchtime events.
I’ve done the wrong thing and – much like breaking the rule about films and books – not read the book before listening to its author talk about it. So on arrival, I accept a coffee and a Russian biscuit (the book is set in Moscow), and feel like a fraud as I quickly digest the blurb.
To me, authors have always been hallowed beings (except awful ones – although even they seem admirable for the sheer number of words they can churn into a book). The Vanishing Futurist has been reviewed with words like “heart-breaking“, “brilliant“, “ingenious, vivid, mesmerising“. It’s also been nominated for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
A sense of reverence befalls me.
But Charlotte Hobson is a mum of two, with a husband (also a writer), and converse shoes. It’s taken her ten years to write her novel, partly because of the kids (she downplays the perfectionist effort it took to ensure the historical detail was spot on).
She makes easy eye contact with her audience, smiles a lot and is unpretentious. Plus she really knows her stuff. Questioned by the assembled on everything from the Russian avant-garde wave of influence to why Canada didn’t turn out to become a totalitarian state like Russia(?), and then to how Einstein’s general theory of relativity fits with the timeline of her book (wow), she is unfazed and deftly answers each question with unrushed thought, expertise and tact.
My reverence is rocketing sky-high (no matter how down-to-earth Hobson might appear to be).
Then it’s Hobson’s turn to listen when a lady in the front row wishes to share her story – a true tale of her Russian grandfather and Polish grandmother who met and married in Swansea, and how he returned to Russia to fight in the First World War. He became totally enmeshed in the Revolutions and couldn’t find a way home to his family until 1923, when his daughter was already 6.
Hobson is drawn into the finer points of the story, and wants to know which route the lady’s grandfather took home – East or West?
“I don’t know – he just came home to Swansea, and that’s where he stayed!”
Hobson laughs, but her fascination for all things Russian is clear. It’s embedded in the words of her book (I’ve managed to do a little homework now). She manages to distil a pivotal moment of Russian history via a storyline that conveys both its creative optimism and inevitable brutality, and includes curiously accurate details (like the collectivisation of underwear).
She’s already working on her next book (interestingly, by long hand), and I hope that Fleur Sinclair keeps in touch with Hobson, because I’d love to hear her talk again. In the meantime, I’d be happy to settle for the surprising anecdotes spontaneously aired by local people attending other bookshop events (via East or West, I don’t care).
The next event is this weekend’s Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival.
Other forthcoming events and details about Sevenoaks Bookshop’s creative writers’ group can be found on the website.
Charlotte Hobson has written another book – the (award-winning) Black Earth City is a memoir of her year as a student in provincial Russia.