An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch

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Iris Murdoch is at her witty, merciless best in this fictional account of a group of friends and relatives who are victims of their own lack of self-awareness. There are characters who fall in love but do so with the wrong person or fall in love with the right person for the wrong reasons or who think they are in love but are not really or who are in love but lack the conviction to follow through on their feelings. Then there are those who lose their beloved to another because their maneuverings have the exact opposite of what they had contrived to accomplish. There is enough star crossing of lovers to allow Anthony Nuttall, who wrote an insightful introduction to this Penguin Classic edition, to suggest that, An Unofficial Rose is Shakespearian in all its plotting and sub plotting. However, it begins with a funeral which to me seems somewhat Dickensian.

Chapter one introduces all the important players. Sixty-seven-year-old Hugh Peronett, supported by family and friends is attending the funeral of his wife, Fanny. He is musing over whether he really loved her or married her for her money. As he leaves he catches a brief glimpse in his peripheral vision of Emma Sands, with whom he had had an adulteress affair some twenty-five before.  Hugh met Emma through his wife as they had been friends at boarding school.

With much detail revealed in the first chapter about Hugh and his family including: his fifteen-year-old grandson, Penn visiting from Australia, his son, Randall his daughter in law, Ann as well as their fourteen-year-old daughter, Miranda one would think the story was all about him. However, the story soon shifts to Ann and the rose nursery she runs with husband Randall. She and Randall have become estranged since the death of their son Stephen who died a year before of Polio, a disease rarely mentioned in our era of corona viruses and the like but which was a raging epidemic back in the nineteen fifties of the last century. Randall has given up on the horticultural business and is trying to become a writer. This ambition is stymied by his tendency to spend all day in his study drinking.  Beyond alcohol, Randall’s only other solace is an affair he is having with Lindsay Rimmer who is Emma Sand’s secretary/companion and perhaps, though it is never stated outright, also her lover.

With one of the character’s named Miranda I thought there would be some sort of reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In a way, there is except that here the Miranda character is not a sweet innocent young woman being manipulated into love and marriage by a benevolent father. Here she is a manipulator herself, maneuvering to steer her mother away from Felix, a man who has been in love with Ann for many years but who is the object of Miranda’s teenage affection. The novel is very much about meddling in other people’s lives in order to get one’s own way. Hugh ends up selling part of his wife’s inheritance to provide Randell with an income so that he can achieve financial independence and get out of his marriage with Ann. Hugh’s motive for doing so is his hope that Randell will elope with Lindsay and then, with Lindsay out of the way he might be free to court Emma and continue on their abandoned affair. However, in the background, Mildred Finch, the wife of an old colleague is trying her best to wheedle her way into Hugh’s life and engage in an extra marital affair, a project concocted with her husband, Humphrey’s consent as he had married contrary to his sexual orientation.

It does not do this novel justice to outline these relationships as I have done and make it sound like a soap opera. In fact, this is an elegant comedy of errors with a philosophical depth that touches on existentialism. Ann as a central character comes across as weak and indecisive. Randell abandons her and leaves for Italy demanding a divorce and she does nothing. Then Felix proposes marriage and still she does nothing. In not acting she is choosing oblivion. No choice is a choice; the choice of being left alone and sad.

The charm of this book is in the way it is woven. It reads like a stage play with characters making their entrances, revealing their stories and making their appropriate exit in an orderly fashion. The story is built steadily layer upon layer.  While this was not the best-selling of Iris Murdoch’s novels it demonstrates a mastery that anyone trying to learn the creative potential of literary fiction can appreciate. It has a lot to say. The more I read by Iris Murdoch the appreciative I am of her genius.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

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This novel pulled me into its orbit with its wit and charm and I followed the story greedily entering the lives of the main characters without realizing, until I was almost a third of the way through, that there were references to E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End and that, in line with the novel’s title, it is all about the ‘beauty’ that is found everywhere and takes many forms. 

The story opens with a string of one-sided e-mails between Howard Belsey and his son Jerome. This is a device used to introduce the family at the centre of this story. The Belsey family includes: Howard, white, middle class, an academic of British origin married to Kiki, who is black, American and the family’s emotional anchor. Howard has reached a point in his career where his advancement has plateaued. In fact, Howard’s academic prestige seems to be in decline.  Moreover, his and Kiki’s marriage is threatened as Howard has been indulging in an affair with one of his colleagues. Their eldest son, Jerome, is a senior at university, Zora is the middle child and only daughter who is starting her second year at the same university and then there is Levi the youngest and a high school student. The Belsey’s live in a gentile New England town and Howard teaches at Wellington, meant to represent an Ivy League university such as Harvard where Zadie Smith herself has taught. At the beginning of the story Howard is obliged to travel to London and deal with what he perceives as a family crisis as Jerome has fallen in love with Victoria, the daughter of Howard’s academic rival Sir Monty Kipps, an ultra-conservative professing right wing Christian values. Monty is a specialist in the same area of art history as Howard. Jerome has left his secular upbringing and embraced Christianity. Howard fears he has gone over to the enemy camp, as he is working with Monty as his intern. The Kipps family is from Trinidad. They live what Jerome perceives as a quiet, gentile, domestic existence contrasting unfavourably in Jerome’s eyes with the boisterous, Belsey household where there is always, loud music, bickering siblings and the racket created by a busy family.  Monty and Howard are both highly respected academics but have widely differing artistic values. They dislike each other on a personal level as Howard regards Monty as rigid and his work as unoriginal while Monty has written off Howard as a blowhard without substance. These two families are held together by their long-suffering wives; Kiki and Monty’s wife Carlene. 

Beauty and its meaning is a theme that concerns many of the characters in this book. Kiki is a woman of thoughtfulness and depth of feeling but is concerned that her physical appearance is failing. She is worried that her weight gain in middle age has made her fall out of beauty and the reason Howard has wandered into an extra marital affair. This is revealed to be consistent with Howard’s thinking. Despite his expertise as an art historian in the study of beauty, Howard seems to have been easily led astray by thoughtless caprice, unconscious of his destructive behaviour. He is full of self-pity and does not see how fortunate he is in his family life or how much pain his philandering has caused.  Then there is the beautiful daughter of Monty Kipps who does not return Jerome’s affection and who is obsessed with beauty; principally her own. Her life is youthfully skewered toward an impulse to use her physical beauty in pursuit of something that is solely sexual. She enjoys the power beauty has to manipulate those around her. 

Kiki and Monty’s wife, Carlene provide a link between these two families. Early in the story Monty accepts a visiting professorship at Wellington and the Kipps relocate from London and move close to where the Belsey’s live.  Kiki and Carlene develop a sympathetic understanding. Later in the novel it is revealed that Carlene is terminally ill with cancer and has told no one about this, not ever her own family. In her will Carlene leaves Kiki, a valuable painting. This bequest is only discovered after her death and confounds Monty and his children. This is where I made the connection with Howards End.  The same shock of surprise occurs when Ruth Wilcox leaves, her summer house to Margaret Schlegel in a deathbed adjustment to her will. At this point it occurred to me that there were other little literary ‘nods’, to Howards End such as when, at a concert, Zora inadvertently goes off with the cd player of an impoverished but brilliant young man named Carl Thomas and in retrieving it makes his acquaintance. This is a reference to when Helen Schlegel goes off with Leonard Bast’s umbrella, a chance occurrence that initiates a long chain of life changing events. 

The novel can certainly be enjoyed without ever having read Howard’s End but if you have, it reinforces a theme based on the barriers to a decent life that are set up and perpetuated by money and privilege. In Howard’s End the barriers of wealth and privilege are formidable. A century later these barriers still exist. Zora attempts to take Carl on as her protégé and find ways for him to audit classes at Wellington and enter the university by a figurative backdoor. A major obstacle turns out to be Monty Kipps whose ultra conservative beliefs gain favour in the university community He and his cohort are regressive in attitude and argue against ideas such as affirmative action or making the university more open to the community including its poor, street wise population.

This story has many layers that I have barely touched on. It is sustained by a clear, eloquent prose. I am reminded of the writing of Robertson Davies, Saul Bellow even Iris Murdoch, all great story tellers. I am wondering what took me so long to discover Zadie Smith. She is brilliant.  

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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I’ve occasionally fantasized about opening a bookshop. Would it not be paradise to spend the working day surrounded by books in their colourful jackets smelling of fresh ink with maybe a little dust thrown in for character? To complete this ideal situation, the clientele should be made up of like-minded, book loving people and off to one corner there would be a little café where patrons could read the first chapter of their purchase, being too impatient to wait until they got home before plunging into their new acquisition. In this novel the principal character, Florence Green, is trying to fulfill such a dream, minus the coffee shop, as a way of both earning her living and of healing from the grief experienced with the death of her husband.  

The author has set this story in the small fictional town of Hardborough, England. It is rural, picturesque and situated next to a marsh and at a short distance there is the sea.   Florence is determined to obtain a property called the Old House as the venue for her bookshop. It is the late 1950’s and there is an atmosphere of post war dreariness in the town. However, for those in Hardborough who care to look with their sensibilities, there is beauty in the variations of light and colour reflected in the surrounding wetlands. There is humour and hope in the town’s quirky inhabitants who demonstrate proportionate amounts of good will and self interest in their daily lives. 

The novel opens with Florence meeting the local bank manager who is candidly sceptical of the feasibility of her plan. Reluctantly he grants Florence the mortgage she is seeking doubting there will be much local demand for books. The story goes on to detail Florence’s struggle to clean up the ancient stone premises she has chosen for her book shop and the obstacles created by her neighbours either through indifference or a certain amount of jealousy when the bookshop starts to shine and pull attention away from other enterprises in the town.

 This book is not much longer than a novella but manages to introduce a half dozen nicely sketched characters that give life to a complex story of a young woman struggling with the task of getting on with her life in a village that has an excessive amount of conflict rumbling under its cobblestones. If I were to highlight the particular qualities that make this a well told story I would mention first its economy of wordsand secondly its pacing of events. It is these features that makes up the craftmanship behind this book. So much is revealed or hinted at in so few words and all this is cleverly done. This is a skill I admire (and if you have read any of my previous postings you will have observed that economy of words is, alas, a virtue I do not possess).

The villain in this novel is Mrs. Violet Gamart. She is part of the local nouveau richeand openly opposes the bookshop because she wants to use its location to set up an art centre.  This is a pet project of hers, one she hopes will enhance her position as a cultural leader in the community and will rival the neighbouring town of Flintmarket that has greater affluence and seems more progressive than Hardborough. Mrs. Gamart is heartlessly manipulative in her efforts to undercut Florence’s little bookshop. She even goes as far as to enlist the help of a nephew who has been elected to parliament. The reader cheers Florence’s perseverance as she becomes the mouse directly in the line fire of Mrs. Gamart’s elephant gun.  

Florence is helped in the shop by a wise, precocious ten-year-old girl named Christine who is not interested in reading books but whose talents lie in organizing and running the business side of the enterprise.  She speaks her own mind; when Florence tells her, she was expecting her older sister to apply for the job and worries that Christine is not strong enough to do the work. Christine counters with the apt comment: “You can’t tell from looking…” She explains that her sister spends all her free time with her boyfriend up in the meadows and then in her own matter of fact way says that she herself is not yet old enough to be interested in adolescent sex and so Florence need not worry about her neglecting the work assigned. Christine is an invaluable asset to the bookshop. She is clever but is not interested in her school work and does not do well in exams. The author paints a gloomy future for her as the middle school exams stream children into either an academic education or training toward menial, manual labour. Penelope Fitzgerald was a teacher and understood the probability of girls like Christine being directed by the education system into a life with few occupational opportunities despite a talent for accounting and the management of business. The other dreary option girls would have beyond unskilled labour would be to marry give birth to and raise a flock of children enduring daily, domestic drudgery throughout all the best years of her life.

The other interesting characters in this book include Edmund Brundish, a reclusive country squire with a lineage going back to the Saxons.  He is a book lover who provides moral support to Florence’s enterprise but no longer has much influence in the community. There is also a local jack of all trades named Raven, who delivers mail on one day and competently performs dental work on horses the next. And there is a noisy poltergeist living in the attic who rattles the place and may even have been more than the product of lively imaginations applied to creaky old beams. I’ll also mention the charming BBC reporter who seems to have been commissioned by Mrs. Gamart to win Florence over to the idea of giving up her bookshop but his charm does not go far.  

       The Hardborough bookshop becomes a success and a focal point for community gatherings especially when Florence sets up a subscription library on the side and even more so when she begins advertising the sensational best seller Lolitaby Vladimir Nabokov.  I knew nothing about subscription libraries before I read this book but it seems it was common at the time in areas where the public libraries did not exist. Shelving would be set aside in the bookstore and clients could subscribe to the library paying a fee in order to have borrowing privileges. I assume the promotional side for the business was that while browsing the library shelves for something to read a title in the book shop might catch the client’s eye that he/she might consider purchasing.

If you read into the life of Penelope Fitzgerald a circumstance that is constantly mentioned is that she did not start publishing until she was sixty. In addition, to the amazement of the literati of the day, she won the Booker prize in 1979 for her novel The Offshore,a story based on her life on a leaky houseboat. She was a dark horse and to the astonishment of all beat out V.S.Naipaul’s,A Bend in the River.The undisguised surprise of many critics bordered on the insulting but the author seems to have weathered the abuse lightly.I am impatient to read more of Penelope Fitzgerald’s work because of the enjoyment I experienced in reading The Bookshopand also because I think for anyone who is trying to learn how to write well she is an excellent teacher. 

Hagseed By Margaret Atwood

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This book is part of an amusing project initiated by the Penguin / Hogarth Press to re-tell the stories behind Shakespeare’s plays. In this instance the author has brought a five-hundred-year-old story of treachery, magic, revenge and resolution into the twenty-first century in a reinvention of The Tempest. I enjoyed it from the first to last page although there are a few ‘wobbly parts towards the end. However, I willingly suspended my disbelief and surrendered to the story.

Felix Phillips is Hagseed’s, Prospero. At the start of the novel he is the artistic director of the Makesheweg Theatre Festival and, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, Felix is so pre-occupied with conjuring (in his case the artistic conjuring of new ways to imagine theatre productions) that he is not paying attention to the details of administering his domain or watching out for rivals. In addition, Felix has thrown himself into his work, as way to mitigate the pain of coping with the deaths both his wife and daughter. Tony, his assistant, wants to run the Makeshewg Festival himself and succeeds in usurping Felix and having him ousted from his position in a most undignified way; setting him adrift in an ocean of anger and confusion. Kicked out of his job, Felix goes into a self-imposed exile renting a primitive cabin in a rural area. His cabin is a kind of island where he languishes, mourning the loss of his little girl Miranda who comes to him in fanciful apparitions as part of his grieving process. Some years later he revives his role as director at a prison where he finds employment as a theatre arts teacher. His work is meant to be part of the prisoners’ rehabilitation. Several years into the program he sees an opportunity for revenge against Tony and his cohorts by stirring up a storm of illusions with the help of the prisoners staging Felix’s own version of The Tempest for some visiting dignitaries. These dignitaries include Tony, who is by now an elected member of government.

The devices Ms. Atwood uses to support this version of The Tempest fit quite nicely into the twenty-first century. Felix’s Ariel is a prisoner; a master of the art of digital illusion. Caliban, the Hagseed (meaning the offspring of a witch) is an ex-soldier with PTSD who has been convicted of break and enter crimes. The roster of characters accounts for everyone Shakespeare invented and while the ghostly Miranda remains present in the background of Felix’s imagination the actress who was to play Miranda in his original festival production agrees to take on the role.

Then there is the problem of how to get a group of largely uneducated criminals to relate to the esoteric Elizabethan poetry and songs of the play. Ms. Atwood’s solution is to have the players update the lyrics where necessary and interpret them as rap songs. Is that not both logical and brilliant? I also thought it hilarious that to in order make the idea of a wood sprite palatable to these hardened prisoners Ariel is translated into an alien visiting from outer space. Now, that is funny.

The story ends as it should and does in the original, with all the antagonists and tormenters humbled and rendered penitent. Felix is reinstated in the job he loved as administrator and creative force behind the Makeshweg Festival. However, while the story ends with Felix supposedly living happily ever after there is a chapter devoted to epilogues where the actors imagine what happened to the play’s principal characters after they left the island where they were imprisoned.

The invention of the prisoners providing their own epilogues would have solved an interesting problem for the author as in Shakespeare’s epilogue in The Tempest Prospero speaks directly to the audience and says that he has voluntarily given up his magic and stripped himself down to the state of being an ordinary mortal trusting in the good will of the world to allow him to escape his island prison and carry on just like everyone else. This epilogue is thought by some scholars to represent Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage because it was one of the last plays he wrote before he returned to his home town to spend the rest of his life as a businessman. However, in Hagseed, Felix is entering a phase of his life when he can revive his old magical powers of creating art in the theatre. Well, such re-tellings do not work for the reader unless the reader is willing to go along on the adventure and is open to the spirit of the invention. This is a funny, entertaining book …  “our revels now have ended…” it would be unforgivably petty to nit-pick!

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

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I shall be honest, I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to be a slow read. It was only after I had reached its second half that it gathered momentum for me. I think my problem was that I could not figure out whether I was reading magic realism, satire or if the author was simply mocking a credulous reader. However, my perseverance was rewarded because towards the end I could only conclude that Arundhati Roy has accomplished a breath-taking collage of characters, places and events that presents itself like some great wild impressionist painting in Van Gough-like bold brush strokes. Also, much to my shame, I know little about India and recall certain pivotal events as such as the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal as vague and far away. 

The novel begins with the story of Anjum, welcomed into the world as Aftab, a boy who later, by way of some very rough surgery, transgenders to a woman. Anjum is born into a Muslim family living in the centre of largely Hindu Delhi.  By chance he finds his way to a hyjra colony, hyjra being the collective term for transgender individuals of every kind. Here Anjum finds the support she needs to make her way in the world as a transgender woman. However, Anjum very nearly loses her life during a doomed political demonstration. In shock and depressed she creates her own sheltering retreat in an abandoned cemetery in the heart of Dehili. Here in a haphazard way she attracts a sort of community for marginalized individuals, those of lower caste or those who are ostracized because of their work such as the garbage collectors and the grave diggers.

The second half of the story introduces a young woman called Tilo who is enrolled in an architectural school and who is loved by three men, fellow students also studying architecture. Tilo pursues a doomed relationship with one of these students, Musa.  The story then moves into the troubled area of Kashmir, a place of stunning geographic beauty torn apart by the India/ Pakistan struggle over borders on the one hand and an indigenous independence movement on the other. 

Without giving away anything to spoil the story I will just say there is a satisfactory coming together of all the bits and pieces towards the end. However, the overall tone of the novel is one of a frantic undecipherable sort of world with insurmountable problems and unresolvable conflict. This would be depressing except the novel’s message is one of redemption rising out of human compassion. The word ‘Ministry’ in the title at first reading implies the idea of a political entity but as I read into the book it occurred to me that it could also be thought of as a synonym for healing as this is a story of how people from widely different backgrounds come together to form a family without being blood relations. Such a union is formed out of compassion. The Ministry of Utmost Kindnessgathers together the broken and sick in spirit and administers to their wounds. In this respect I am reminded of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain where there is a similar pattern of ill and suffering souls coming together and creating a sort of sheltering family. 

The reader needs patience to allow this book to unfold and enough curiosity to go down the tendrilled backroads and byways it explores. The artistry achieved is the way in which the author brings together so many events and characters: the important ones, the secondary ones and the ones who are mere decoration and with this raw material creates a unified story. The effect is quite stunning! 

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

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This book has some of the most selfish and self-centered characters one could ever meet in English literature and yet they are engaging, often charming and horrifying at the same time. The reader is bound to them almost obsessively. 

TheBlack Prince is introduced by a fictional editor named P. Loxias, a character who is never developed beyond his short introduction. Bradley Pearce is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. According to his own estimation he is a minor, modern British writer with unexplored potential. We are told at the outset by P. Loxias that Bradley is deceased and this account has been published posthumously.  Bradley says in his introduction that he will set out his autobiography in a fictional style to make it more readable. The first chapter launches into one chaotic episode after another, a pattern that continues to the story’s end. It begins with a frantic telephone call from, Rachel, the wife of Bradley’s friend and fellow author, Arnold Baffin.  Rachel begs Bradley’s to hasten to her aid because she fears she has killed her husband in a round of domestic violence, (she hit him with a fire-iron). Bradley complies but only reluctantly because he has rented a country cottage and was just about to leave his London apartment with plans to retreat from the world and write what he hopes will be his magnum opus. He is a recently retired tax inspector who has for many years put his writing career on hold in order to earn his living. Up to this point he has already published a few long-forgotten works of fiction but is convinced he will one day write a literary masterpiece. Arnold Baffin, on the other hand, is a successful novelist who has lived the writing life that Bradley envies. Even more irritating to Bradley is that he mentored Arnold helping to launch his successful writing career and subsequently Arnold produced one best-selling novel after another.  Bradley scorns Arnold’s output as ‘popular’ fiction, transitory and not true art. 

In subsequent chapters Bradley’s life spins into a total mess. He begins to carry on a sort of Platonic affair with Rachel while dealing with his alcoholic ex-brother in law and his sister, Priscilla who is threatening to kill herself over her troubled marriage. Then there is his ex-wife, Christian who wants him to consider a possible reconciliation.  Finally, Bradley irrevocably complicates his plans to write his great novel by talking himself into being in love with a most unlikely person.

Bradley is the quintessential unreliable narrator. He portrays himself as the injured party in every relationship and the one who is inconvenienced and thwarted at every turn in his endeavour to become an author. He truly believes he is an under-appreciated artist. However, his actions lead the reader to wonder if he is just a dreamer and a procrastinator incapable of getting over his ego to a point where he might have something to say about art, passion, Eros and the human condition which are the themes he has chosen for his writing as well as the source of the lifelong melancholia that has plagued his adult life.

This book was shortlisted for the 1972 Booker Prize and is remembered as one Iris Murdoch’s most engaging works. There is strong sure-footed prose with lots of gorgeous adjectives. The title, The Black Princeis a reference to Hamlet who was perhaps just as great an equivocator as Bradley. This is especially apparent when Bradley talks himself into being passionately in love in a way that is nothing short of excruciating. He develops a giant elephant size love for a tiny grey mousey character and somehow, I was reminded of Humbert Humbert and Lolita. A clever device is added at the end of the novel when each of the characters offers his/her own interpretation of events adding to what appears to be an epidemic of self-deception. 

The Black Princewas constructed in such a way as to remind one of the advice Jane Austen once gave a young writer, that is, limiting the story to “two or three families in a country village.” Granted, the story is set in London for the most part but the atmosphere is built around two or three domestic establishments of one chaotic sort or another. London itself remains at a distance so the characters might just as well be living in a village as they never seem to be engaged in the greater world. Although London does intrude from time to time. Bradley’s apartment is in the shadow of the London Post Office Tower. It looms as a great phallic symbol casting its shadow over Bradley and his entire neighbourhood. Bradley imagines himself to be a creature capable of a pure, spiritual love but is a servant to biology despite his high-minded ideals. 

The edition of The Black Princethat I read was a reprint in soft cover by Penguin Vintage Press, an admirable undertaking by the publisher as Iris Murdoch’s work is eminently readable and re-readable.

The Transit of Venus By Shirley Hazard

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This title was mentioned in passing during a panel discussion I heard on the radio a few years ago. I went out and bought the book immediately but it has only just surfaced out of my bedside inventory and I am sorry it took so long for me to discover the work of the late Shirley Hazzard. I am sorry as well, that her output, much like some of my favourite authors (Jane Austen, The Brontë sisters, even Mrs. Gaskell) is much too small. Her writing is astonishingly well done. It is as much her sentence construction as it is the weaving of her story that makes her fiction so readable.

The title refers to an astronomical phenomenon that is a sort of face to face encounter of the earth and Venus when Venus can be seen with the unaided eye crossing in front of the sun, visible as a tiny black dot. The transit occurs in pairs of crossings split eight years apart. Thus the phenomenon occurred in this century with Venus making her crossing in June of 2004 and again in June of 2012. These pairs of transits occur every one hundred and five years. The next pair won’t occur until 2117 and 2125. So, with such a deliberately evocative title as: The Transit of Venus the reader, feels compelled to look for metaphors.

The story concerns two sisters born in Australia who are orphaned as children and raised by their older, stepsister Dora who sees her rôle in life as an unappreciated self-sacrificing martyr.  Shortly after the second World War they all move to England in search of a better life. The older sister, Caro, (diminutive for Caroline), wrote the civil service exams and found a job as a linguist/translator with the ministry of foreign affairs while the younger sister, Grace  married a highly placed career civil servant named Christian Thrale,  the son of a well-known  astronomer Professor Sefton Thrale. The trajectory of Caro’s life is influenced by her unfortunate misalliance with a successful but married playwright, Paul Ivory while Grace settled into a more conventional life with husband, in-laws and children. They each make their way guided, if the metaphor is pursued, by the influence of Venus, the planet named for the goddess of love.

Caro is also linked to the young astronomer, Ted Tice who she met through Grace’s father in-law. His transit has a much more rocky passage across the sun as his love for Caro is unrequited. Caro eventually regroups and leaves her playwright lover behind for an American social activist named Adam Vail with whom she moves to New York . Thus, the themes of the story are deliberately and skillfully tied up with pairings and entanglements and personal journeys in twos.  Even Dora finds a partner and is undone or in a way, maybe not, by the choice she makes.

Anyone who appreciates a good story and enjoys the novel form in particular will love this book and want to read it a second time. There are two reasons for this: first, the story engages the attention immediately as the reader is caught up in the  characters’ lives and concerned with their progress and second, it is a novel with hidden surprises that astonish so you may want to go back and figure out how this was done. These surprises are created by seeds of information dropped throughout the story. This casual dropping of clues that turn out to be important later on can be a tricky undertaking . I remember feeling quite annoyed at times with the author Robertson Davies for employing such tactics; thinking he was playing with and teasing his loyal readers. Here I felt no such annoyance, I was thoroughly engaged by the story and accepted the revelations and unravelling of events as the author rolled them out.

I  feel compelled to hunt out Shirley Hazzard’s best known novel The London Fire which is tucked away somewhere in this house and I shall move it toward the top of that  ever growing reading inventory of mine.

There Be Dragons By Stella Gibbons

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Stella Gibbons is best known for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a brilliant work of wit and caustic irreverence aimed at debunking the myth of the English country idyll. She is one of those authors who found it impossible to get beyond the success of her first book because the public loved it so much.  However, in many ways her sharp and bemused observations of that first novel are taken up in Here Be Dragons with a heroine of common sense attempting to negotiate a world that is tilted towards the absurd.

Nell Sely, is nineteen and freshly arrived in London from rural England where she grew up in a small village, the daughter of a country parson. Her father has lost his faith and resigned his position because he could not continue the farce of preaching what he no longer believed. Without a way to earn his living he is forced by penury to move his family to London and seek support from his wealthy sister Lady Fairfax, Nell’s Aunt Peggy, who is a successful actress making a new career for herself as a television personality. In addition to being poor and unemployed Mr. Sely lately (Rev.) suffers from depression and is incapable of finding work while his wife, Anna has no skills whatsoever, beyond keeping house and gardening and furthermore is determinedly disinclined to find work. It falls to their only child, Nell to go out and earn the family a living. This would be a dreary start to a comic novel especially as the house on loan to the Sely family is dark and grim. However, all this gloom is erased by Nell’s optimistic outlook and her excitement at being in a big city and at the starting point of a new life. There is also the distraction of her sixteen year old cousin, John who lives with his father in the upstairs apartment of the same old house. Aunt Peggy is helping out Charles, her ‘ex’, who is having a hard time finding work as an actor. (Although it is implied her motives have more to do with spying on her ex husband and his new wife than helping him out). Despite their age difference, Nell develops a kind of infatuation for John who lives most of his life wandering from one Bohemian-style hovel to another

The book was published in 1956 which would have been around the heyday of the Beat generation. However, Stella Gibbons’ book reads amazingly as if it anticipates the Hippy era that followed in the sixties (skipping over the ‘Mod’ period in between). The free style fashions and the café’s and the hint of recreational drugs are there in the background. There is also the mention of John having to do his compulsory military service which he clearly dreads but rationalizes that time in the military will give him more material he could use as an aspiring writer of fiction.

Nell has youth and optimism on her side and is impervious to the dour outlook of her parents. She had found village life and her time at boarding school uneventful and utterly boring although given her age and the timeframe it must have been during the dangerous and unsettling period of the Second World War. However, with the prospect of getting to know London before her, Nell can only anticipate a future full of opportunity. She starts work as a typing clerk but soon leaves for a position in a tea room working as a waitress where the tips alone pay more than the salary she was earning as a typist. It is in the tearoom that she devises the idea of becoming an entrepreneur.

I lived in London in the  seventies about twenty years after this novel was published and can attest to the same grey rundown feeling that still existed all that time later. It took London a long time to overcome the destruction of the Second World War and though it is not mentioned in this novel, it is logical to think that Nell and John as well as  the other  characters must have lived through that horrifically destructive time. Stella Gibbons describes these young people as being hungry, not just for more life experience as young adults are apt to be but also physically hungry. It was a time of great deprivation. All this is glossed over however by a spirit of optimism,

John is something of an arrogant manipulator of people. He is selfish and thoughtless. While Nell sees all these defects she can’t help be fascinated by his self-confidence and his conviction that he is smarter and cleverer than anyone he is associated with. Nell’s relationship with John reflects her relationship with the new post war world in which she must find her way. Stella Gibbons obviously believes in the promises of focused ambition and hard work.

I must admit that a couple of chapters in I was wondering where this book was going. Aside from one trip to Paris the answer  is: it does not go far but it is excessively interesting to wander through the sort of seedy parts of the city that is described here and wonder how all these young people will turn out after Carnaby Street , Soho  and the Swinging’ Sixties comes into its own and then there is the whole onslaught of Beatlemani. The novel does not venture beyond the one year but it seems obvious to me the characters in this novel will be open to all these future experiences.

The key to this novel is its characters. There is for example, the angst driven, twenty something  Garvis, secretary to Lady Fairfax and Benedict, the starving artist with whom Garvis is in love and Elizabeth, Nell’s wealth,y aristocratic, heiress friend who enjoys dipping her toe into the London’s artistic underworld. Sometimes these characters are in danger of becoming caricatures but the author has kept that in check and cannot be accused of going back to the style of Cold Comfort Farm. Some of the characters get lost to self-destruction, others, such as Nell and Nell’s father, find a sort of redemption. I also saw references to Chekov’s The Seagull with the middle aged actress, Aunt Peggy (like Irina) at the centre because she is the only one with any money and there is John, the aspiring writer who regarded all his relationships as material for his future novels and was even willing to maliciously manipulate his acquaintances to see how they would react (rather like Boris). There is even someone who takes her own life because or unrequited love. In other ways, I was reminded of a Midsummer’s Night Dream, without the forest as the lover’s and prospective lover’s, the beloved and the mistakenly loved, wander about meeting and not meeting. All these references whether actual or imagined makes reading fiction a continuously enriching experience… don’t you think?

 

 

The Sense of an Ending by Julien Barnes

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I read this book some three months ago and was not going to say anything about it here on Fiction Quest because I have only praise to add to the many glowing reviews that were written the year it won the Man Booker. I changed my mind, however,  because it is a novella in form and as such similar to the book I discussed most recently, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman .  I was thinking of how the intensity of a story may be enhanced by keeping it short. There is something irresistible to a writer in embellishing a story by adding details that are quirky or derived from a unique personal experience but such detail can lead to wanderings that build up so that its core ideas are smothered and there occurs the, can’t see the forest for the trees sort of thing. I see examples of that in my own writing and throughout this blog… in fact, I might be doing that now! However, sticking with the story and providing just enough detail to bring characters to life, describing the setting intelligibly and rolling out the narrative at a logical, satisfying pace, these are the skills that belong to the most accomplished artists such as Mr. Barnes whether the story is developed in long or short format.

The Sense of an Ending is about, Tony Webster, a middle-class Englishman, in the early years of his retirement. Unexpectedly, Tony became the beneficiary of a small inheritance from the mother of an old girlfriend, Veronica, who he dated during his undergraduate years and with whom he has had no contact since then. The inheritance includes a small sum of money and a diary written by a High School friend, Adrien Finn who dated and became Veronica’s lover after she and Tony broke up.  Veronica did not share the same degree of ardour as Tony even after they became lovers.  Tony was introduced to Veronica’s family, including her mother who he remembers as being playfully flirtatious with him despite their age difference.  Adrien took his own life while he was still seeing Veronica. The news of this event was a shock to Tony and his friends as Adrien seemed to have a brilliant future ahead of him. So, Tony imagined the diary part of his inheritance would be a clue to the mystery of Adrien’s suicide. However, Veronica had the diary in her possession and refused to pass it over to Tony. This set Tony off on a quest to sort out his memories and try to distinguish what was true and what he had made up to suit the image of the person he imagined himself to be.

Tony tended to use a little creative thinking with respect to his past. Over the years of his marriage he shared stories about his old girlfriends with his wife (which is odd but perfectly consistent with Tony’s character). His wife, who is by this time his ex., gave nicknames to the old girlfriends and Veronica became known as ‘The Fruitcake’ meaning she was slightly manic. The description of Fruitcake was based on Tony’s unflattering descriptions of Veronica generated by his bruised ego because he felt she was always distracted when they were together and never took him seriously or thought highly of him as a lover. He felt she had toyed with his affections and that all the problems with their relationship were of her creation.

In Tony’s world everything is about Tony. He is on good terms with his ex-wife but there is no hope of their ever getting back together again. Tony tells Margaret all the details of the inheritance and the diary he cannot get his hands on. She finds his consternation endlessly amusing, a sort of Tony-centred  sturm und drangShe quickly informs Tony that he is on his own in the solving of this mystery. So, Tony goes to the extreme of tracking Victoria down through lawyers and through her brother and confronting her in way that could almost be described as harassment. Tony never understands that his behaviour is outrageous and driven by his inherent narcissism. Although, there are times the author allows him to become philosophical.  Tony offers this reflection to the reader on aging and memory at the beginning of Part II, page 59 of my copy:

… as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record keeping.

(To me the above sounds more like a comment by Julian Barnes than his protagonist, nonetheless…)

Tony keeps pressing Veronica to hand over the diary he is supposed to have inherited as a legacy. Instead she presents him with a photocopy of a letter he had addressed to both her and Adrian some forty years earlier when he realized Veronica had  dumped him forever for his former friend. It is one of the nastiest pieces of vitriolic you could ever imagine. It’s fury and hurtful content surprises Tony all these years later. He immediately sees the content of the letter for what it is, a sort of hateful curse. He remembers writing the letter but it was something he had put out of his mind altogether and obviously something the present-day Tony would not have wanted to believe he was capable of doing. Eventually Tony is reduced to stalking Veronica in the hope of trying to piece together his past and the fragments of memory he carries around in his head. This plays out as both amusing and sad.

Despite being a short novel there is a lot to take in. I would advise reading it slowly and giving it a chance to unfold. It is worth the time spent watching the characters find their footing in this mire of memory and forgetfulness.

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman

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This novel is a quiet meditation on how difficult it is to part with a world too beautiful to reconcile with the inevitability of death . This description hints of sadness and sounds not at all like a ‘good summer read’. However, the slow thoughtful pace of this short novel (more of a novella) creates a mood that is dreamlike and serene. It is the ideal book for a summer break when the weather allows reading in the shade of a leafy tree (my favourite). After all, it is on those warm summer days that indolence becomes a virtue and is thus the best time to appreciate the pleasure of doing nothing but enjoying a good book.

The story centres around Lydia, the older sister by seven years of the American painter, Mary Cassatt. She is dying of Bright’s disease, an illness that slowly destroys the kidneys and for which there is no cure at this time, the late 1870’s. The setting is Paris and its environs as Mary is beginning to mature as an artist and is being mentored by the well-established impressionist painter, Edgar Degas. Lydia and Mary are living together with their parents in an apartment close to Place Pigalle and Mary’s studio in the 9ème arrondissement. The sisters share a similar sensibility with respect to art and nature and can often read each others thoughts. In this novel there is a progression towards acceptance on Lydia’s part that she is dying without having fulfilled many of her dreams and ambitions. Mary is  overwhelmed with the idea of losing Lydia and as a means of coping with this looming eventuality begins work on a number of paintings with Lydia seated as her subject. This is the structure upon which the novel is built; five paintings of Lydia, like five pillars holding up the novel, like the entrance to a grand house.

This book is as lovely to touch and to look at as it is to read because of the five, small bookplates reproducing  Mary’s pastel coloured paintings of Lydia scattered throughout. The light in these paintings is warm, clear and  joyous, much influenced by Mary’s impressionist contemporaries. They represent a celebration of Lydia’s life. The use of paintings as an inspiration for a work of fiction is not a new device and there are a few examples in some of Fiction Quest’s earlier blogs. I’m thinking of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt,  The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, even, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. The dust jacket of my copy of this book has a comment by Tracy Chevalier who wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, based on a painting by the Dutch artist, Vermeer. So not a unique innovation this, but the structure is particularly well done as in Lydia’s voice the author imagines how her sister puts together each painting  while reflecting on the transformation that occurs through the lens of the artist’s vision. Thus, Lydia regards herself as being, “as plain as bread”, however, in the five portraits painted by her sister she is luminous, rosy,  almost golden, a transference of the emotion from the mind of the artist to the canvas. In her sister’s eyes Lydia is beautiful while, reading a newspaper, sipping tea, even while holding the reigns of a horse and carriage.

To write such a solid and thoughtful story the author would have had to study these five paintings very closely in their intimate detail to credibly match the imagining part of the story-telling with the non-fictional part, that is the biography. I admired the work she put into it and went back to read certain passages just to see how this was done. I think an aspiring writer could learn a great deal about the construction of a novel from how this book is put together while the ‘common reader’ like myself, might just get carried away as one would by a lyrical poem or a piece of music… truly.

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Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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Warlight is a textured mosaic of people and places. It is a mystery story, a spy novel, a signature work written by Michael Ondaatje, the master storyteller, told with a lyrical virtuosity that reminds me of his earlier novels, The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion. The story begins in London in the mid 1940’s when England is beginning its recovery from World War II. There is still much rubble to clear way from bombed out buildings and an overall atmosphere of weariness and deprivation.  The story is told from the point of view of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel. He and his older sister Rachael have spent the war years in the countryside where it was relatively safe from the constant bombing. Their parents remained in the city and contributed to the war effort in undefined, clandestine  government jobs or so the children are led to believe.   The family is reunited in 1945 to begin post war life in a rambling old house in South London close to the Thames and its mass of tendrilling water canals.

The effort to build a quiet family life is postponed when mother and father announce they are going to Singapore for a year because of the father’s employment. The plan is for Nathaniel and Rachel to attend a boarding school spending holidays and weekends in the family home in the care of a mysterious character already living in the third story of their house as a boarder. The children nicknamed him ‘The Moth’ because of his quiet, reclusive presence. Nathaniel and Rachael have no choice but to accept the situation and do not question what is going on until after the parents have been gone several months. They find their mother’s travel trunk hidden in the basement with all the clothes she had carefully packed for the year she was supposedly spending in Singapore. The Moth offers no explanation of where the parents have gone and if they are safe. Nathaniel and Rachel  are understandably upset and start to act out their anxieties in ways that get them in trouble at school. They end up being expelled from their boarding school but with the help of the Moth a compromise is reached allowing them to return as day students while living in the family home with the mysterious Moth. A second  character takes up residence in their London home, an ex-professional boxer who acquires the nickname of the Pimlico Darter. An assortment of mysterious ragtag friends and acquaintances of The Moth and the Darter fill the house at night and gradually it becomes evident the parents have left for reasons that relate to their wartime activities and not their father’s employment. Nathaniel and Rachel lose interest in school and become involved in the underground these strange individuals inhabit. They live on the edge of a criminal world and accompany the Darter as he goes go up and down the Thames carrying a cargo comprised for the most part of shy, illegally imported greyhounds with fake pedigrees.

The story is embellished with ventures into the dodgier corners of London. The moth finds a job for Nathaniel in the night laundry of the Criterion Hotel where he meets and forms a romantic friendship with Agnes, a girl his own age. Agnes has a brother who is a real estate agent and access to a variety of empty houses where she and Nathaniel can meet tête à tête. Often they accompany the Darter on  his smuggling activities. Then the story jumps to  about twenty years  in the future when Nathaniel works for an archives kept by the British Secret Service. He is still trying to piece together the mystery of his parent’s and particulrly, his mother’s wartime activities.

I have not revealed many of Warlight’s details because the pleasure and enjoyment of this book is in the colouring of character and atmosphere. It is a book that is totally absorbing so be prepared to lose sleep because once you start you will be reading late into the night. Do not neglect to read the author’s acknowledgements at the end. The books mentioned provide insight into where a writer finds inspiration which is basically everywhere and serendipitously and with luck . You will appreciate that the bits and pieces gathered far and wide are magically transformed into something brilliant in the mind of an artist.

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

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Set in a small seaside town in southern India, this novel introduces a Brahman family living a diminished, but genteel lifestyle in a crumbling mansion. The father and patriarch of the family is named Sripathi and is in his early sixties. The author introduces him as he is indulging in a passion for creative writing with the sounds of town life tumbling in his windows. In this introductory scene he is writing a letter to a newspaper under a pseudonym. We soon learn he always wanted to be a journalist but his mother expected him to become a medical doctor. He disappointed her and dropped out of medical school. Eventually he was employed writing advertising for a small company owned by a friend of the family. Writing letters to the editor is just a way to satisfy a longing to do something creative.  The other members of the family also invent coping strategies of their own to deal with life’s disappointments.  Sripathi’s wife, Nirmala quietly runs the household doing much of the daily domestic work but teaches dancing in the family sitting room to earn a little income. His middle aged sister Putti, dreams of marrying and having her own independent household and leans over her balcony sending lovelorn signals to the bachelor next door, a man of a lower caste suspected of being a criminal. At the same time Ammayya, Sripathi’s mother wanders around the house desperately clinging to old, disappearing values showing her frustration with the modern world by indulging in angry tirades and sometimes stealing other people’s valuables. There is also a son named Arun; a student more interested in political protest than pursuing his studies.  Finally there is Maya, the beloved, golden daughter who went to study in America but who refused to agree to an arranged marriage with a young man from a wealthy Indian family. Instead, she followed her heart and married a Canadian from Vancouver. Sripathi was so embittered by Maya’s rejection of what he thought was a brilliant marriage he severed all family connections with her. Maya’s mother, Nirmala brokenheartedly supported her husband in the severing of ties but prayed earnestly for a father daughter reconciliation especially after a little granddaughter is born. The opportunity to forgive and reconcile is lost forever when Maya and her husband are killed in a car accident. Sripathi, struggling with grief and remorse travelled to Canada to bring, seven-year-old Nandami back to live with the Indian family she did not know. Nandami is traumatized by these events and stops talking, rendered mute by the shock of loosing both her parents and her home.

This could have become a maudlin, sentimental melodrama but the author has kept it fresh and down to earth with compassion and humour. It is a story that offers insight into the forces of change rippling through everyday life in India. The family house Sripathi has inherited is mildewed and crumbling and so are many of the old mores and traditions in his town. However, family love proves stronger than the material world. The spread of popular culture, social media and socio economic change in general causes upheaval within this village like a cultural earthquake shaking up everything in the way of change. Sripathi lives with the pain of not having reconciled with his daughter before her sudden death but forgives himself enough to eventually find joy in watching his little grandchild grow and heal after the terrible loss of her parents. The reader who is looking on with the same view as the omniscient narrator can see that Maya was given an excellent liberal education where she excelled and learned all the skills of an independent thinker. Thus, in following a path of her own creation it is not surprising her plans would not be the same as her parents. Her father chose to sacrifice his dream of becoming a writer in order to stay close to his family but lives with the lingering sadness over the road not taken. He never comes to terms with the contradictory notion of raising a daughter to be strong and independently minded who then pursues a future that did not include the expectations of her parents.

The title, The Hero’s Walk, is never clearly explained. A reference is made during one of Nirmala’s dance classes to a dance step of the same name that represents a story out of Hindu mythology. She teaches traditional dance and it seems even the old dance arts must adapt to the new era as they are taught for pleasure and novelty rather than to teach religious values or as part of a sacred festival. If heroism is synonymous with bravery that has it’s origins in love and compassion then this shows how all of them must walk like heros even while living an ordinary life as an ordinary family in a small town in India.

This novel has a lush texture that evokes a town on the edge of the ocean enduring the summer heat by catching every cooling breath that drifts across the sea. The seasonal humidity settles oppressively and then breaks into the warm rains that relentlessly hammer into the streets and on the rooftops. It is amazing to me how as a reader I could be transported so immediately to this heavily scented tropical climate. It was almost a virtual holiday as I read The Hero’s Walk in the midst of a cold, Canadian winter. Perhaps I was more open to its imaginings because winter seemed particularly harsh this year.

The author’s special talent is her ability to enter the thoughts and feelings of her characters. It allowed the reader to get close to all these individuals making them more real than fictional. The reader even feels sympathy for the ill tempered grandmother, Ammayya who stamps around the house disrupting domestic harmony by stealing or destroying other peoples possessions just to vent her frustration with the fact that she did not have the marriage or the status that she was promised and to which she felt entitled as a young girl from a respected Brahman family. To get inside the hearts of so many characters is a remarkable accomplishment. It is so much easier to write about one main character interacting with a collection of minor ones. Here the author has created a complex mosaic (overused metaphor but apt) of players whose actions we readers can sometimes deplore but which we can understand with empathy.

This is a very readable novel.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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              This story begins in suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s with Bert Cousins arriving at the Christening party of baby Franny Keating. Bert is a lawyer associated with the attorney general’s office. He has not been invited to the party but heard about it through a colleague and, being a bit of a scoundrel, takes advantage of the occasion to escape having to spend Sunday with his own young, boisterous family. Franny’s father, Fix Keating, answers the door and lets Bert in, vaguely recognising him from his work as a police detective. Bert brings an odd christening gift, a large bottle of vodka and proceeds to insinuate his way into the festivities picking the ripe oranges from a backyard tree and squeezing the juice with the help of Fix’s beautiful wife, Beverley. They mix cocktails that make the rounds of the party until everyone is just a little tipsy. The occasion is sunny and sumptuously sensuous and everyone’s life is changed forever when Beverley and Bert share a kiss. Two divorces ensue and eventually Bert and Beverley settle in Virginia while Bert’s ex wife and children go on living in California as does Fix. There is no blending of two families here but a loose commonwealth of broken ones. Fix and Beverley’s two daughters Franny and Caroline live in Virginia and visit their father on holiday. Bert’s four children spend the summer vacations with Bert and Beverley in Virginia. During the summer the six children are sometimes thrown together and left on their own to get along. Bert and Beverley are the exact opposite of helicopter parents and are so infatuated with each other they are content to sleep away their mornings while the children wander about looking for amusement. Tragedy ensues when, during one of these collective vacations one of Bert’s children dies. The finer details of the circumstance linked to the child’s death remain a secret among the children as only they know exactly what went on that day and even then, it is only with the passage of time they come to fully understand the truth. Here, the first half of the story ends.

The novel leaps ahead almost thirty years and Franny is having an affair with a well-established novelist named Leo Posen who is much older than she is. He is going through a period of writer’s block and desperate for inspiration. He mulls over the stories Franny has told him about her childhood and the commonwealth of children and parents. He uses these details to construct a new and subsequently prizewinning novel. The other family members quickly come to recognise that Leo’s novel is the retelling of the Keating-Cousins story. Confrontation ensues, then reconciliation and finally an understanding of sorts. … and so the story goes, back and forth in time from one event to another, filtered through the different characters. The truth is obscured by the way memory edits events. Fiction can pick and choose details from anywhere to serve a story without having to answer for the consequences because in the end it is just a story.

The novel was constructed cleverly. It has ten characters and covers a period of fifty years in in 322 pages. The fact that it has not taken on the proportions of War and Peace is an accomplishment in itself. The way the Ann Patchett did this was by selectively dipping into the stream of each character’s biography at different times in their lives, spending a very little time with some and long periods with some of the others such as Franny. Readers were meant to fill in the gaps. However I felt a few of the gaps are too wide. One big omission was some understanding of what Beverley found in Bert Cousins that would cause her to leave her first husband. Fix is described as a perfectly amiable sort while Bert is a bit of a cad having few redeeming characteristics except that he was good looking and successful at work.  Until the very last chapter there is no insight into Beverley’s character or any attempt to elaborate her motives. In some biographical note I learned that the author herself was the child of a broken family cobbled together after divorce and remarriage. I am wondering if the lack of empathy with Beverley as a woman, wife and mother is a reflection of something profoundly painful in the author’s life that has dissuaded her from thinking about the unthinkable; a mother sacrificing her family for a handsome stranger who arrives uninvited to a christening party.

           Perhaps the reason I struggled with this book is because I can be a lazy reader and felt in this case I had to work quite hard to imagine the missing details. The prose was lovely but not lovely enough for me to say I particularly enjoyed The Commonwealth.

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

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In this, the author’s most recent historical novel, the characters are drawn from a completely different source.  The characters who inspired the story Longbourn by Jo Baker are fictional, based on the much admired Pride and Prejudice of Jane Austen.  However, in contrast, A Country Road, A Tree, imagines the life and thoughts of the very real, Nobel Prize winning Irish writer, Samuel Beckett. The novel is set in the troubled times of the Second World War when Beckett lived as an ex-pat in Nazi occupied Paris and eventually began working for the French Resistance.

The title A Country Road a Tree is taken from the Beckett’s stage directions for his most famous play, Waiting for Godot   I’ve seen the play performed twice; once as an amateur production in Paris in the early 1970’s and the second time at the Beaverbrook Theatre in Fredericton, New Brunswick. If you have seen the play staged as Beckett directed the title of this novel will instantly resonate with you. The setting is stark with the naked horizon as a backdrop and in the middle the only prop, a leafless tree.

I thought the Jo Baker did an excellent job of imagining the city of light dimmed and trampled by the Nazi invasion. I should be more precise and say that it is the spirit of the city that is portrayed as being trampled because the city itself remained largely unharmed. Some writers insist the only reason the French authorities capitulated was because they did not want Paris to be bombed and its monuments destroyed as would eventually happen in London and later in places like Dresden and Berlin where the Allies did the bombing. The Parisian monuments remained unharmed but a heavy price was paid in the suffering of the Parisians.  The author builds an atmosphere of desolation and fear, of empty streets and empty cafés and materially impoverished shops with nothing to sell.

Samuel Becket moved from Ireland to Paris post WW I to pursue a writing career and the artist’s life as had generations of artists before him. However, the Bohemian lifestyle did not release his creativity. Somewhere his muse remained locked up and silent. In the interim he attached himself to fellow Irishman, James Joyce, as his amanuensis. Joyce needed the help of an intelligent, sympathetic secretary as he was going blind and could no longer physically write. Beckett was deeply involved in the writing of Joyce’s last work, Finnegan’s Wake. However Jo Baker would have it that Joyce was either miserly or not in good financial shape himself as he did not pay Beckett very well. When it came time for Joyce and family to leave Paris, Beckett’s last pay consisted of one of Joyce’s old winter coats, which in this account was felt by Beckett as a profound humiliation. However, it underlined the depth of Beckett’s poverty in that he wore it out of necessity throughout the war. Fortunately Beckett was blessed with a girlfriend and lover in Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesni who was also an artist, a pianist as well as an activist who likely introduced Beckett to the French Resistance They became fellow escapees to Roussillon in the south of France when Paris became too dangerous for them to live in.

I thought the imaginative work behind this book was very effective. It is a somewhat shorter novel in format but it’s emotional content is intense. The erosion of the human spirit due to slow starvation and thirst is skilfully portrayed.  Beckett and Suzanne endure such extremes of thirst that at times they suck on smooth stones to ease their suffering. Jo Baker shows how the Nazis stripped the city and the country of everything of any value using all resources to support the war machine.

At one point in the novel the author describes a scene where Beckett and Susanne are waiting at night at a crossroads in the lonely countryside with only a tree stripped of its leaves for company. They are not waiting for someone called Godot but for a fellow member of the underground who is to show them a way through the back country to the relative safety in the so called Free Zone in the south of France. The novelist imagines this setting to be identical to the one Becket would create when he wrote his famous play and makes the event seem entirely probably.

The novel evokes sadness and loss as well as hope in the creative energy that rises out of the fight against the destructive forces of a foreign invasion. There is enough drama to keep events moving at a pace that effortlessly retains the reader’s interest.  I was also impressed by the way the author maintained the feeling of oppression like a single note suspended on a stringed instrument. The tone is grey and sombre but the novel is  not glum. It is entirely readable because the author was able to hold on to the view of some distant horizon of hope. Readability is also maintain by the depth of the texture Jo Baker has added to the novel. She has taken the time to vividly describe something such as the sensuousness of washing ones hair after being deprived of that simple pleasure over a long period of time or the soul shattering alarm that riddles a body with fear at the distant sound of artillery fire. The author’s skill is surely proven in that none of the story telling is diminished nor the ending spoiled by the fact that we know in advance how things turn out. France is liberated, reconstruction begins, the broken bits of civilian life are clumsily glued back together and Samuel Beckett discovers his muse is alive and ready to inspire his writing.

Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Last Friends: A Trilogy by Jane Gardam

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This trilogy by Jane Gardam has to be read in sequence to be fully enjoyed, although the story itself is not told chronologically. It begins at the end; the last years in the life of Edward Feathers or ‘Filth’, its principal character. A bit off-putting that title; but Filth is a self-deprecating acronym Edward created to describe himself and stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong.  Each volume is page-turningly funny and mixes mystery with a little poignancy to keep it interesting.

Edward Feathers is a ‘Raj’ orphan though he never lived in India. The term, Raj orphan is  used to describe the children  of  ex-pat British bureaucrats sent to Britain by well-meaning parents to receive a Western, boarding school education. From a modern perspective we do not think of the colonizer as a damaged victim of colonization but these children  were more often billeted with strangers and grew up without the nurturing love of their families. They could not avoid being traumatized to some degree. In Edward’s case he was born in Malay and never knew his mother who died giving birth to him.  His father was a British colonial functionary  posted to a remote village. He was a veteran of WWI and suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. He handed over the care of his infant son to a Malay nanny. In his earliest years Edward was raised and lived happily  as one of the village children. However, when he was four he was snatched out of his adoptive family’s care and sent to board with a mean, churlish couple in a remote part of Wales. It was only in later years at a boarding school run by a headmaster who viewed the world with the lively curiosity and enthusiasm of a boy scout that Edward found a kindness that could redeem his view of humanity. Edward goes on to pursue a career as a lawyer specializing in construction law and is eventually appointed to the bench in Hong Kong. The only hint of the early childhood abuse he suffered was a life long burden of a speech impediment he could not quite conquer.

Edward’s life and career are the subject of the first novel. The second, The Man in the Wooden Hat, is told from the point of view of Betty, Edward’s beautiful free-spirited wife. She too is a Raj orphan but arising from circumstances different from those of Edward. Her parents were missionaries in China and  spent WWII in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. They died in the camp and Betty  grew up in England in the care of her Uncle Willy and his wife Dorcas. She is introduced in the first novel on the day of her unexpected death. The great passion of her old age is her garden and thus while on her knees planting tulips outside her country home in Dorset, England she abandons Edward to widowhood. She looks up to see Edward standing in one of the windows pretending to shoot crows with his walking cane. She takes a set of pearls out of her pocket and deliberately buries them with the tulip bulbs and then her heart stops.  The story of her lifelong love affaire,  the two sets of  pearls she received as gifts and the secret of why her marriage was childless when she longed to have a large family  is skillfully pieced together throughout the second novel.

The third volume, Last Friends, reveals the background of Edward’s much despised chief opponent in law Terry Veneering. Terry grew up in an isolated English seaside village. His mother delivered coal for a living and his father, a circus performer from Odessa and maybe a Russian spy, was confined to his bed because of a back injury. A combination of intelligence, good luck and personal charm lifted Veneering out of his impoverished childhood and set him on a course leading to a brilliant career as a lawyer. Edward Feather’s was his arch rival in both law and love. The third volume also gathers in some loose threads of the  stories that belong to secondary characters and brings everything to a reasonably tidy ending.

Secrets revealed and not revealed and the silences between words are the devices that make this trilogy an engrossing read. The reader catches glimpses of events that build and change lives and sometimes crash destructively though the principal characters remain resilient. At times a minor character takes on a more important role but fits into the pattern of the story logically so that the reader must acknowledge that it all makes sence in the overall telling.

There is a light heartedness behind this writing that occasionally pauses to pose a serious and unanswerable question. One such example is when Edward Feathers, the Judge in Hong Kong must justify to his own conscience condemning to death a man of Chinese origin who has been judged not by his own indigenous laws but  by those of a colonial intruder. I think it is this deeper texturing of the novel; it’s subtle and sometimes not so subtle shading that secures it as an engaging read

A Good House by Bonnie Bernard

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On the surface this is a quiet, simple story of a family living in small town Ontario. Quiet but not exempt from the influence of world events and beneath the surface the drama; comic and tragic, of caring for and raising children. The story begins in 1949; a wounded Bill Chambers has returned from World War II missing enough of his right hand to forcefully compel his left hand to become dominant. He finds a job working in a hardware store in the town of his birth and  buys a small house on a quiet street where he and his wife Sylvia settle down to raise their three children. The author enriches the lives of each character with the ordinary events that ripple down the years. Some occurrences happen in the blink of an eye and are devastating, such as a child’s face being damaged and scarred irreparably during a neighbourhood mock circus. As well, events occur over time leaving  lasting effects such as the long illness and death of the children’s mother or later, the migration of family members away from their small town to pursue their ambitions and livelihoods in other places.

I read this book quite a while back in February month. I have not been faithful to this blog because a member of my personal good house is making the difficult  journey toward wellness in a  struggle with cancer. This delay has coloured my reflections on this book and I have changed my mind several times as to what some of its nuances signify.  The Good House, of the title is of course not just a building although the Chambers’s childhood house provides solid shelter during both the joyous and the difficult times. However, a house can also mean a family unit as in the House of Tudor or the House of Borgia (in this case without the poison)  or even something more substantial such as the House of Parliament.  A house is a collection of individuals small or large, who stand together in solidarity supporting each other as a sort of bedrock institution.

I liked the structure of this novel. The author has divided the book into nine chapters each one based on a year taken from the Chambers’s family life. The first chapter begins in 1949, the last in 1997. The years chart the progress of the family over three generations. The post war nuclear family grows and reconfigures over the decades. Its members experience widowhood, remarriage, divorce, conventional marriages, unconventional unions, children who are orphaned but regroup and are gathered together in love and other children who have secret parents but always there is the bond of caring and human decency.

The writing is achieved with a delicate touch, sometimes humourous and often close to nature and the strength that can be drawn from lakes and trees and the very grass that surrounds the ‘good’ house. Life that is everywhere nourishes the family as does the strength drawn from love and of friendship.

Bonnie Bernard died in the spring of this year leaving a slight but significant body of work . She was the recipient of many awards including the Giller prize for A Good House.

 

The Wonder By Emma Donoghue

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I had my doubts about this book when I read the brief description on the cover. I thought it might be a little gimmicky. The story is about a young Irish girl, Anna O’Donnell living in an impoverished part of mid-nineteenth century Ireland who stops eating on her eleventh birthday. Her family claims she lives on nothing but thin air and a few sips of water. The rumour spreads in this traditional, Catholic part of Ireland, that she is the product of a miracle and visitors come from as far away as America to satisfy their curiosity and to ask her to pray for them. Some of the local leaders come together and hire a young widow, Elizabeth (Lib) Wright, to conduct an around the clock watch over this wonder child. Lib is an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale and was part of the famous corps of nurses who tended the wounded and the dying in field hospitals during the Crimean War. Lib’s Irish employers want her to partner with a local nun, (who is also a nurse), in setting up a twenty-four hour bedside vigil to observe Anna and determine how such a fraud is executed, as there are those who want to raise Ireland out of what they perceive as its ancient superstitions. At the same time there are others in the background who are hoping there is some kind of verifiable miracle occurring and that Anna may eventually become a modern-day Irish saint. A third group is made up of pseudo scientists who hypothesize there might be a scientific explanation as to how Anna can survive without food.

As the novel opens Lib is travelling in a shabby cart into the interior of the island. It is an area that was hit hard by famine some years before leaving in its wake a ragged population weighed down by poverty, the main sources of employment being subsistence farming and the harvesting of peat for fuel. She is settled in a little hovel of a hotel and eventually introduced into the household where Anna lives. Lib is skeptical and does not believe in miracles being something of an atheist. She is certainly not a believer in earthly wonders. Even before meeting Anna, Lib assumes the child has gone along with the deception as a means of getting attention and that her family is some how slipping food to her. A few days into her job she begins to change her mind and to care for Anna, a bright, intelligent child who is thoughtful in nature and loves riddles and guessing games.

The plot of this story is propelled forward by the mystery of how Anna is managing to stay alive and what has motivated her to go on such a fast. Also, Lib’s feelings become conflicted as she realizes Anna’s health, which was poor to begin with, is in rapid decline and this decline is accelerating almost by the hour as the watch progresses. The logical conclusion is that with Lib’s arrival, whoever has been feeding Anna in the past is now prevented from doing so and thus Lib’s presence is contributing to Anna possibly starving to death. Lib is tormented as this is going against everything her vocation as a Nightingale nurse represents.

The concept of nursing as a profession is an interesting theme that recurs in this novel. Lib was widowed within a year of being married. After her husband’s death she was offered the  opportunity to train to be a nurse and she seized upon it to as a means of achieving her independence and finding meaningful work. This was a daring, and for her contemporaries an incomprehensible thing for a young, educated middle class woman to do. There is a beautifully written short biography of Florence Nightingale in Eminent Victorians,  by Lytton Strachey. In the first few pages the author describes what the term ‘nurse’ meant before Florence Nightingale elevated the profession to the high standards it adheres to today. Thus before Florence Nightingale’s intervention a ‘nurse’ meant:

“… a coarse old woman, always arrogant, usually dirty, often brutal, a Mrs. Gump, in bunched-up sordid garments, tippling at the brandy bottle or indulging in worse irregularities. The nurses in the hospitals were especially notorious for immoral conduct; sobriety was almost unknown among them; and they could hardly be trusted to carry out the simplest medical duties.” [Eminent Victorians. L Strachey, The Folio Press 1979, p 125].

At the time Lib became a nurse it would have seemed quite absurd, even a crazy thing for a middle class women to want to do. However, strong-minded women such as Lib, took up the work with a zeal reserved for missionaries. The reformed nursing profession would not only be founded solidly on service to humanity but it would become a means for a woman to obtain financial independence in a world where there were few ways for them to have a decent life outside marriage and the home.

The Wonder is nicely paced and describes a time and a place where religion and reason  were barely tolerated side by side. Emma Donahue, who is Irish by birth, deals with this by cleverly using Lib as an outsider and a non believer. The reader observes the ritual ordering of the day around prayer and faith through the eyes of a secular, worldly-wise witness  while making us believe in the sincerity of the devout little girl.

This novel has lots of elements of a good story:  dark family secrets, intrigue, dubious relationships, opportunistic profit seekers and even romance. Lib’s stay in Ireland is an adventure and it is in a spirit of adventure the conflicts of this novel are resolved. This book is both insightful and entertaining.  It does not disappoint in terms of its narrative architecture. However, I am not quite sure about the ending as it seemed to me a little implausible but I won’t loiter near that subject as it is bordering on the criminal to give away the ending of a book to anyone who has as yet not read it.

Still Life by Louise Penny

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Crime fiction can be so addictive when it is well done. Still Life is the first novel I have read by crime fiction writer Louise Penney and already I am a follower. In fact, I have purchased another two of her novels to add to my ever growing bedside hoard of ‘books to be read’.

Still Life is the first of a dozen or so novels in the Inspector Gamache series. Like all good crime novels Still Life has a mysterious murder imbedded in odd circumstances. In this case, the murder takes place in a wooded area and if one were not as astute as the insightful Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté du Quebec one might be fooled into thinking it was more of a hunting accident than a murder. However the Chief Inspector has enough experience to trust his police instincts and pursues the case stubbornly even when his superiors think his methods are out-dated and he is wasting police time to the point of insubordination.

There is a cast of interesting characters and principal among these it the little town of Three Pines in the eastern townships of Quebec; an idyllic place, with comfortable old cottages and Victorian homes. It is set in a quiet area surrounded by greenery, abundant in gardens and close to woodlands that invite the inhabitants to stroll among the maple trees and pines of southern Quebec. Three Pines also has the advantage of having a little ‘downtown’ area with a few boutique style shops for the tourists and a café where patrons can enjoy an excellent espresso. Life could not be more perfect in such a location except there is more murderous activity in this little corner of the world than occurs in all of Canada as a whole. However, that is the charm of crime fiction. Evil lurks like a smouldering dragon behind the facade of a little Paradise and then along comes an eponymous Saint George, such as the Chief Inspector, to do battle and roust Evil out and send him off to gaol.

There is a risk of such a work becoming prosaic and boring but Louise Penney has provided the twists and turns and the diverting, cul-de-sacs that make this a good read. It also instills a strong desire in the reader to go and visit this beautiful area of Quebec with the hope of enjoying the serenity of walking through its forests without the  misadventure of discovering a corpse behind every second tree.

This is a pleasant read that does not require too much concentration and the blood spilling is minimal. I am inclined to save such reading for a foul weather afternoon at home in a comfortable chair. Still Life, can be read in about two sittings. Be prepared to be entertained.

 

The Marble Collector by Cecelia Ahern

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This is a very readable and cleverly structured work but perhaps I have done it an injustice by reading it as a sort of, ‘coming up for air’, break during a marathon Christmas read of Elaine Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The writings of these two authors have different qualities and should not be compared. At the same time, while acknowledging the readability of, The Marble Collector, there was something about it that did not sit well with me and I have concluded the problem is a lack of verisimilitude in some of the detailing and not enough story to justify its elaborate structure.

There are two narratives in this novel that run parallel to each other in different time periods. The first is about a character named Fergus Boggs who is introduced as a little boy growing up in Dublin in the early 1950’s at a time when there was a lot more poverty than prosperity in the Irish economy. The second narrative is set in the post millennium, I would guess around 2015 when Dublin would be a considered a modern city still enjoying the economic development advanced by the Celtic Tiger. The principal character here is Sabrina, Fergus’s grown –up daughter. The novel starts out describing Fergus as a child living in poverty with his mother and many siblings. Fergus barely remembers his father who has died. His mother remarried a decent working class man, a butcher who struggles to support a growing mix of children and stepchildren. Fergus, as the youngest child from the first marriage is very much in the middle of this brood and is greedy for his mother’s love and attention of which there is never enough. There is poverty and too many children and callously I thought to myself, “ Oh no, not another Angela’s Ashes …”, although the timeframes would have been different. However, the poverty is not as grinding as Angel’s Ashes and the parents described in the Marble Collector are far more responsible than those of Frank McCourt. Fergus has the advantage of being a smart, clever boy who looks up to and admires his oldest brother. This brother moves to England and is eventually lost to the family. This loss creates a deep chasm of pain in Fergus for most of his life, and is likely the principal motivation for his endeavour to leave his childhood behind, severing all ties with his own family. Fergus grows up playing marbles in the dusty slums of Dublin as a sort of marble playing child prodigy and eventually becomes an international champion. He is also the collector of marbles mentioned in the title. He marries into the middle class and manages to prevent his wife’s family from getting to know his own and is this way makes a complete break with his past.

In alternate chapters Sabrina is introduced and a story is told of her trying in the course of a single day to uncover and understand her father’s family, childhood, his career in marbles and it seems, a secret love life as well. Fergus is now in his sixties and has suffered a stroke that has affected both his memory and his speech. He is being treated in hospital and undergoing therapy in the hope of making a full recovery. Through Fergus’s lawyer Sabrina has come into possession of a box containing a valuable marble collection. With a clue or two provided by the lawyer and in that single day she attempts to establish where it came form and its significance. So while Sabrina embarks on an odyssey to find her way back to her father’s other life in every second chapter some of Fergus’s secret life is revealed. Ultimately there is a satisfactory coalescing of the two stories and an appropriate resolution.

Sabrina works as a lifeguard in a nursing home. She is a swimmer and attracted to water as an elemental force in her life so, having an occupation as a life guard has a logical place in the story but the nursing home part is out of kilter. It is supposed to be a posh place but I think it would have been better to have made it a retirement home or a residence for those in need of assisted living. Colleen Ahern has allowed the barely ambulatory and people covered in bedsores to wander down to the swimming pool, which seems to be out doors (in Dublin? In Winter?). I don’t know when Ms. Ahern last went swimming in a pool public or private but most I have ever been to have rules about not entering the pool if you have an open wound or sore… it is not hygienic. Then there is the business of her solving the mystery of her father’s secret life. Sabrina follows clues she encounters beginning with the office of Fergus’s lawyer. She has the day off from work and drives in and around Dublin following the clues she hopes will reveal her father’s secretive past. Back in the time of James Joyce’s Dublin perhaps Leopold Bloom might have tooled around that city and completed such a mission in a day. However Dublin is no a longer a sleepy little town but is a metropolis with traffic worthy of a city many time its size. The action described does not fit the time frame. There was also the little conceit of there being an eclipse of the sun on this day. Earth, moon, and sun came into alignment. Perhaps that detail was added to complete the suspense and the urgency of the exercise of unravelling a mystery. It also dovetailed with Sabrina’s love of water as the moon, in particular, influences the tides but it is an odd detour from the story taken as a whole.

It took me a while to understand why I felt an overall dissatisfaction with this novel. I discovered a clue to solving the puzzle in an interview with Ms. Ahern printed at the end of the edition I had read. She explains that the story, in its original conception, was a writing exercise and she had meant to develop it into  a work of short fiction. I see now that what she has created  is a big house without enough furnishing. Yes, there are areas with lots of detail but there are too many gaps the reader is expected to fill in and in some places the reader is not even given as much as a tight rope to get to the other side. For example, how can you live with the same partner for decades, have a secret life as well as have a reputation on an international level?

In any case, I love Dublin and welcome any excuse to visit it in fiction or fact. I love Irish literature as well. The Marble Collector is a book worth reading for these reasons alone.

 

 

 

 

THE ILLEGAL by Lawrence Hill

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I have been struggling to find the right words to describe this book and have come up with several. In my first draft I called it a ‘curious’ novel but that leaves the impression that there is something oddball about it without doing justice to the fact that it is quite ingenious. However, if I say it is ‘ingenious’ without qualification that somehow implies that is a work of ‘genius’ and would make it sound inaccessible which is simply untrue.  I’ll settle for the phrase: ‘highly imaginative’.  Lawrence Hill has created two imaginary island countries almost in the style of a work of science fiction wherein a writer constructs new and yet undiscovered civilisations on far off planets. I tried to imagine how I might create a similar, plausible, far off imaginary country but given the way information is disseminated today through global and social media I had to conclude it is extremely difficult to put together something that would allow the reader to suspend belief; at least long enough to tell a story. In the 19th century it may have been easier to invent a country to serve the cause of fiction. Ruritania, for example, was meant to be a kingdom situated vaguely in Eastern Europe. The reader may have been in on the joke, (or not), but would have been given enough description to imagine a world of storybook castles and gallants in military uniforms loaded down with braid and brass. There would not have been a Wiki something or other to debunk the imaginary location. The author would only have been obliged to make the fictional country a probable entity; enough to allow the reader to set the imagination free.

In Lawrence Hill’s story the island called Freedom State is large and prosperous in contrast to the second island called Zantoroland that is small and very poor. He situated these islands on the edge of the Ortiz Sea (also imaginary) vaguely part of the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. The author has also provided a map just before his prologue to help the reader envision these two countries. We are told Freedom State exploited the labour of the inhabitants of Zantoroland for hundreds of years and is going though a period of xenophobia. The political party in power in Freedom State has been elected to office on the promise of getting rid of undocumented migrants from Zantoroland who shelter in the country’s shantytowns.

The newly elected government of Freedom State has promised its citizens it will block migrants from Zantoroland from reaching its shore and is secretly paying the corrupt officials of the Zantoroland government a premium for accepting back the boats of illegals they have turned away. In other words the corrupt authorities on the smaller island are profiting from the misery and desperation of its own people.

The novel’s principal character is Keita, a talented young athlete dreaming of making it to the Olympics. He lives in the poorer nation of Zantoroland. His father is a freelance journalist working to expose the corrupt, violent and oppressive practices of the government that has no respect for human rights on even the most basic level. The seditious activity of Keita’s father results in the destruction of his family. To survive Keita indentures himself to a shady-dealing individual who manages athletic talent solely for profit.

In addition to Keita, Lawrence Hill introduces a collection of colourful characters, some likeable and some not. I often found the secondary characters more interesting than Kieta.  For example there is the little old lady who is essentially a subversive element in a humourous way, creating fake ID cards for migrants without papers so they can use the library where she volunteers. Then there is the journalist in a wheelchair who can manoeuvre her way through any riotous situation with the tactical acumen of a guerrilla warrior. Keita’s feisty girlfriend who is struggling to succeed in a male dominated profession also intrigued me. Here lies something of a problem for me in that while I was interested in following the trials and tribulations of Keita at the same time I wanted to know more about the lives of these characters and others such as that of Keita’s dissident father and the mysterious Madame who at one time sheltered Keita in her well run brothel. I think it is distracting from the narrative when the principal character is somewhat boring compared to the supporting cast… (then again that cautionary quote comes to mind: “…comparisons are odious.”) .

I think my scruples may have been ruffled as I read this book because so much of the pain and wretchedness described had a feeling of being generic. The boat people in this book are as hopeful and as badly treated as those we hear about on the news, crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy and Greece. Being Canadian, like Lawrence Hill, (who was born in Nova Scotia but spends his summers on my island of Newfoundland), I have a feeling of ‘ that sort of ‘drama’ is somewhere else; faraway from Canada.’ His imaginary islands affirmed this because it all seemed quite plausible; something associated with East Africa and vague enough to allow the author to make up the story without me, the reader being bothered by the accuracy of the geography.

I am old enough to remember the Biafran/ Nigerian civil war of the late sixties and of seeing the newspaper pictures of starving children and vendors selling rats in the markets as protein. Mothers in Canada would say to their little ones “Don’t waste the food on your plate remember the poor starving children in Biafra,” as if the full tummies of their own child would compensate for the empty ones of the Biafran children.   At some point I realized how deep my ignorance ran in so far as what I knew about Biafra and its geography. I knew not whether Biafra was north, south or in the interior of the African continent and I callously grouped all similar human suffering as being ‘over there’. So I asked myself, when I read this book if I do the same thing today in the contemporary setting when I read about the illegal migration moving into South Africa, the US, Western Europe and Australia.

It is a very good thing that a book should raise such reflections on the human condition with those of us who enjoy the privilege of peaceful, quiet, and sedentary living simply by virtue of where we happen to have been born. This is a well-told story that has a lovely fluency of language making it a quick read. I was impressed by the way the author can enter the heads of his characters and with a few deft strokes outline their personalities and place them logically in the narrative. This would be a very good book to use as a reference by someone trying to learn how to write a novel.

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Rabbit, Run by John Updike

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This is a funny, sometimes sad but curious and entertaining story about a young man of twenty-six who is finding it hard to grow up. Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom is in his mid twenties and has yet to get over his high school success as a basketball star. He has a little boy, Nelson and a pregnant wife, Janice. He has a boring low paying job as a salesman and lives in a tiny apartment. His income is subsidized by his wealthy in-laws who have spoiled Janice, their only daughter. The story begins with Harry walking home from work on a particularly warm evening and intruding his way into a basketball game being played by a group of fourteen year olds. He revels in the movement of his body and the response of the ball as he dominates the game not having the self-awareness to see that his domination derives from the fact he is bigger and stronger than the young boys he is playing with. For a brief time Harry is transported back to his days of glory but then continues home to his wife who is drunk, detached and distant. Later, sitting in his car he gets the whimsical urge to run away. He becomes lost in the back roads of Pennsylvania and near dawn retraces his route to his hometown of Brewer. Instead of going back to his apartment he seeks out his old basketball coach Marty. Marty gives him a place to stay while encouraging him to reconcile with his wife. He introduces Harry to Ruth, a sort of casual, part-time prostitute who invites him to stay with her. …and so the story meanders.

Harry is disappointed with his marriage and his life. Yet Harry is more of a reactive type and does not act to improve his situation but lets the world push him forward into the unknown. He is caught up in his biology and the demands of desire. He eventually has a falling out with Ruth on an occasion when he is cruel to her. His world crumbles and he never figures things out. The story includes a Reverend Eccles who takes on Harry as a sort of project to try and get him back with his wife and family and build some structure into his life. He does this by coming up with the idea of playing golf with Harry so they have the opportunity to talk. Harry is distracted by the pastor’s attractive wife and thinks she is trying to seduce him and interprets her dislike of him to be unrequited lust. This is an amusing book in places because Harry is a very odd duck.

John Updike is a careful writer whose words piece themselve together like petit point. When you step back there is tapestry. So for example when Reverend Eccles finds a job for Harry working in the expansive garden of a widowed Mrs. Smith the author easily introduces a beautiful collection phrases:

The flowerbeds, bordered with bricks buried diagonally, are pierced by red dull spikes that will be peonies and the earth itself , scumbled, stone-flecked, horny, raggedly patched with damp and dry, looks like the oldest and smells like the newest thing under Heaven.”

I had to look up the scumbled. It is a word from the art world meaning a sort of light clear coating that goes over a painting. The description is lovely, even the mention of peony spikes that I know well from my own garden. In the same paragraph there are other exquisite phrases: “rivulets running brokenly”, “ shaggy golden suds of blooming forsythia” and “oak leaves shed in the dark privacy of winter”. I love them.

I went from disliking Harry Rabbit Angstrom to cheering for him or at least wishing him well. I have had the urge to run away from home myself from time to time. I imagine relocating to southern France before anyone  knew I was missing and then sending an e-mail home saying that I was trying to discover my potential and that I would be back when my money ran out. That is just a fantasy but I hold it in reserve.

 

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

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I experienced a brief moment of sadness when I thought how quicky the season seems to have drifted into autumn here in the northern hemisphere because this book could be recommended as the perfect summer read. However, it is reasonable to think it is someone’s vacation somewhere in the world so I will happily promote How it All Began as the perfect lawn chair companion even if the autumn leaves are falling all around the reader.

I have enjoyed two other novels by Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger and The Photograph. This present novel written in the latter part of her long career demonstrates the masterful story telling skill she has acquired going back at least thirty years. I can approximate the date with confidence because I read Moon Tiger when I was on maternity leave with my second child, (and how I had time to read any literary work at that time is a wonder to me now). This latest book was a purchase of caprice at my local bookstore in a moment of weakness after having promised myself to reduce the stack of books on my night table ( and under the night table and in the linen cupboard and the family room and under the stairs etc.) before purchasing any more. The memory of those two earlier novels influenced my lapse in discipline so I am defiantly unrepentant as this book was worth breaking that promise to myself.

This is a characher driven novel and consistantly so from start to finish, How It All Began, does not have a single unlikeable character. It begins with the elderly Charlotte Rainsford being assaulted and robbed by a faceless mugger. She is a retired teacher, widowed and living on her own in London, teaching an adult literacy course on a voluntary basis. The nature of her injuries is such that she must stay with her daughter and son-law while she recovers. The unfortunate mugging starts a chain of events that touches the lives of almost a dozen or so people who will never know the connection to the original incident. Charlotte’s daughter, Rose, has to take time off from her work as a personal assistant to the self-absorbed Sir Henry resulting in his being ill-prepared for a conference where he makes a series of disasterous and embarrassing mistakes. At the same time, his niece Marion , who has filled in for Rose, sends off a hasty text message that shatters the marriage of her lover… and this is just the beginning of the interconnected events that make up this story. It is as if Dame Lively set all her characters in a circle of imaginary dominos and then enjoyed watching them tumble down in a spray of  lovely spiralling patterns.

My favourite character is the self-important academic, political pundit and once upon a time, advisor to prime ministers, Sir Henry Peters. He has neither an intimate partner in his life nor a child of his own because he is quite in love with himself and has no room for anyone but ‘Sir Henry’ in his emotional repertoir. However, he has reached an age when his beautiful mind is showing signs of decline. His memory fails him pitifully on many occasions. Yet, he is so delightfully and impossibly resilient that in his early seventies he convinces himself he might make a new career as a television personality. Then, somehow through another series of improbable events, he manages to do so! There are other references to the indignity of aging throughout this novel and I had the feeling they connect directly to the experiences of the author herself who is easily in her eighties. Charlotte is portrayed as a woman used to managing her own life but is obliged to obey Rose’s gentle insistence that she take her time convalescing and not rush back to her London apartment. This is the well-documented phenomenon of the child-parent rôle reversal that occurs in one’s senior years. I have experienced something similar with my own parents and I can see my doomed future on the horizon hinted in my children’s lack of faith in my ability to negotiate the apps on my I-pad.

To do justice to this novel I have to mention a few of the other quirky characters such as Jeremy who turned his love of junk into an antique sourcing business although he is really still a junk dealer. And then there is Gerry who is happy to live out life in his hobby shed and Anton the architect from Eastern Europe whose brain refuses to learn English until it is lead back to the primordial roots of the English childhood. There is a shady American con man and an over zealous sister trying to rescue her sibling ,who clearly does not want to be rescued, from a wobbly marriage. These are lovely complications that find all kinds of different resolutions. Even the mugger; the perpetrator, is eventually sorted out.

And now! as I have finished this review I am going to pass this book along to a friend  I think will enjoy How It All Began and at the same time I may reduce the monstor inventory by one.     

The Guts by Roddy Doyle

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The title is an inelegant but clever play on words. On the one hand it refers to the colon cancer the main character is battling on the other, it is a reference to the courage it takes for him to be reconciled to his own mortality. The author is imagining the life of his protagonist, Jimmy Rabbit some thirty years after he was first introduced in the enormously successful novel, The Commitments.

Set in Dublin’s Northside, the novel is written in a conversational style. Dialogue is peppered with expletives that read like a sort of rhythmic parochial poetry or a coded language of love and affection. Even the children understand its meaning. (Mr. Doyle makes this believable although in my world my children would have thought Mom had gone mad and had some sort of nervous breakdown if I used the ‘f…’ word in casual conversation). The period is set just after the boom of the Celtic Tiger has begun its decline. It has become more difficult for those, like Jimmy, who have risen out of a financially underprivileged childhood, to maintain a comfortable, middleclass lifestyle. However, Dublin is still an affluent world where everyone enjoys the benefits of modern technology; where cell phones and laptops are not luxuries but considered part of the everyday necessities of life and where travel within the EU is easy and affordable.

Jimmy Rabbit first appeared in Roddy Doyle’s successful novel, The Commitments that was made into an even more successful movie with a cult following. As a young man Jimmy drew upon his passion for American blues music to ignite a brief career as the impresario of a raucous band of similarly minded misfits. Thirty or so years later Roddy Doyle imagines that now Jimmy is a family man with a beautiful wife and four teenagers. The children are sensitive and good hearted but dealing with the growing pains of the teenage years. Jimmy has channelled his love of music into an online business that specializes in sourcing vinyl recordings of every sort. It seems that he enjoyed success for a long time but as this novel unfolds we learn he has had to sell part of the interest in the business to raise capital and has essentially become an employee of his own company. As the story opens Jimmy is on a mission to let his family members know that he has been diagnosed with colon cancer in its early stages and that he will require both surgery and chemotherapy.

Jimmy receives the support of his family and even connects with a long lost brother but it soon becomes apparent that there is a lot of the adolescent left in Jimmy as he tries to rediscover the excitement and dazzle of those early days when there was potential in every project. Part of this rediscovery is an effort to come to terms with the possibility that he might be facing an early death although the prognosis for a full recovery is good. He does some crazy things such as encourage his son to pose as a Bulgarian rock singer named Boris and in an another adventure has a brief affair with a woman named Imelda who was a back-up singer with the Commitments.

There is great writing in this book but there are some gaps in The Guts.  As someone who has lived and cared for a family member  with cancer I came to conclude there are some things that do not ring true in this novel as far as my own experience goes. The interesting question then is whether that is important when the story telling is so good? I told myself that the severity of every cancer patient’s disease is different as is everyone’s way of dealing with it. I have spent time bedside in a chemotherapy clinic and witnessed those who are serenely in for their ‘top up’ chemo to hold at bay a cancer that will never be cured and on other occasions witnessed people so scared they cannot stop trembling. Jimmy is depicted as the type who puts on a brave face in order to save his children from suffering the anxiety of anticipating the worst. That I can accept as plausible what I find hard to accept is the distance his wife Aoefe kept as he was going through his treatment. It seems to me that ones partner’s involvement is essential because one’s household is basically turned upside down when a family member is being treated for cancer. Chemotherapy suppresses the immune system so it is very important to be careful to not pick up an infection of any sort. This is why most people take a break from their work, and become virtual hermits while they recover. To do this one needs the understanding and cooperation of the whole family, especially ones partner.

Then again there are the demands of the story and what the author wants to say. There could not have been the brief romantic fling with Imelda had Aoefe been hovering around all the time. There was also a boisterous rowdy rock festival in a muddy field that figures large in the conclusion to this novel … not a good place for a recovering cancer patient to be especially with hundreds of people using the same facilities.

This a good story and Jimmy Rabbit is still the good-hearted, all grown up adolescent he was in the Commitments. There is a light hearted optimism throughout this book that makes it a satisfying read despite or maybe because of, the author’s fanciful diversions.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrique

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I was both baffled and intrigued by this novel. I was baffled because I started out trying to make sense of something that was intended to be a wild, reckless ride along a winding road going nowhere and I was intrigued because of the excellence of the story-telling and its raucous hilarity. Adding to the enjoyment was the fluidity of the translation from Spanish to English. It was so well done. It does not read with the awkward good intentions of a translator but rather, as if it was written in the modern English vernacular. (Good job Natasha Wimmer).

I gave this work of fiction the ‘post-modern’ tag to indicate that it does not follow a straightforward story telling formula of having a beginning, a middle and an end. I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do after all, what does post modern mean anymore? I have heard of the term as far back as the nineteen sixties and have always asked myself what comes after post modern? Post post–modern?

The chapters skip from one time period to another and mention events such the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the Counter Reformation the Spanish Conquest of South America and the political maneuverings of cardinals, popes and power hungry Italian and Spanish aristocrats of the mid sixteenth century and all of this jumbled together into a sort of rowdy salad of cameo portraits. At one extreme, the religious personages are worldly and lascivious and at the other  are excessively upright and chaste in they’re ardent mission to rid their world of heretics by burning them out of existance (perhaps  that’s not so funny). Interspersing the chapters filled with outrageuos escapdes and character portraits are chapters that follow a ficticous tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. The ball they are using is stuffed with the hair shaved from the head of the ill fated Anne Boelyn. The author hints that life and death are some how tied into the outcome of this match but this is never really clarified as the players themselves are suffering from oppressive hangovers and have little recollection of how they came to be tied up in this game. (By the bye the author provides a historic account of the development of the game of tennis and its variations, which I think he made up out of his head, not that it matters). As the story progresses the match disintergrates into something that is more like two puppies rolling around in the dirt than a game with rules and formalities. In fact the whole story with all its diversions and portraits and idiosyncratic characters might be an elaborate invention. I think we are not meant to check out the accuracy of the author’s historical account. For example, Hernán Cortés is portrayed as a tough but rather ridiculous, dippy old man who stumbles through the conquest of South America destroying a civilization while hardly understanding the devastating outcome of his actions. Then there is the Bishop Vasco de Quiroga who took the satirical writings of Thomas More literally and tried to create Utopia in fifteenth century Mexico. This seems to ring true based on a Google search but it would not have to be to make this novel worth reading . Álvaro Enrigue writes with strength and self-confidence so if his stories are not true they read with the verisimilitude demanded by good literature. So I would never check the facts closely, this is not what the story is about.

After I had invested a great deal of time in the reading of this book I became concerned when I was three quaters of the way through and had no idea what it was about. However, the author eventually explains its substance and meaning towards the end and it makes sense. Therefore as the mystery of what this book could possibly be about is part of its charm  I am not going to give away the solution to the puzzle.

I enjoyed this book and  would advise anyone who would take it up to have a light heart and not worry as all will be revealed in time.

 

 

The Elephant’s Journey by José Saramago

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I have had this novel on my shelf for well over a year. I was hesitant to start it because I thought that it might be a story punctuated with animal cruelty, which I always find so distressing. I was wrong, there is no overt animal cruelty although it must have been very hard on an Indian elephant to march through the ice laden passes of the Alps in the middle of winter. It is more of a fairy tale or a novel written in the style of mystical realism but based on an actual historic event. In 1551 the King and Queen of Portugal presented the Archduke Maximilian of Austria and his wife with the very elaborate wedding present of an elephant. The author begins the story by imagining a bedroom conversation between John III of Portugal and his wife Catherine in which they convince themselves the elephant would make a delightful gift. In modern terms it sounds like someone’s aunt and uncle deciding to give their niece and nephew the gift of their old Cadillac. One says, “What do you think of giving Max and Cathy our old Caddie” the other says “Brilliant idea, it’s a wretched gas guzzler but it looks impressive and we never use it anyway. I’m sure the newly weds will love it!”

The Archduke was residing in Spain in 1551 and just about to journey back to Vienna where he was the heir apparent to the Hapsburg monarchy. He was delighted to go back home with the gift of an elephant because it would aggrandize his entourage as he made his way across the continent. The story, as José Saramago relates it, becomes a comedy of vanities as the many members of the travelling company try to outdo each other as to who is the first to report this or that event or to find favour with the Archduke. This game of one-up-manship is in constant play and is of special importance to the Mahout Subhro who is the elephant’s keeper and constant companion. We are not given very much of Subhro’s early story but at some point he embarked on a great lifetime adventure sailing from India to Portugal with Solomon the elephant for reasons the author does not imagine except to imply that Subhro is rather a social outsider whether at home in India or travelling in Europe.

The charm of this novel is in its telling. It is the author’s last or close to last novel before his death and he chose to let the story unfold in a relaxed style, relating events imagined and real as if they were told while sitting in a comfortable chair chatting with old friends over a cup of tea. If one wanted to simply summarize the events one could say: once upon a time the King of Portugal made a gift of an elephant to the Archduke of Austria and so the poor creature was made to walk from Lisbon across Spain to the Mediterranean where he was put on a ship and sailed to Genoa, marched up through Italy and finally across the Alps amid she snow and ice of winter into Austria. 

In the hands of the master storyteller the events are embellished with observations that put it in perspective. The author might remark that the last time the Alps had felt the tread of an elephant was when Hannibal lead his army through its snowy passes. Or he might sneak in the fact that, enroute, the elephant passed by the City of Trent where a collection of Church prelates was attempting to change the course of western history. Then there are details of how you feed an elephant on such a journey. The answer is that you have to have oxen dragging carts loaded with fodder. This the author imagined had the result of slowing down the entire expedition because no matter how powerful the Archduke might be he and his entourage could only travel as fast as its slowest members. …a bit of an allegory there.

The author also imagined that the Austrian soldiers who travelled with the Archduke as his armed escort would have begun the journey resplendently in impressive uniforms and shining armor that did not tarnish. However as they approached the Alps the metal of the armor dripped with ice and became unbearable so that the soldiers were forced by the rigors of Nature to abandon their finery and buy whatever overcoats and warm clothing they could find in the village shops along the way. In the end, they looked more like a column of bedraggled refugees than the pride of the Austrian army. Well, there you have it, men can be such silly, conceited creatures easily defeated by the weakness of their vanities while the unassuming elephant plods along and is magnificent being just an elephant, no more, no less.

This is a slim volume that takes only an afternoon to read. As is his usual style, José Saramago uses punctuation and capitalization sparingly. Thus, without quotation marks, for example, you have to pay close attention to the dialogues to know who is saying what. That said, however, the master storyteller has created such distinct characters to populate this book that following along the course of a conversation is not difficult.

In addition to its entertainment value I think this could be a writer’s manual as an example of controlled, writing economy, exquisite pacing, drama, humour and above all, elegance.

The Sea The Sea by Iris Murdoch

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The Sea the Sea won the Man Booker prize in 1978. I am convinced that were it nominated today it could successfully compete against any novel that has won in recent years. It is one of those novels that is paced so very well it has the feel of a smooth running internal engine on automatic pilot. I just loved everything about it, the characters, the story, the setting and the ever-present sea.

Charles Arrowby is a retired actor, playwright and director who, having entered his early sixties has decided to take stock of his life by writing a memoir.  He sells his expensive London apartment to buy a large ramshackle house that has no phone, electricity, hot water and only rudimentary plumbing. The property has the rather unattractive name of Shruff End. It is situated a mile outside the village of Narrowdean and perched on a promontory with a broad view of the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of England. His plan is to live a simple, contemplative life with the aim of sorting out his personal history. The novel is narrated in the first person singular as if you are reading Charles’s journal on a day-by-day basis. An internal mixture of ideas is presented and tossed together like a salad. The reader follows Charles’s domestic activities while he interjects stories from his past interspersed with the description of some of the oddest meals you could imagine, such as olives, bread and fried zucchini accompanied by a bottle of Spanish plonk. He feels he must hide away from his London friends and old lovers in order to gain some perspective on his life. It is clear from the start that he is lonely and trying to talk himself into enjoying his hermit like lifestyle because he keeps looking for letters from old friends in film and theatre. (…letters because this is the late 1970’s and there is no such thing as e-mail, fibre-op or even rudimentary cell phones) Eventually he writes a letter to a former lover letting her know where he is living and essentially entices her to leave her settled domestic situation behind to come find him.

Charles Arrowby is a selfish, totally self-centred, inconsiderate individual who, while being jealous of anyone who tempts away his old lovers does not know what to do when they return to him. Yet everyone likes him and is charmed by his antics. I liked him too, despite his flaws. He possessed a kind of childish appreciation of the universe; loved to swim in the ocean, collect interesting rocks, and lie outdoors in the night to stare at the stars. He was even capable of conjuring up the odd dragon or sea monster in his overactive imagination.

At the centre of the story there is a kidnapping. In one corner of the village of Narrowedean, a middle class retirement community has grown up. Here, quite by coincidence lives Hartley, the first girl Charles ever loved back in the impressionable days of his adolescence. She had disappeared out of Charles’s life, encouraged by her relatives who warned her to have nothing to do with him because he had chosen the bohemian lifestyle of an actor. Hartley has not aged as well as Charles; she is wrinkled and overweight and has let her hair turn grey. She is married to something of a brute of a husband but makes no complaint about her situation. As the object of Charles’s love she does not even possess the redeeming quality of having a lively personality. She is portrayed as a tired old housewife beaten down emotionally by the disappearance of her only child. Charles becomes obsessed with rescuing her from her situation and the story takes off from there. When Hartley turns down every effort Charles makes to save her he entraps and kidnaps her keeping her locked up in Shruff End while a troop of his friends mill in and out of the place trying to entice him to leave his damp mouldy, barracks of a house and return to London. What follows is: mayhem, attempted murder and death. That said, I must add, it is all darkly funny.

My copy of The Sea The Sea has an introduction that explains that at the time Iris Murdoch wrote this book Zen Buddhism was very much  part of the popular culture. This idea may have helped in creating some of the bones of the story but it is the character of Charles Arroby that gives the novel its energy. Charles does not see how tired Hartley is or how she has aged because he is obsessively trying to regain something of his own lost youth. In between the entries of his diary/memoir we learn that Charles had a mentor who promoted him to stardom; a woman many years his senior named Clement who was a famous actress herself. Slowly it becomes clear that while Charles had a great deal of affection for Clement he wonders if he let her steal his youthful soul as the price for launching his acting career. This is in the background as he continues to harass Hartley who represents young, innocent love that can never be recaptured.

I have been trying to sort out why this is such a good novel and have decided that it is because the author stuck so faithfully to certain constant themes. The introduction relates the title, The Sea The Sea ,to a quote from the poet Mallarmé but I ignored all that because I could see the sea as a metaphor for the world Charles Arroby chose to dive into, a confusion of beauty, creativity and monsters of the deep. Then there is the theme of lost youth and the existence of forces within the universe we cannot understand. Filling out the novel are a half dozen or so unforgettable characters, each one entirely individual and interesting and funny in their own rite so that they each could have been the subject of their own novel… although none could surpasses the personality of Charles Arrowby.

It takes an artist to write a good novel and this one stands out as not just a satisfying read but also a work of art.

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

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            Far from the Madding Crowd tells the story of a four-cornered love affair; that is, three men falling in love with the same woman, the beautiful Bathsheba Everdine. In the beginning, she is not particularly interested in any of them. She has inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm raising her status from poor orphan to that of a financially independent woman. Before she comes into her inheritance she is awkwardly courted by a hardworking rustic farmer named Gabriel Oak. Bathsheba rejects Gabriel’s proposal because she does not love him and does not want to be tied down by a commitment to marriage. Her second suitor is the reserved and humourless bachelor, Mr. Boldwood, a wealthy farmer who is twenty years her senior. Bethsheba only becomes the object of this gentleman’s notice after she sends him a valentine card as a thoughtless joke. However on the strength of the sentiments expressed in the card he pursues her obsessively. Finally the third man in her life is the dashing Sargent Troy who possesses a natural charm and a sort of romantic eroticism suggested by his swagger and his swordsmanship.

Supporting these four main characters is a troupe of villagers and servants who speak in dialect and are always prepared to offer their frank, unedited opinion on anyone or thing. This chorus of articulate rustics commenting in the background together with the torrent of dramatic events that propel the story forward reveal that Hardy’s chosen title for this novel is ironic. A madding crowd is one that is frenzied and tumultuous such that you would expect to find in a revolting city mob or a bunch of upstarts in a political debate or even a gaggle of socialites vying for precedence in their social circle. The setting for this novel is deep in a remote and pastoral corner of England filled with green pastures and the scattered sleepy village. One could not imagine anything occurring that would be more exciting than a country dance or the occasional stampede of sheep. However Hardy proves that rural peace is a façade sheltering its own Madding crowd made up of every sort of humanity exhibiting behaviours that range from the angelic to the wicked and even those who are angelic have their share of sinfulness.

Bathsheba, still in her twenties does not choose a husband wisely and ends up supporting the gambling habits of the gallent Sargent Troy. She breaks the heart of Gabriel Oak and just about drives the obsessive Mr. Boldwood insane with jealousy (and that is but the beginning of the story).

I read Far from the Madding Crowd in the Oxford World Classic edition, which was a lucky choice. The introduction was interesting (although I always read introductions last) but the best part was the notes at the back of the book. I found the notes more than helpful because Hardy employed many biblical references which may have been commonly understood in the 1870s when this book was published but less so in our secular world of the 21st century. Also, some of the terms and expressions used are archaic; without understanding their meaning and context the reader would miss out on some of the humour that is part of the enjoyment in reading this novel.

I purchased this novel intending to read it before I saw the 2015 movie adaptation that stars Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdine. Things did not work out as planned and I ended up seeing the movie first. Nonetheless were it not for the movie I don’t think that I would have been inspired to pick up this novel in the first place as the only other book I had read by Thomas Hardy was Tess of the D’Urbervilles which I found to be both dour and cynical. This novel on the other hand is anything but gloomy thanks for the most part to the character of the bright and optimistic heroine, Bathsheba Everdine. The fact that the novel was serialised in a magazine (one edited by Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father) moves the novel along at a very readable pace as it is divided into to short-ish chapters with just enough story to keep you on the edge and want to move on to the next chapter.

The characters in this novel would not be defined as well as they are were it not for Hardy’s clever use of dialogue. Writing dialogue, is an art and I think, is very difficult to do effectively. I have found in writing my own modest stories that if you are not well focused when employing dialogue all the characters tend to sound alike… worse their speech patterns will sound like that of the writer rather than define their uniqueness! The other feature that is sustained throughout the novel and is perhaps more subtle is the feeling of remoteness; that is of being in a rural setting surrounded by nature and attuned to the rhythms of the weather and the seasons

It must be obvious to anyone who has read this far that I loved this book and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story.

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

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This book is beautifully written but difficult to read because of the hard life and grim times the protagonist must endure. It is not a long book and might even be close to a novella. The sentences are clear and elegant and convey complex thoughts about the human spirit and the human condition in a sparse crystalline prose.

Michael K. (we never learn his last name) is a black South African living through an imagined civil war. It is hard to tell which side is winning as the country is full of marauding soldiers careless of the destruction they are imposing on the civilian population. Michael was born with a facial deformity, a cleft lip, that his mother could easily have had repaired but didn’t bother. Instead she abandoned him to an orphanage for the intellectually challenged.   In this institution he grows up friendless and unloved. Eventually he is given work as a gardener in a city park where he stays until his mother becomes ill and summons him to take her back to the place of her birth. His mother has worked all her life as a domestic servant and when she is unable to work she lives in fear that she will end up living on the street. Although she has savings that would allow her to make the journey by train she and Michael are not able to acquire the requisite documents that would permit them to travel legally. Michael resorts to rigging up a wheelbarrow in such a way that he can carry his mother and their possessions in the hope of completing the distance on foot. Along the way her condition worsens. She is hospitalized and then dies. Michael is left with her ashes in a box wrapped in brown paper. He grieves his mother’s death despite the way she has treated him and decides to continue the journey and to sprinkle her ashes in the place where she had hoped to retire. Thus begins the strife-riddled adventures of Michael K that takes him across the veldts and mountains of South Africa where at every turn ruthless soldiers threaten him. He is first conscripted into a work camp and then incarcerated in another camp for the homeless. After escaping these dreadful places he resorts to living in a hole in the ground to evade being picked up by the military authorities who seem to be everywhere at once.

His hiding place is on the farm where his mother grew up and he finds solace in planting a few pumpkin seeds and encouraging them to grow. Having been provided little education and nothing like parental guidance he discovers his emotional and spiritual self in caring for these plants as if they were his children. While I know this novel is filled with metaphors that relate back to the history of South Africa in the twentieth century there is a sub text here that examines the essence of what it is to have a soul. There is a source of grace in the land and in the earth where Michael grows his pumpkins and in the mountains where he escapes and lives on nothing but the ether of the view of sunrise and sunset over sheer rock. In the process of evading the soldiers and discovering his purpose in life he very nearly starves to death.

This book is divided into three parts. Part I is narrated in the third person singular, Part II by a doctor who is caring for Michael after he has been arrested and abused by soldiers and then Part III returns to the omniscient third person. The doctor takes an active interest in Michael even though he never gets his name right. He is fascinated by Michael’s independence of spirit and his refusal to enjoy the comforts and privileges offered by the hospital. The doctor sees Michael, who possesses nothing but a few rags and a body reduced to a walking skeleton, as having something he cannot attain; a spiritual guiding light. The doctor has even forgotten what the war is about until one of his colleagues reminds him, “We are fighting this war… so that minorities will have a say in their destinies.” When Michael escapes the prison hospital the doctor fantasizes about following Michael and becoming his disciple imagining Michael has the answers to the questions of living and dying as if he were one of god’s holy fools.

It took me a long time to read this book and even a longer time to write about it. I have taken it up and put it down again many times over the last month and at some points almost given up on it because its images are so powerful. It is hard to enter into a world of someone who has never been loved or encouraged or appreciated by anyone, not even his own mother. Sometimes I felt compelled to reread certain paragraphs in an attempt to work out how a particular choice of words could be simple and yet nightmarishly  evocative of a menacing,  verisimilar world drawn out of the imagination. My not so brilliant conclusion is the obvious one that this novel is a literary work of art executed by a gifted author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

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This novel builds a three-generation portrait of a family and is alternately funny and sad. The first chapter introduces Nariman Veteel, an elderly, retired professor of English, residing in the spacious though now decrepit apartment he inherited from his parents. It is the 1990’s in Bombay before it was renamed Mumbai. Nariman is widowed and is living with his middle-aged stepchildren who never grew up to marry or live independently. Coomy, the stepdaughter is a difficult and unforgiving person who blames Nariman for her deceased mother’s unhappy life. Jal, the stepson, is the older of the two siblings and is mild mannered and compassionate by inclination but a weak willed man totally locked into the orbit of Coomy’s influence. Nariman is suffering from the onset of Parkinson’s disease that causes him to be increasingly dependant on these two grudging caregivers, never mind that it is his teacher’s pension that supports them all. At some point he signed over the ownership of the apartment to Coomy and Jal. Later he experiences something of an epiphany when he observes that although he taught Shakespeare’s King Lear throughout his academic career oddly he had never learned its lessons.

An unfortunate accident that results in Nariman breaking a leg, leaves him totally bedridden. Coomy is beside herself with resentment and dismay when she realises she and Jal must take care of all his needs including everything from bathing to the use of a bedpan. They are two very clumsy and ill coordinated caregivers who soon have Nariman in a miserable mess. They are also utterly chagrined at having their daily routines upset as Coomy likes to spend her time in prayer and self-pity at the local Parsi temple and Jal is obsessed with what is going on at the Bombay stock exchange although he has no money to invest. They dream up an excuse to dump Nariman into the midst of their half sister’s young family. Roxanna is living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband, Yezad and their two pre-adolescent sons, Murad and Jehangir. Their accommodations are so cramped that when Nariman is settled in their apartment one of the boys is obliged to sleep on the balcony under a tarpaulin. The arrangement is only supposed to be for six weeks and the family does its best to help Nariman through this difficult time. The youngest boy, Jehangir is especially attached to his grandfather, always alert to his needs. When the six weeks are nearly up Coomy starts to panic at the thought of having to take on the care of her stepfather again and so devises a madcap plan to postpone his return. Basically she just about wrecks Nariman’s apartment making it uninhabitable for an invalid.

On one level this story reflects the situation of many families whether they are living in India, China or Canada. On another level at times, Nariman’s family seems particularly dysfunctional. Then again, what family is not in someway dysfunctional; is it possible to be both human and perfect? Religious convictions cause conflicts down the generations. The older family members feel the weight of a responsibility to provide the younger with a spiritual road map to guide their lives while the younger grow up and are expected to live and work in a society that is increasingly secular.

Much of the appeal of this novel centers on the story of Nariman and his family’s sad but comic efforts to cope with his increasing infirmity.  Many other stories are interwoven into the plot giving it richness and texture. Some of these stories are alternately about the benevolent and the destructive aspects of religion, others are about blinding bigotry, political corruption and on an individual level the ability of the human psyche to excuse those personal actions it knows to be reprehensible on the grounds of self- preservation. So much of the readability of the novel is in the way the author has blended pathos with comedy. When we laugh at the craziness of some of the characters’ actions we are laughing at what we know we are all capable of when our generosity and compassion reaches its limit and we are not the heroic human beings we would like to be.

The narrative time line of this novel is something of a zigzag. Starting with chapter one the reader is informed that part of Nariman ‘s history involves a tormented love affair with a woman who was rejected by his family because of her religion. It is in order to keep the peace within his family that he agreed to an arranged marriage with the widowed Yasmin and adopted her two children. As Nariman convalesces, his thoughts slip seamlessly between the present and his haunting memories of his unfortunate love affair eventually revealing the dreadful consequences of this relationship for both his lover and his wife.  I am sure that part of the attraction of this story is the way the details of Nariman’s history are revealed. It is the unveiling of the story that is the art of the novelist not simply a marching forward of events in a rigid line.

This is one of the best novels I have read and enjoyed this year.

Cold in The Earth by Aline Templeton

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The subtitle of this novel is “Buried but not Forgotten…” The story has a mysterious Prologue that recounts a nightmare. A woman is sleepwalking in the depths of a lightless winter night. She is making her way through a labyrinth of tangled hedges and sees a figure wearing a bull’s mask coming toward her. She is startled awake but thinks she is still dreaming. It is only at the last instant of her life as one of the bull’s horns pierces her heart she realises she is in fact awake. After that dramatic opening Chapter One calmly begins by introducing forty something, Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming who has been put in charge of keeping order within the area Galloway Scotland. Hoof and mouth disease has been discovered among the sheep and cattle on some of the farms in this very rural southwest corner of the country. As government officials sweep through the area ordering the animals on contaminated farms be destroyed some of the farmers and their families begin to protest and at times these protests turn into near riots. The task of keeping order is made particularly difficult for D.I. Marjory Fleming because many of the protesters are her friends and neighbours.  Eventually the farm owned by Marjory and her husband Bill is visited by the authorities who order their entire flock of sheep be destroyed. Marjory remains stalwart throughout the ordeal even as her husband suffers a brief mental breakdown. In the midst of this turmoil, while burying the carcasses of the slaughtered animals, the skeletal remains of a young woman are uncovered. She appears to have been gored by a bull but there is no record of a missing person to help itentify her.

Then there is Laura Sonfeld, a young social worker living in New York who is struggling to get beyond a failed marriage. She is preparing to return to her home in England when she receives news of her mother’s death. She hastily returns to her childhood home, buries her mother and in the aftermath finds herself alone in the world without any close living relatives. Her father had died years before and her only sister, Dizzy, (pet name for Diana) disappeared without a trace. She submits a freelance article to a newspaper about her sister, which attracts the attention of Max Mason. He tells her that he knew Dizzy and that she had worked for his father on a farm in the county of; (where else but …?) Gallowy, Scotland some fifteen years earlier. Laura wrangles an assignment from the same newspaper that had printed her story, to go investigate this area where her sister was last seen.

So the author has planted the seeds for several stories to grow together. In addition she slowly fills out the background of each character to give them a presence in flesh and blood. Marjory, for example, is struggling to deal with a position of authority in a male dominated profession. She is also trying to balance her role as wife and mother. Barbara is struggling to pull herself together after leaving behind the life she had built in New York.  Despite her training as a psychologist she finds it impossible to come to terms with her sense of loss.

It is interesting to go back to 2001 when hoof and mouth disease was in all the British headlines. Here in Canada I remember the CBC broadcasting horrifying images of the charred remains of cattle that had been culled to stop the spread of this disease. This would have been a very contemporary issue at the time Cold In the Earth was published, reading it this summer, fourteen years later, it takes on the feeling of an historic novel. Then I suppose Sherlock Holmes would have seemed a very modem character at the time Sir Author Cohen Doyle created him while today we look upon Mr. Holmes as a creature out of a Victorian/Edwardian costume drama.

I quite liked Marjory Fleming as a character, a strong woman with a sense of humour and a good measure of humanity, Despite her use of modern policing skills she was not overly convinced that the resources offered by psychology could help in her investigation and it is in her association with Barbara, that sways her opinion to a more favourable outlook. She eventually admits that psychology can bring new insight to an investigation as well as help heal the damage wrought in the after math of the destruction of many farmers’ livelihoods.  Included in those who needed help was her husband Bill whose breakdown was brought on at the sight of his lambs being killed in front of their mothers.

It does not matter that you may be able to guess who killed the mysterious woman in the labyrinth. That woman, by the way, turns out to be Barbara’s sister; no surprise again. This is a character driven story and for the most part we, the readers, are interested in how they pull themselves together and get on with their lives. There is an interesting segue into the area of therianthropy, which itoday is used by psychologists to describe the delusional notion that one might transform oneself into an animal. This theme was developed in Greek mythology, long before the present day fascination with lycanthropy; the lore of the werewolf. (Here I have to stop and admire how perfectly maliable the English language is in its capacity to borrow from other languages in summing up any given crazy concept).

Interestingly, the novel also has a character who suffers from locked- in syndrome. The symptoms of this dreadful condition have been poignantly described in the now famous memoir the Butterfly and the Diving Bell, a best seller about ten years before this novel was published.  The author found a clever way to have the character with this condition tie many of the loose ends together.

What makes this a good crime novel? The characters are well fleshed out and there are a dozen different story lines that are all resolved in the last chapter. This is one of those enjoyable page tunres that is perfect for an idle afternoon.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

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Harriet Staunton

This novel is a title from the 2012 Persephone Books catalogue of reprinted twentieth century works of forgotten or neglected publications. Between the soft, dove grey covers of this edition with its beautiful endpapers copied from a Victorian printed silk, there is a great story of nightmarish horror. The description on the back cover boasts of it having beat out Evelyn Waugh’s, A Handful of Dustfor the ‘Femina Vie Heureuse’ prize which in itself a remarkable recommendation, although in another way it might demonstrate that some awards are not successful in distinguishing the great from the popular. The story is based on the tragic life of a woman named Harriet Staunton, living in mid nineteenth century Victorian London who was tricked into a loveless marriage by her cousins in order that they might gain control of her inherited fortune. The author makes a slight change to her name calling her Harriet Woodhouse in order to emphasise that this is a work of the imagination. I am assuming that by revealing these and the following details I am not in any way ruining the story for interested readers no more than were I to mention at the end of a story about the Titanic that it sank, but if I am… read no further.

The Harriet Woodhouse of this novel was a woman who we would describe today as being intellectually challenged. She did not develop mentally or emotionally beyond the age of a six or seven year old. Her father died when she was young leaving her an inheritance that made her the equivalent of a present day millionaire . Her mother was an attentive and loving person who made sure that Harriet was cared for in everyway and grew up in a household that spared no expense in providing for her comfort and well being. Even after Mrs. Woodhouse remarried and became Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet remained the center of her life. Their main occupations were visiting friends, shopping with frequent visits to the dressmaker. Although Harriet was for the most part well behaved she did have a bit of a temper and occasionally staged an adult tantrum or bout of stubbornness so that her mother felt the need for a respite from her responsibilities as parent to a little child in an adult’s body. Therefore from time to time she would send Harriet for a visit of a month or so with some of her relatives. Among these was a widowed cousin, Mrs. Hoppner, who was living with and supporting a teenaged daughter and under a good deal of financial strain. Mrs. Ogilvy made sure that Mrs. Hoppner was compensated for looking after Harriet so that she was welcomed into the household as a source of some badly needed income. In addition to her teenaged daughter, Alice, Mrs. Hoppner had an older daughter, Elizabeth married to and totally infatuated with a poor, struggling artist named Patrick Oman. Patrick had an older, charming and very good-looking brother named Lewis who worked as an auctioneer’s clerk, a job that paid poorly and did not promise a prosperous future. It is while Harriet was visiting this house when she was thirty-two that these four gradually conceived the plan of having Lewis court and marry Harriet for her money. Harriet’s mother tried to regain control of the situation by having Harriet declared mentally incompetent but the courts did not agree that making a poor choice in husbands was evidence of insanity.  Lewis succeeded in marrying Harriet and eventually moved out of London to an isolated cottage where she was confined to her room and reduced to a life of filth and degradation until through neglect she and the child she bore succumbed to starvation and died a horrible death having been reduced to but a skeletal frame.

This is not a nice story; it is quite disturbing but it is a compelling read. I found the author’s development of these nasty characters to be quite engrossing. The task she took on was to show how four seemingly ordinary middle class young people pursuing their quiet ordinary lives could develop into four heartless and murderous monsters. The novel describes four  physically attractive people who felt that the world owed them a living and convinced themselves that Harriet, whose features were witheringly limp and distorted by a lack of animation, did not deserve the comfort and wealth she possessed. Although they did not deliberately set out to kill her, over time they came to think of her as being less than human and not deserving of any regard. As she became ill from neglect and hunger they hid her away in a locked room because they could not stand her presence. There is certainly an art in creating a monster and Elizabeth Jenkins obviously spent time working through the details so that the progression creeps up on the reader. For example, she starts out by describing the teenaged   Alice Hopner as a beautiful but spoiled child, raised by her mother like a little princess, not expected to help with any of the house work and deeply resentful of her mother inability to provide her with the fine clothes that would soothe her all consuming vanity. When Harriet comes to visit with a trunk full of exquisitely made dresses and hats and shoes she sinks into a mood of total resentment of what she considers evidence of an unjust world that would have a beautiful person such as herself live in want while Harriet whom she thought of as ‘the creature,’ could dress in silk and velvet. Her sister Elizabeth is equally seduced into this way of thinking because she is unable to provide proper food or clothing for her artist husband whose only real concern in life is his work. She longs to give him more comforts but has only his meagre earnings from his commissions with which to run her household. Then there is Lewis who is caught up in a totally self-absorbed sense of entitlement with only the talents and education of a charming rogue with which to make his way in the world. His true nature comes through when he is eventually brought to trial with the others. The author has him enjoying the public attention and secretly smiling to himself at the sight of a packed courtroom despite the likelihood he might hang for destroying the unhappy Harriet Woodhouse. This lust for publicity must be the worst feature of a narcissistic personality and reminds me a certain infamous Canadian serial killer who relished the notoriety of having his name in bold headlines in every newspaper across the country.

This is a skilfully constructed book. Though the details of the story are distasteful it can be read just to see how a writer can convincingly analyze an actual occurrence through a work of fiction.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

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This story begins in the small town of Enniscorthy Ireland. It is 1950 and nineteen year old Eilis Lacey lives quietly with her widowed mother and her beautiful, spirited sister, Rose. Eilis is poised on the threshold of adulthood. She is taking a bookkeeping course and remains close to the girl friends from her school days. She is not romantically attached to anyone as yet but she is interested and attentively observing the mating rituals at the local dances. Although unemployment is prevalent and – touches just about every family in post war Ireland, Eilis is hoping to find her place within the community close to her childhood home. She has no thought of moving away to England, as have her three older brothers. Some fifteen hundred words into the story, the author, Colm Tóibín, has Eilis transported from her safe comfortable home to the other side of the Atlantic when Rose convinces both her and her mother that America is the best place for Eilis to find employment. Eilis has no enthusiasm for embarking on such an adventure but she is young and allows others to decide her future. She is put on an ocean liner bound for America and endures a rough and stormy crossing. A trusted Catholic priest meets Eilis at the dock in New York City and sees that she is settled in Brooklyn in a boarding house for single ladies; a type of establishment that is unknown in the twenty first century. It is a place where the landlady rules like a minor despot setting the hour for meals dictating who should be -allowed to sit in the parlour and what time everyone had to be home in the evening.

The homesickness Eilis endures is palpable. The author tells a simple story of a young girl trying her best to cope when everything comforting and familiar has been taken away. She is employed as a sales clerk in a large department store in Brooklyn and immerses herself in her work as a way of diverting her thoughts away from her mother, her sister and home. Colm Tóibín does a masterful job of putting into words Eilis’s feelings as she matures and gradually finds her place in her new environment. The reader has the sense that the author truly likes this young character, the product of his imagination and so we, the readesr read quickly and turn the pages anxious to know how Eilis will get on and if she will find some kind of happiness or at least some respite from the sadness that consumes her.

A dramatic change is introduced when a young man falls in love with Eilis and she is slowly and lovingly drawn into his family sphere. She is overwhelmed at first but continues to pursue her own interests by attending night school in the hope of training for a job in the business office of the department store where she works.

A year and a half later a family tragedy draws her back to Ireland. At home, she cannot help comparing the vitality and rapid pace of life in Brooklyn to the sleepy and somewhat shabby town of Enniscorthy. She also becomes aware that the town’s people have changed in the way they regard her. Before she left she was something of an invisible person; just another middle class teenager finding her way through the education system without much prospect for a prosperous future. Upon her return she finds she is regarded as being both interesting and glamorous. This is due in part to her fashionable clothes and make-up, all of which she had aquired as part of the uniform of a sales clerk in a ladies apparel department. However, it is her newly acquired self-confidence that earns the admiration of her peers and acquaintances and evokes an appreciation of all her good qualities that had not been noticeable before her return. Her feelings become conflicted when she discovers opportunities opening up that would allow her to stay in the much-loved place of her birth.

Aside from following with rapt interest the fortunes of Eilis Lacey I was caught up completely in the atmosphere of New York in the 1950’s. If this novel is not the product of the author’s personal experience or some intense research it is a masterful feat of the imagination. He lays out the framework of a vibrant city with paved streets, modern lighting, taxis and the subway. There is the iconic New York diner and ethnically diverse foods and a universal passion for baseball. The contrast with modern New York is demonstrated in how open the U.S. was to immigration. Eilis had her papers and her and immigration status within a few weeks of deciding to move to America which would be unheard of today. The city is full of first and second-generation immigrants who were for the most part white Europeans and the circles Eilis moved in when she first arrived were full of people connected to Ireland. Even her landlady turned out to be related to people who lived in Enniscorthy. New York and Brooklyn in particular was a far more parochial place. It was a place where a landlady could call up the police department and ask the foot patrol to watch out for suspicious looking loiterers in her neighbourhood. I wonder how the Brooklyn Police Department would handle such a request today. Interestingly it is while Eilis is settling into her work at the department store that the management decides to cater to the tastes of the ladies of the black population of New York by offering certain brand name clothing. She is asked to help with serving the black customers at the counter where this clothing is sold, which she does and is puzzled why her colleagues have no enthusiasm for this expansion of the enterprise. She seems unaware of the existence of racial discrimination perhaps because there were no such issues back home in Ireland where religious prejudice was traditionally the source of riot and mayhem.

The author has also embellished the story with some interesting details about communication and travel in the fifties. I was thinking as I read from chapter to chapter that if one of my children decided to move to the other side of the world I would have the comfort of telephone, e-mail and Skype to ease the anxiety of separation. If necessary I could buy a plane ticket on line and be with them in a matter of hours. Eilis did not have access to a telephone, she communicated by mail, which crossed the Atlantic by boat and took more than a week to reach its destination. If there was need for an urgent communication one could use telegraph, air mail (which was too expensive for everyday and had to be written on special air mail paper) or one could make arrangements with someone who did have a phone to place a transatlantic call. However, in Ellis’s situation as her mother did not have a telephone herself the effort to place such a call took an amount of planning in proportion to a military maneuver. Even when she wished to purchase a ticket to go back home, Eilis had to write the ocean liner company to request a reservation and wait a week or more for a reply. This was a different time and a different world deftly described I thought by the author.

This is one of those novels I would describe as perfectly wrought in the sureness and readability of the writing; in the art of selecting just the right details and in the characters that earned my heartfelt interest. As I read each sentence I could hear the music in the Irish accent of the Dubliner. I am inspired to read more of Colm Toibin’s novels and will do so (if I live long enough to get through the unread books still waiting for my attention).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

A prickly little creature is the hedgehog. It looks like a pincushion with eyes. Natural selection has endowed the hedgehog with an ingenious suit of spiked armor that protects its vulnerable insides. Thus, the hedgehog is the perfect metaphor for the principal character in this novel. Renée Michel is the concierge in a luxury apartment building in an area of Paris where only the wealthy can afford to live. She has a secret she protects with an ill-tempered almost rude persona that she puts on for everyone she encounters. The secret is she is an autodidact and is better read and more knowledgeable than any of the sophisticated inhabitants of the apartment building she maintains with mop and broom. Her home is similar to that of the hedgehog. It is a dark cave-like den situated close to the front entrance. It is her retreat from the demands of the residents as well as the boredom of looking after the garbage and cleaning the stairways and corridors. In the front room of her den she has placed a television, which is perpetually turned on as a decoy so that anyone passing her door would think she did nothing more than sleep in front of the soap operas as is assumed, she informs us, all concierges must. However at the back of her loge there is a room where she keeps her books and her comfortable chair and where she spends every free moment studying art, music, literature and philosophy. It is here that she finds relief from the distress of poverty and loneliness and a means to exercise her passion for learning.

There is a second character that figures prominently in this novel. A precocious twelve-year-old girl named Paloma who announces in one of her two journals that she has decided to commit suicide at the end of the school year and burn her apartment and all its contents. As an aside: I gave this book to my daughter a few months ago and she told me as soon as she read this entry in Paloma’s journal she lost patience and went no further with the story. It is important, however, to remember that bright, intelligent twelve-year-olds who are too wise for their years might write with certain bravado meant to add a tincture of the melodramatic to their journal entries. Paloma is a bit of a hedgehog too. She hides away from her family, in her room or at the back of closets because she cannot stand their self-absorbed narcissism that makes them oblivious to anyone or thing they perceive to be outside their bourgeois world and who feel perfectly entitled to exercise all the privilege they enjoy as if it was their birthright. There exists in France a class-consciousness that is not understood here in North America and much of this book laments this hypocrisy in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

This novel is written in the alternating voices of Renée and Paloma. It is difficult for an author to write a novel in more than one voice and have each sound distinctive. However the font used in printing the book changes as it alternates from Renée’s narration to Paloma’s journal with Paloma’s writing accorded dark boldface. This is helpful but also distracting. Nonetheless, the thing that makes this novel so amusing is the sharp observations of both Renée and Paloma on the antics of the personalities who inhabit their apartment building who think of themselves as being so superior but who live in ignorance and stupidity.

Paloma’s and Renée’s view of the human herd is changed forever when a Japanese businessman named Mr. Kakuro Ozu purchases one of the apartments. He has the insight to see beyond the prickly spines of the self-effacing concierge. A little appreciation and good conversation is all that is needed to inspire Renée to let down her guard and for Paloma to see beyond the snobberies and insensitivity of a ridiculous family. (In one funny scene Paloma’s mother has a tug of war with another woman over a pair of panties on sale in a lingerie shop… to give you an idea of some of the silly adult behavior to which Paloma is witness). The second half of the story is about watching Renée drop her hedgehog’s armor under the warmth of Mr. Ozu’s company.

Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy by profession. I felt there were perhaps some philosophy in-jokes that I did not appreciate. (I am still trying to catch up on my philosophy reading but will probably not live long enough to do so). For example, I have the feeling that she did not have much time for Jean Paul Sartre and then I remembered that there was an autodidact in one of his novels La Nausée (that I read about thirty years ago) but this autodidact was regarded with a certain bemused disdain as he was reading every book in the local library in alphabetical order as if knowledge was something you could consume like a loaf of bread sliced from one side to another. So someone with more understanding of this subject would be able to judge if this was meant to be significant or not. My shortcomings in the area of philosophy did not diminish my enjoyment of the story. I also had the impression that the author took advantage of the novel to quietly rant about some of her pet peeves as a university professor (this is just conjecture on my part). For example she has Renée come across a thesis written by Paloma’s sister, Colombe. She has chosen the writings of William of Ockham, a thirteenth century philosopher theologian and Franciscan monk as her subject. Renée deplores the way Colombe dismisses and distorts the understanding of his writing. She laments that students like Colombe do not use their talents to seek truth and beauty but condemn the work of someone who is not around to defend their ideas in order to create a convenient topic for their thesis.

This was an entirely enjoyable novel. It has an immense worldwide following and has won several awards. It can be read on many levels, especially that of love and redemption.

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes

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This is a funny, structurally unique novel that meanders along a number of separate story lines. In the beginning we are introduced to Dr. Geoffrey Braithwaite, a sad character; a retired physician whose wife has died and whose children are grown leaving him to pursue his interest in the life and work of French writer Gustave Flaubert. This private quest develops into more of an obsession than a hobby. He is an amateur scholar hoping to contribute something to the tome upon tome of material written about Flaubert and he despises those literary critics who dissect novels into minute particles paying too much attention to detail and small mistakes rather than appreciating the body of Flaubert’s work as a whole. The period is the late 1970’s and the story follows Dr. Braithwaite as he visits Flaubert’s province of birth, Normandy, and his hometown of Croisset.

The title, Flaubert’s Parrot is explained in the early pages. According to local lore, Flaubert had borrowed a stuffed parrot from a museum and placed it on his desk for inspiration when writing a story entitled, ‘Un Coeur Simple’. In this story a poor domestic servant is so attached to her pet parrot that when it dies she has it stuffed and before her death raises it to the idolatrous status of the Holy Ghost. During his exploration of Flaubert’s literary environment Dr. Braithwaite comes across two different historic sites that claim to have the very same stuffed parrot that Flaubert had borrowed. The question that is raised is whether it is important to know which parrot is the true artefact and which the imposter? In his explorations Dr. Braithwaite discovers that there is little that remains of Flaubert’s world. Two World Wars and the momentum of modernity have wiped away so many traces of the man. Another question therefore, is whether this diminishes the literary legacy of Flaubert.

This is a delightful quirky little novel that wanders down a dozen different lines of thought. The reader is treated to: a chronology of Flaubert’s life, a bestiary of animals that might have been important to him and a Flaubert alphabet of words that may have had significance in his life. Flaubert’s travels, love affaires, education, eccentricities, ailments (notably syphilis contracted while visiting a brothel in Egypt) and his relationship with his mother are all explored. Three quarters of the way through the book a deeper reason for Dr. Braithwiath’s interest is revealed. It becomes apparent that Dr. Braithwiate finds certain events and circumstances of his life run parallel to those of Madame Bovary, the protagonist of Flaubert’s most important literary endeavour. Like Madam Bovary, Mrs. Braithwaith did not love her husband. She found comfort in other lovers and in the end despaired of her situation and committed suicide. So in part Dr Braithwiate’s attempt to understand the life and work of August Flaubert is an attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding his own life.

The mystery of which parrot is which is solved in a way you may be able to guess (although I didn’t). This is an amusing and very humorous read. Julian Barnes demonstrates that he is unconditionally fond of Flaubert and admires the sum of his accomplishments and forgives the accumulation of his failings. The book is a brilliant mixture of biography and fiction and a joy to read. It was short listed for the Mann Booker in 1984; it should have won… but who am I to voice such an opinion? (but it should have won).

Trans Atlantic by Colum McCann

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I am so impressed by Colum McCann’s lyrical writing that I hardly know where to begin. Trans Atlantic is about crossings. That is to say it is about crossings over the Atlantic Ocean, crossings over time, crossings over social barriers, crossings on the way to justice, crossings to a new stage of life requiring a letting go of the old, crossings from one outlook on the world to another. This book reads beautifully but you must be patient and let it unfold.

The structure of the novel in and of itself is unusual because it skips back and forth in time based on three historic events but is held together by the stories of four generations of extraordinary women; mothers and daughters, who are a product of the author’s imagination. The principal characters who play major roles in the events described are famous men whose achievements are well documented while the women who link these events together are ordinary individuals whose lives are woven invisibly into history’s background.

A novelist is basically a storyteller who has the advantage of moulding the printed word. I know in this, I am stating the obvious, but I want to point out Colum McCann’s use of the art form. . The printed word allows the writer to mix things up a little because the reader always has the option of flipping back though the pages to pick up on a missed connection. In Trans Atlantic, Colum McCann does not begin at point ‘A’ but jumps ahead to  the year 2012 which is around point ‘W’; not quite the end. Then the story skips to 1919 which is somewhere around ‘L ’on the timeline and then back to 1845 which is point ‘A’ chronologically. Then, there is a quantum leap to 1998, which puts the story somewhere around ‘Q’. To do this and have it all make sense and come together in a coherent, logical way is, I thought, a work of art akin to a painting by Picasso from his cubist period.

The novel is woven around three extraordinary stories. The first of these is the flight of John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland in 1920. The author describes how these two young men, veterans of WW I, and witnesses to all its violence, took up the challenge of being the first to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. Their aircraft was a converted warplane that was a little more than a plywood frame covered with canvas. Alcock was the pilot and Brown the navigator. In their plane they sat in seats one behind the other that were not enclosed and were so exposed to the frigid temperatures during their flight that their hands and limbs were often completely numb. Because of the noise from the engines they could only communicate by handing notes back and forth to each other. At times, flying through the dark and the fog they had no idea if the wings of the plane were level or on a perilous tilt because they lacked aviation instrumentation of even the most primative kind.

The second story concerns Frederick Douglass, a man who began life as a slave in the Southern United States and escaped to work with the Abolitionist movement in the North. He was a charismatic speaker and in 1845 crossed the Atlantic on a lecture tour of Ireland and Great Britain. In Ireland Colum McCann imagines that his presence inspired a young, uneducated housemaid named Lily to cross the Atlantic and work toward the Abolitionists cause. Frederick Douglass’s acquaitance with Lily is so slight that he never comes to understand the influence he has on the course of her life. It is through Lily and her descendants that all the major stories and the sub plots of Trans Atlantic are knitted together.

The third story involves Senator George Mitchell who helped introduce peace to Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Accord in 1998. I find it interesting that George Mitchell is still living and made a principal subject of a work of fiction. I cannot help but wonder what he must have thought when he saw his life imagined and written up by a complete stranger. The author describes his idea of the privileges the Senator would have enjoyed such as having a dedicated chauffeur or being escorted to the VIP lounge in airports. And then there are the  descriptions of his quotidian existence; such as the small conversations he might have had with his wife or the enjoyment he felt in taking a shower after working all night on the tedious details of the peace negotiations. There is a certain amount of daring in having a contemporary figure appearing in one’s novel but Colum McCann pulls it off quite neatly.

However, beyond the structural innovations that are employed in this novel it is the writing that makes it such a good read. Colum McCann is not afraid to break the rules of sentence structure and punctuation or grammar when it serves his purpose whether his objet is to wind up the intensity of the story or add to the lyricism of the language. As proof I offer here  a quote from page 200 from my copy of Trans Atlantic. Lily’s daughter, Emily moves to New York in the early 1900’s and becomes a journalist. This extract describes her passion for the art of storytelling:

…She wanted her articles to have the compression and rhythm of poems. She pushed the words towards the edge of the page. Worked and reworked. The cutting contests in the Rosebud Café, where the musicians pounded hard on the piano keys. A meeting of anarchists in the basement of a tenement in Carr Square. The bare-knuckle boxing fights down near the newsboys’ home on Thirteenth Street. She was in the habit of writing at tangents so there were times that she would stray into a treatise on the patterns of bird migration along the Mississippi, or the excellence that could be found in the German diner on Olive Street.

I think Colum McCann’s writing has ‘the compression and rhythm of poems’ making Trans Atlantic an engrossing and utterly readable novel.

According to Queeney by Beryl Bainbridge

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Beryl Bainbridge is an author who has had no fewer than five of her novels short-listed for the Mann Booker Prize though none of them ever won. She was awarded a special prize posthumously in recognition of her contribution to English Literary fiction. According to Queeney was one of the last novels she published and is a work of historical fiction with a modern twist.

The novel is set in the second half of the 18th century and concerns the relationship between the Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Hester Thrale as seen through the eyes of Hester’s young daughter upon whom Dr. Johnson affectionately bestowed the pet name of Queeney. Soon after Dr. Johnson completed work on his famous dictionary he suffered a nervous breakdown. Mr. and Mrs. Thrale had been introduced to him only a short time before he became ill and took charge of his recovery providing him rooms where he could rest and quietly work in both their town and country houses. The Thrale’s were wealthy people who entertained a large circle of London’s brightest and most talented people. It was the young Mrs. Hester Thrale who possessed the gifts of wit, charm and above all amusing conversation who drew these intellectuals, writers and actors into the company of the Thrales. The addition of Dr. Johnson to their circle brought in a greater number of the notables of that period including Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Fanny Burney.

Hester Thrale lived two hundred years before women could avail of a dependable means of contraception and so experienced multiple pregnancies most ending in stillbirth or the early death of the child. Yet despite the distraction of being constantly pregnant she was always a lively, engaging hostess running a large bustling household. Her marriage to Henry Thrale was not a happy one as he was a disinterested husband (except it seems when it came to the act of procreation). Mrs. Thrale, according to the novel, felt free to pursue the society of other men all under the disapproving scrutiny of her daughter Queenie. Well, what was an adolescent to think when her mother kept seducing her tutors?

Johnson’s relationship with Mrs Thrale may have been for the most part Platonic but to read Beryl Bainbridge’s book it was the enjoyment of each other’s company on both an intellectual and family level that was the bond that made Dr. Johnson a part of the Thrale household. He came to live with the Thrales shortly after Queeney was born so that she grew up thinking he was a part of the family and overlooked those chracteristics of Johnson’s that others outside his circle found startling and even repellent.  He seems to have been plagued by what today would be labled as obsessive impulsive disorders such as involuntary movements or twitches, the shaking back and forth of the head like a cow and talking to himself very loudly. Sometimes he suffered from hallucinations and in one chapter Queeney witnessesd a mysterious arguement between Dr Johnson and her mother when Dr. Johnson tried to give her a lock and chain so she could lock him up in his room at night for fear that one of his episodes of temporary insanity might  cause him to  harm one of the family members .

The story covers about a twenty year period and is told in the sort of fragmented way a child might do in trying to understand adult behavior and piece together the logic of the adult world for herself. In some ways Queeney feels her mother does not pay enough attention to her and in others she grouses silently and aloud that her mother pays too much attention to her and is hyper critical of her manners and the way she behaves in adult company. It was this behaviour that made me think that the story had a modern twist as it reminds me of that difficult stage teenagers go through when they come to understand that their parents are not perfect; are full of human flaws and perhaps not   models of good behaviour.

To keep up the story’s momentum and to provide it with some overall structure Beryl Bainbridge has employed two clever devices. The first of these was to use a definition from Dr.Johnson’s dictionary as the title for the chapters of her novella. Chapter One is entitled Crisis and in addition to the definition an illustrative quote is used to better describe the word. Thus quoting John Dryden she offers: “This hour’s the very crisis of your fate; Your good or ill; your infamy or fame, And all the colour of your life depends on this important now.” I did not research whether Beryl Bainbridge was mimicking Dr. Johnson’s style or if she directly quoted his dictionary but that doesn’t matter as it bears a very good verisimilitude and this is a very tidy way of indicating a life changing moment that propelled Dr. Johnson out of his own home and into the household of the Thrales.

The second device comes at the end of every chapter. It is a copy of the adult Queeney ‘s correspondence with Letitia Hawkins, daughter of one of Dr. Johnson’s friends. Miss Hawkins was a writer and novelist who was trying to put together her memoirs for publication. She had been a guest of the Thrales from time to time and was trying to piece together some recollections of her association with Dr. Johnson. It is plain from these letters that Queeney is very cool to the idea of exploiting Dr.Johnson’s memory for the advancement of someone’s hubristic notions of self-importance. It is also clear from the letters that she has grown into a self confident and insightful woman who is reconciled to her mother’s oft-times selfish choices in life. Especially hard may have been her Mother’s rift with Dr. Johnson after her father died when her mother chose to marry Queeney’s music teacher.

I enjoyed this novel because of its author’s control over her subject matter. I admired her skill at capturing the complexity and intensity of human emotion in just a few compact chapters.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

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17380041 I once thought I might write an essay entitled ‘Perambulations through the Shrubbery or how Jane Austen Ruined My Life’. That was as far as I got. As the title implies, I was trying to be ‘clever’ which never goes over well because it is more about ego than good writing. The theme of the intended essay was that of  over-romanticizing life in Georgian England at a time when it took an army of servants to create a relatively comfortable home for even one individual. You only have to live through a modern day blackout in the middle of winter to get some idea of just how difficult it would have been to maintain any sort of quality of life without the conveniences of central heating and the like. In early childhood my family vacations were spent in a country house that had neither electricity nor warm running water. There was a big, oil fuelled stove in the kitchen for cooking and kerosene lamps for light. These novelties were tremendously diverting for little children. The light of the kerosene lamps was especially charming and lent a comforting golden glow to the evenings.  But for my poor mother this must have been more of an endurance test than a holiday as the job of cleaning and refilling those lamps every morning was endless to say nothing of keeping three children clean in a house that had only cold water.  Nonetheless, Jo Baker has done away with any need for me to write such an essay as her novel, Longbourn has done a much better job than I could ever do in dispelling the myth of a Janeite country idyll. The sub title for this novel is Pride and Prejudice, the Servant’s Story. The novel is written as the Through The Looking Glass version of P&P from the point of view of those living below stairs. Mrs. Hall is the housekeeper and cook in charge of domestic issues, her husband is the butler, Sarah and Polly are the two maids ‘of all work’, and James is the new and mysterious footman who takes on everything from serving dinner to chauffeuring the family’s horse drawn carriage. Caring for a large household was pure drudgery. Laundry was accomplished by soaking clothes in lye soap and scrubbing the sheets and towels with the bare hands (there were no rubber gloves in the 1700’s, in fact, rubber was not developed for domestic use until some two hundred years after Jane Austen’s death). Servants worked up to fourteen hours a day and were paid very little more than their room and board. Water had to be drawn from a well, chamber pots had to be emptied and fireplaces cleaned every day. Floors were swept using old tea leaves scattered over the floor to keep down the dust and rugs were dragged out doors and hung on a line to have the dirt beaten out of them. This book would be no fun if it simply described the cold and misery of working as a servant in eighteenth century England. The real interest lies in the characters and how they go about fulfilling their dreams despite the adverse conditions they have to live under. Sarah wants to travel to London to see the world, James has seen too much of the world and wants to settle far away from it in the country, Mrs. Hall seeks to reclaim the love of her youth and Mr. Hall has a lover who, according to the mores of the time, must never be acknowledged. There are stories, secrets and subplots that belong to the servants alone. However, while the servant’s are going about their business we catch glimpses of all the drama that drives the plot of Pride and Predjudice. There is, for example, the excitement fluttering around Mrs. Bennet and her daughters when they meet the wealthy, eligible bachelors, Bingly and Darcy and more excitement with the arrival of the despised Mr. Collins who is heir to the family estate.  Then there is the occasion when Mrs. Hall must  medicate the hysterical Mrs. Bennet with laudanum when her youngest daughter elopes with the devious Mr. Wickham. All the familiar and well -loved scenes are touched upon while Sarah and James fall in love and the secrets and intrigues of the servants’ lives are revealed.

I am not a fan of those writers who choose to imagine spin offs from Jane Austen’s brilliantly imagined novels. They cannot be augmented, expanded upon or improved in any way because they are perfect. I agree with the author Joanna Trollope who in a recent literary talk stated that Jane Austin deliberately stopped her stories when the Happily ever after arrived because the Happily ever after is a totally boring place to be. You have only to read P.D.James Death comes to Pemberly to have evidence of this. Here, the married Lizzy Bennet has no wit, no sparkle, no spunk. She has become an all too happy domestic, grand lady raising her perfect children keeping busy looking after her perfect aristocratic husband and arranging boring social occasions. P.D. James is one of  my favourite authors and I hate to be critical but, she should never have attempted this book. Longbourn, on the other hand, is not an attempt to parody Pride and Prejudice or re-write or add to it rather, it is quite an independent novel written in modern language that simply uses Pride and Prejudice as a backdrop for the narrative and explores the the deplorable conditions domestic servants endured during this period. I thought this novel was very finely done and I think it stands up well as an historical novel in its own right. It ends as it should, and as Jane Austen would have approved, that is to say, just before any of the aforementioned Happily ever after has the chance to settle in. I would only add, these endings are not necessarily the ones you might expect.

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

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To my ears the Theremin, which is at the centre of this novel, is a very odd sounding musical instrument. I cannot imagine sitting through an entire concert of the eerie electronic music it produces, (think of the theme from Star Trek). Luckily I didn’t have to like or listen to the Theremin to enjoy this novel. The author, Sean Michaels, has borrowed from the events of the life of Leon Termin, the Theremin’s inventor, to construct this story. Leon was a Russian physicist and the Theremin, was his most famous invention. The electronic sound of this instrument was controlled by the musician’s hands moving between two antennae. One hand controlled the volume and the other the pitch. The musician playing the instrument had the appearance of someone conducting an invisible orchestra or, as the author has Leon say very early on in the novel, conducting the ‘ether’. This is where the title, Us Conductors comes from. It is a metaphor for creativity; two hands waving in thin air creating something out of the invisible imagination. Leon’s love interest is Clara Rockmore who was acknowledged in her lifetime as the Theremin’s most proficient player. The first part of the story is told in the form of a long letter addressed to Clara that Leon writes while held prisoner on a ship bound for the USSR. The letter is never sent to Clara and is more of an internal meditation on the joys of scientific discovery, music and love.

Leon was born and grew up in the latter years of Imperial Russia and lived through the Russian Revolution. He came into his prime as a brilliant inventor during the early days of the Soviet Union. As a young man he was offered opportunities to develop his ideas in a laboratory in Leningrad. Between the two World Wars, at a time when only a fraction of the world was hooked up to an electrical grid he had already begun working on the blueprint of the television and improvements to wireless communication. In the 1920s his country thought it might be a good idea to send him to the United States to promote his inventions and to carry out some industrial spying. It was a time when the USSR was America’s ally and thus Leon had no trouble in obtaining a visa. He set up his workshop in New York where he entertained the celebrities of the day with his curious musical invention. The Theremin allowed him to make his way into the social circles of the very wealthy such as the Rockefellers and the Morgans and to attract the attention of celebrities the likes of George Gershwin and Charlie Chaplin. He enjoyed the nightclubs, the dance halls, the speakeasies and all the sparkle that was New York. Then he fell in love with a young violinist, Clara Rockmore ten years his junior. Their relationship started out as that of teacher guiding pupil and then became platonically romantic. During this time Leon was living the double life of a spy and used his business connections to gain access to the private documents of companies developing important new innovations in the industrial world. After the stock market crash of 1929 Leon suffered financially as his Soviet masters abandoned him.  Eventually he is spirited back home, against his will by the KGB. He finds the Soviet world has become a much more sinister place under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin than it ever was when Vladimir Lenin was in charge. A series of blunders on Leon’s part results in his being transported to a Siberian Gulag where he is plunged into the depths of misery.  Throughout his stay in this terrible place it is his indomitable intelligence and his love for the woman who could never share his ardour that sustains him and gives him the will to live.

I could add a few more sentences here and reveal the whole story because it does not have a lot of movement. The novel is about three hundred and fifty pages in length and is plotted out economically. The only character that the reader really gets to know is Leon who is telling his own story. The other characters make brief appearances and are left behind never to appear again. But the lack of action does not detract from the fact that this is an immensely engaging book largely due to the internal monologue that charts Leon’s life through the good years and the bad. Even during the darkest times of deprivation and suffering Leon’s brilliant, creative mind is his salvation.

Her is a very fine novel that vividly describes within its covers the excitement of a new industrial age and the whole Pandora’s box of modern communication based on the hum of that invisible electrical current.  The driving force behind the story is  the lively mind of the author, Sean Michaels who has imagined his protagonist into being out of the broad strokes of the real Leon Termin’s life.

Gone Girl By Gillian Flynn

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I started to read this book when I had a four-hour layover at Halifax airport on my way home from Ottawa. I had the hard cover copy of the book so anyone who might be idly curious could see what I was reading and no fewer than three people interrupted me to say how much they liked Gone Girl. I must say it was an enjoyable read that made the tedium of travel pass very quickly. I’d describe it as being of the mystery-suspense genre. It involves Nick and Amy, husband and wife. He is handsome and charming in a carefree way. She is more serious and not as outgoing; you might describe her as being very proper. She seems to think she and Nick are in everyway a class above their friends and acquaintences. Amy has to live up to a reputation her parents created for her even before she was old enough to read. They made her the subject of a series of children’s books  wherein she is characterised as ‘Amazing Amy’ a perfect little girl who could do no wrong. The series became a multi year best seller and earned the family a forture. Nick and Amy are both professional writers and at the beginning of the book they are living and working in New York City. They enjoy an affluent lifestyle taking advantage of the best that New York has to offer until Nick looses his job with the downturn in the US economy and because of the radical changes brought on by the digitization of the publishing world. They move back to Nick’s hometown in Minnesota because Nick wants to re-invent his working life by going into business with his twin sister and because he wants to be closer to his mother who is terminally ill. Amy resents the move because the only place she wants to live is New York City and so she sits in their new home brooding until one day she becomes the Gone Girl of the title. On this day, Nick returns home to find his house in upheaval and Amy missing. When the police become involved Nick, as the husband of the abducted or potentially murdered victim, becomes a prime suspect.
To enhance the suspense the story is doled out in chapters narrated alternately by Nick and Amy. At first the reader is very sympathetic to both. However about one quarter of the way through the story we sniff the odour of sociopaths and the manipulating influence of the power of image as portrayed through mass media. To convince the world of his innocence Nick must be not just the concerned and loving husband much more than that he must project the image of such a man. This is a tricky business eventually requiring the assistance of a person who is a master at influencing the way the news in all its forms perceives the situation.

The principal characters in this book turn out to be people with whom you would never wish to be acquainted. If you could peel back their flesh like an orange you would see that underneath there would be nothing but wreathing maggots clinging to an externally handsome carcass like Mephistopheles in Dr. Faustus. (my apologies to Thomas Mann and for being melodramatic). Well, who says you have to have likeable characters to create a very good work of fiction?

The book is broken up into thirds. The first part seeds, suspicion, doubt and clues that are both false and true and excites the reader’s curiosity and puzzlement building suspense. The second part reveals everyone’s true colours and the third resolves the plot with startling just desserts for the guilty and in an interesting twist  skips over the imposition of conventional justice to impose instead, a special kind of  hell on the guilty.

Any aspiring writer attempting to create a well structured thriller might find  Gone Girl an excellent template to follow.

Caught by Lisa Moore

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Lisa Moore’s latest novel is an adventure story; a true page-turner set in the late 1970’s. The protagonist, David Slaney, has escaped from a federal penitentiary in rural Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. At the beginning of chapter one he has just scrambled under a fence still wearing his prison uniform. He manages to reach a highway and rendezvous with a truck driver who is part of the plan to help him evade the authorities who would soon be trying to recapture him with searchlights and dogs. David has spent four years of his youthful twenties in jail paying for the crime of smuggling a large shipment of marijuana between Columbia and Newfoundland. He and his partner, Hearn almost succeeded in their illegal enterprise but they had foolishly chosen a remote and isolated community to land their cargo where the arrival of outsiders would naturally attract the interest of the local inhabitants as if it were headline news. The fishermen working along the coastline realised their movements were blatantly suspicious and reported them to the police. David was tried and convicted but Hearn was freed when his father posted bail for him using his house as a surety. He jumped bail and escaped to Vancouver and in doing so ruined his father financially and emotionally. Hearn is not a nice person which explains why he was a more successful criminal than David Slaney. David on the other hand, is portrayed as a charming good-looking young man who was unwise and guileless. He lacked the stealth and the cold-blooded intelligence to be a good criminal and so true to character, as soon as he escaped he headed west in order to meet up with certain trouble: his old partner Hearn. In the meantime, Hearn was pursuing a PhD in English Literature under a new identity at the University of British Columbia. I thought to myself, that in making the criminal mastermind of this novel a passionate lover of literature Lisa Moore must be making a joke her fellow authors would appreciate, for are not all novelists plotters and schemers at their core and are not we, as readers, their equally passionate collaboraters?

A more exact title for this novel might have been Caught–Up because David Slaney is just that; caught up in the need to reclaim the four years he lost in prison, caught up in his desire to find his lost girlfriend who has married someone else and most of all David Slaney is caught up in his longing to go back home to the island of Newfoundland. Pursuing this last idea the author makes reference to Homer’s Odyssey not that David Slaney, the likeable, ordinary, good guy, in any way resembles Odysseus, king, war hero, and leader of men. David has none of those qualities but his story resembles that of Odysseus in that his journey home takes him on many surprising side adventures and introduces him to interesting characters all of whom have their own unique stories to tell. Like Odysseus, David goes way off course in pursuit of home travelling 6000 kilometers westward to the Pacific rim when home is in the north Atlantic on the other side of the continent. Lisa Moore makes playful references to the Odyssey creating a very believable modern-day Cyclops working in a cave-like building in Montreal as well as a beautiful Siren who lures David to his doom or, maybe his salvation (although here I am guilty of mixing Greek mythology with the language of Christianity but never mind… it is all good fun).

The twist to this story that allows us to suspend our disbelief is that the police have deliberately allowed David Slaney to escape. They want him to lead them to Hearn who has evaded capture for so many years. David’s movements are closely tracked by an odd, sad police officer named Patterson. This is the nineteen seventies so there are no fancy electronic aids to help Patterson in his work. He has to rely on his wits and his luck to keep up with David’s trek across the continent. This was also an era before personal computers and the Internet or the convenience of even the most elementary cell phone. When Patterson needed to speak with his head office he had to use a payphone. The one new technology that was referenced was a satellite tracking system that the police were using to follow the yacht David sailed to Columbia. This created a sort of eye in the sky which is another reference to the Odyssey where the gods of Mount Olympus monitored and sometimes manipulated events on earth.

There is much I admired in this book starting with its lovely clear prose followed by all the colourful characters presented in such a way that the reader sees each of them holding the potential for another novel. There was, for example, the unhappy bride having trouble getting into her wedding gown who takes time to hide David from the police and the two friendly strippers making their living going from one dingy rural bar to another and the truck driver who preferred beekeeping to driving his rig and the compulsive gambler who gambled away all his household furniture without telling his wife. The reader is provided self-contained vignettes that say just enough about each character’s life to make them interesting and believable and yet we can move on to the next stage of David’s journey without feeling that we have somehow been short-changed on detail. Although the plot meandered, I liked that too. For the first half of the novel the Yellow Brick Road is the Trans Canada Highway and then for the second half David Slaney is sailing a beautiful yacht along the Pacific coast down to South America. The sailing part of this novel has a feeling of open skies, freedom and fresh sea air. Then there is the partying with Columbian drug lords who seem to have been far more sociable back in the nineteen seventies than their brutal successors of the new millennium.

I found this to be a great novel for escaping a cold Canadian winter. It made me feel as if I were on vacation in a better climate as I followed someone else’s adventures. However, I hope my reading was more sympathetic than those gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus who watched with cold amusement the follies and failings of humankind

The Illywhacker by Peter Carey

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I enjoy and admire Peter Carey’s writing. Oscar and Lucinda is among my favourite works of modern fiction as is Jack Maggs. I had dropped into a bookstore on my way to somewhere and intended to pick up The Chemistry of Tears, not his latest book but one that was on my to read list and came across this title and out of curiosity bought it instead. It turns out that an illywhacker is one of those charming Australian colloquialisms like billabong or swagman. It means con artist or trickster.

This narrative begins in rural Australia just as the country is developing its identity and self-confidence as a nation. The illywhacker of the title is Herbert Badgery who has been travelling about the countryside selling Ford model T cars to farmers and small businessmen… teaching them how to drive a car as part of the deal and seducing their wives and daughters on the side. Herbert is telling his own story and informs the reader up front that he is a liar. However he explains that the one fantastic fact the reader can rely on is that his true age is one hundred and thirty nine, (a statement that is disproved by even my elementary arithmetic ability). Using the figures Herbert mentions I would guess he is a hundred years old, which gives him a good overview of the twentieth century; he need not have exaggerated his age.

Herbert has had a very rough start in life having been reduced to living in a refuse heap of a market place while not yet a teenager after the death of his father and the destruction of his father’s cartage business. Herbert is responsible for both these tragedies but his loss weighs lightly on his conscience because he is very tied up in his own self-preservation. A wealthy Chinese businessman: a first generation immigrant, adopts Herbert and initiates him into the world of illusion, which is an important tool in the career of every trickster. Much of Herbert’s history and background is filled in by flashbacks interjected into the narrative when needed to make sense of the story, which begins when Herbert is in his early thirties, and in the prime of life. At this point he has acquired an airplane and learned to fly and is forced to land in a farmer’s field near the town of Geeing in the territory of Victoria, South East Australia. Subsequently he becomes the guest of a wealthy family and falls in love with Phoebe, their young daughter. There are times when the story takes off on a flight of magic realism such as when Herbert and Phoebe make love on the slope    of the steep family rooftop, close to the sky and overlooking the trees.   Phoebe is not in love with Herbert, she is in love with Herbert’s  airplane and a few years’ later flies away leaving him with the care of their two infant children. In the midst of the depression Herbert and the children set off on a quest to find Phoebe while earning their living as a travelling Vaudeville show in the company of a beautiful young socialist turned dancer named Leah. …and so the story rambles along like a bumpy ride down an unpaved country road in a rickety Ford Model T.

Peter Carey has the talent of creating characters so unique and remarkable that no matter how minor their role in the story they are instantly recallable. This is not a small talent and with authors of lesser skill in this area I have often had to keep notes in making my way through novels of multiple generations in order to keep everyone straight. In consequence of this gift of creating memorable characters there is no disappointment when minor characters are met in passing and then left never to be mentioned again. Each encounter is perfectly introduced and measured so that the reader is not left to wonder whatever happened to a person visited just once along the way.

The story is full of humour and wonderful, even bizarre adventures, so that it is only in retrospect that you notice that Herbert is not a nice person. He blames his son Charles for the death of his little daughter when really Herbert is the neglectful parent. He strikes Charles so hard he looses most of his hearing. Herbert commits an even greater crime and is sent to prison where he indulges in correspondence courses and obtains a post secondary education. While Herbert is away in prison the narrative takes up the story of Charles who builds up a business in the illegal trade of exotic birds. Here Peter Carey is making a sad commentary on the relationship of Australia with the Western world wherein his country squanders the best of its inheritance. Charles justifies his actions concluding that by exporting these birds and their eggs to foreign markets they may be saved from extinction by those who value them for their bright colours and their rarity. Sadder still, Charles’s wife and children and even Leah,the Vaudevillian dancer, begin to live in cages high in the rafters of Charles’s exotic bird shop. Perhaps they are trying to avoid their own extinction. Obviously this is more magic realism that actually becomes believable under the pen of the author.

This is a rather long book of some five hundred and sixty pages divided into short chapters but the length of the book is justified by its perfect lack of tedium. I might read it again whereas one reading of War and Peace was enough for me (as much as I enjoyed it). You must wait until very near the end for the twist as to who the true narrator is, allowing you to guess how much lying has been going on. Here I am not giving away anything because in chapter one paragraph two, Herbert states up front, “I am a terrible liar and I have always been a liar.”

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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The Painted Girls is set in Paris of the 1870’s and is based on the lives of the van Goethem sisters, Antoinette and Marie who are trying to save themselves and their little sister from a life of poverty and degradation. It is a time of intensive and lively artistic activity as the Impressionist painters have begun to exhibit their work and writers such as Emile Zola are introducing novels and plays that are sensational for the times as they are based on the lives of the poor and the working class. At the beginning of the novel the girls’ father has died and their mother is trying but failing to support the family by working as a laundress. The life of a laundress is one of is pure drudgery and does not provide the family more than a subsistence existence. The girls’ mother escapes this misery by drifting into a life of drug addiction. The three sisters see the Ballet of the Paris Opera as their way out of poverty and the slum they live in. However, the oldest, nineteen year old Antoinette is her own worst enemy. She could not hold her tongue or be reigned in by the discipline of the dance and so she looses her place in the ballet’s training program by being rebellious toward her teachers and being late for class or worse, by failing to attend. It falls on the second sister Marie to pursue a career in the ballet. She starts out at the bottom rung of the ballet ladder as one of those students called the little rats. This is not a pretty world for these children but Marie has talent and musicality and hope of working her way up to become a prima ballerina. However, there are pitfalls as one of the accepted ways the poorest of these children are helped to succeed is to endure the sponsorship of wealthy men who exploit their helplessness and poverty for the privilege of abusing them.

To earn extra money outside her ballet class Marie agrees to model for the impressionist artist Edgar Degas. Here the author tells the story based on a historically correct experience, as the real Marie van Goetham was the model for his very famous sculpture entitled “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”. In the meantime the author places Antoinette in another historically correct montage as she finds employment as an extra in a play called the, “Assommoir,” based on a novel of the same title by the writer Emile Zola. Working as an extra she meets and falls in love with a brutish, criminally inclined young man who seduces her into spiritual self-immolation, that is like a moth to a flame. The reader takes in all these events with horror as the van Goetham family ambles down the road to their destruction. So this is not a cheerful novel but it has some very interesting elements that demonstrate what goes into the creation of good fiction.

The story is told in the voice of the first person singular back and forth between Antoinette and Marie. Antoinette’s voice is angry and determined but shows a tender loving concern for her two younger sisters. She is the one trying to keep the family together and prevent their being evicted into the streets. She has no time for her mother who languishes at the bottom of an Absinthe bottle wasting what little money she earns. She is young, nineteen but has had no chance to enjoy her youth. Little wonder she falls into the arms of a murderous thug who pays attention to her and admires her natural beauty. Antoinette’s voice sounds less educated than that of Marie as she quit school at a very early age. Marie comes across as the more disciplined and ambitious of the two sisters. She would hide food from her sisters, not out of meanness but in order to provide herself with the energy needed for the rigorous training endured by a dancer.

This book is more clever than readable. It is not for example for someone looking for the romance of the classical French ballet. There is however, a great deal of atmosphere because the author introduces the sounds and the smells of the slums, the prisons, and the brothels as well as the magnificence of the Paris Opera and the residences of the wealthy and the privileged. Many of the tableaux in this book are taken from the works of Degas (which is clever indeed). Straight away the obvious reference for the reader would be Degas’s famous paintings of ballet dancers stretching and warming up for their classes or dancing on stage under that subdued lighting that existed in theatres before the introduction of electricity. There is also the painting entitled the Absinthe Drinker with a woman sitting in a café before a glass of green liquid staring vacantly into space and The Rape which depicts the interior of a brothel and many entitled the Laundress showing the harsh working conditions women endured working in a laundry workhouse.

Cathy Marie Buchanan has also introduced another interesting element into this novel; the pseudo science of Physiognomy, that is the belief that one’s facial features reveal one’s character. This was a very popular notion of the nineteenth century and becomes an important subject on two fronts. The first, is because Antoinette’s boyfriend is condemned to a penal colony, not so much because of the evidence against him but because of his loutish appearance. On another occasion and a key to the heart of the novel is when Marie’s spirit is destroyed by public outrage when the statue Degas created from her image is decried as that of an animal. This is because her facial features were not conventionally pretty according to the aesthetics of the times although when I look at photos of the “Little Dancer of Fourteen Years”, I see a delicate, fay-like child who is quite caught up in the music I imagine she is hearing.

This story is sad but interesting and evokes the atmosphere of the era. I liked it more for the way it is plotted and the very great ease with which the author moved from the point of view Antoinette to that of Marie. The Paris of the 1870s is revealed to the reader from it’s dark insides: it’s hole in the wall café’s and bars, it’s dingy hovels, and its back alley’s. Even the glorious Paris Opera House is shown from its darkly lit practice rooms and the stifling waiting areas backstage when the sparkling and be- jewelled, wealthy audience would appear as but a black wall to the dancers on stage.

This is a well-written novel but its pictures are not pretty.

Mercy Among the Children by David Adams Richards

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I did not find Mercy Among the Children to be an easy read. In fact I found it to be quite painful which does not diminish the fact that this is an excellent, engrossing book. In many ways the writing is masterful and the characters the author has created are vividly alive; so alive I would not have been surprised if at any time I had looked up from my reading and found one of them sitting across from me smoking a cigarette. It is a book about power and money and morality and unjustifiable feelings of entitlement muddled together with a great deal of anguish and cruelty of the sort that could only be invented by ones closest acquaintances.

The story is about Sydney Henderson who lives in rural New Brunswick in a place called the Miramachi. As a child he nearly kills one of his friends by pushing him off a church roof. Seeing his friend lying motionless on the ground he makes a bargain with god promising to be a pacifist for the rest if his life if only his friend would be spared. His friend stands up and walks away and Sydney begins a life that could be described as the re-enactment of the Book of Job.

Sydney is orphaned, fends for himself in an old tar paper shack. He falls into a life of alcohol abuse but discovers books and in doing so pulls himself up out of that dark hole aspiring to acquire a university education. He seeks the advice of a condescending professor who crushes his hopes and advises him to go back and work as a labourer. There should have been redemption when Sydney met Elly who becomes his wife but jalousie and lust encircles them with ill will and resentment coming from those who think the beautiful Elly is too good for him. There is also the cloying concern of those who think that Elly, though sweet-tempered, is at the same time rather simple in her approach to life in the sense of not being worldly-wise and thus requiring the guidance of interfering do-gooders. Sydney and Elly have three children, Lyle, Autumn and Percy. Lyle the oldest, is confused by his father’s failure to defend himself for crimes he has not committed. The worst of these accusations is that he caused the death of a young man in the community while blowing up a bridge under construction allegedly motivated by having lost his job building that bridge. Lie is heaped upon lie, misery upon misery and never does Sydney speak up in his own defence. This passive behaviour angers and confuses Lyle who strives to be the opposite of his father by becoming a fighter and not just a fighter to defend himself but sometimes a fighter who picks a fight as a bully might; to show off the power of his own strength.

At about this point I had to take a break from Mercy Among the Children because there was just too much wretchedness for me to absorb. When I took it up again I broke a rule I have of not peeking ahead to get some clue as to how things will turn out. Then I finished the last hundred and fifty pages in one sitting not being able to stop turning the pages for even the length of time it would have taken to make a cup of tea.

This book is built around its fascinating cast of characters. These are middle class people who want to believe that Sydney Henderson is guilty of all that he has been accused because they equate his poverty with ignorance and lack of principles. Among this group there are those who actually committed the crimes that Sydney is accused of having carried out. It is amazing how the author has these people talk themselves into believing that it is for the greater good of everyone to have Sydney be accused of being a thief and a murderer and a saboteur rather than taking responsibility for their own misdeeds. How this is done is a feat of literary wizardry you will have to read for yourself, as it is so very admirable as well as very disturbing. It is disturbing because it is possible to see examples of similar behaviour in own daily lives when in some small way we judge someone because of the way they are forced to live due of circumstances beyond their control or maybe just plain bad luck.

I would not choose this book to take to the beach but I highly recommend it and apparently so do many others, as it is a multi award-winning piece of literary art.

The Road Home By Rose Tremain

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The Road Home

This is a gentle read by an award-winning author of such charming historic novels as Restoration.  There is a little bit of everything to please in The Road Home. The novel takes an unblinking look at the migrant worker experience in contemporary Great Britain while infusing a lot of heart-felt optimism into the story. Tightly plotted and sensitively imagined the novel exposes the gritty side of London where the poor must struggle for a living while not far away, the young, the beautiful and the affluent enjoy the nightclub and fine-dining lifestyle.

The main character is Lev who is in his early forties and recently widowed;  his young wife having died of cancer. His country of origin is not named but it is explained that it is one of the former Soviet satellites with a struggling economy. There is no longer any employment for Lev in the lumberyard where he has worked all his adult life and as he is an unskilled laborer he has no prospects for the future. He decides to take advantage of his country’s having recently gained membership in the EU and boards a bus for England leaving his little girl in the care of her grandmother.

The plotting out of events is very interesting because Mrs. Tremain has chosen to have Lev rise out of the desperation of his own ashes. He begins his British life as a homeless person sleeping in the streets of London. Blessed with optimism and a lot of good luck he eventually finds a job as a dishwasher at a high-end restaurant. He is just settling into his new life when he is fired from his job and ends up in rural England working on a farm. The last part of the novel has Lev returning to his homeland determined to start a new enterprise that will support his extended family. Everything comes full circle… a very nice story.

This is a work of literary fiction… no suspense, mystery or excruciatingly painful moments,  just a good story; alternately funny and a little sad in a melancholy way. Its best element has to be its cast of characters. There is of course the earnest intelligent Lev as protagonist. Lev entertains his friends with stories about his  his boyhood friend Rudi, who lives every waking moment devoted to his old broken down car christened simply the Tchevi and is the strategic center of a multitude of Rudi’s schemes and enterprises. Then there is Sophie, the somewhat shallow pastry chef /girlfriend, insinuating her way into those celebrity circles so venerated by the tabloid reading public. Although attracted to Lev she is prepared to betray him in a moment in the pursuit of her own interests. Christie is Lev’s landlord battling alcoholism and the trauma of divorce because it has resulted in the loss of his beloved daughter. Then there is  Lydia, an educated  woman who works as a translator. She meets Lev on the way to England and tries to teach him a little English. She is an exile from the same country as Lev and spends most of her life as the caregiver to an aging but celebrated conductor of symphonic music while longing for love and companionship.

This is definitely a nice summer read with many stories woven around Lev as he navigates his way back home.

Worthy of note: Rose Tremaine published Merival: A Man of His Time in 2012. This is a sequel to Restoration. I think I shall have to buy a copy and add it to the inventory.

The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova

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Elizabeth Kostava’s second novel begins with a mysterious dream-like tableau: an artist is painting a wintry scene from the shelter of his studio when, at a distance, a woman crosses his line of vision and then walks away disappearing into a wall of white created by a gust of snow. The painter quickly paints the dark form of the woman on to his canvas so that even after she is gone her image remains forever in his painting. Having planted that little impressionistic scene in our thoughts the author launches into the story of Robert Oliver, described as a brilliant and celebrated modern artist who is caught in the act of trying to slash a painting in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The painting he has threatened depicts the mythical story of Leda and the Swan. Robert Oliver is fortunate in  that the authorities recognize he is suffering from a mental illness so that instead of being charged with malicious vandalism he becomes the patient of a psychiatrist named Andrew Marlow who has a reputation for helping extremely difficult patients. Robert Oliver has stopped speaking and has withdrawn into himself so that Dr. Marlow must seek out those who have known and loved him in order to discover his history and a course of treatment for his illnesss.

Dr. Marlow has several sources of information to help him in his quest to solve the riddle of Robert Oliver’s illness. One of these is a bundle of letters the artist has in his possession. These letters were written in the 1870’s and are the hand-written correspondence between a young female impressionist painter named Beatrice de Clerval and her much older uncle, Olivier Vignot, also an artist. Another clue to Robert Oliver’s madness is the image of a dark haired woman he keeps painting over and over again. Dr. Marlow is intrigued and remember: he does not have the benefit of that first scene that Elizabeth Kostava describes for her readers at the very beginning of the book, he is inspired to go to great lengths to help his patient. So at this point we follow Dr. Marlow as he travels from Washington DC to North Carolina to interview Robert Oliver’s ex wife, Kate and then back to Washington to interview Robert’s most recent lover, Mary. The dedicated doctor also travels to New York, Mexico and finally to Paris in order to understand what is going on in the artist’s mind while the artist himself remains back at a private hospital for the mentally ill where he spends his time painting and repainting the image of the dark haired woman.

This book is beautifully written but flawed in many ways. Although it is said that ‘comparisons are odious’, I can’t help being a bit ‘odious’ myself noting that this novel does not measure up to the author’s first, The Historian, which is a densely atmospheric Vampire novel so infused with a sense of inescapable evil it would have earned Bram Stoker’s admiration. The Swan Thieves on the other hand, is light and almost whimsical novel, touching briefly on the darker side of mental illness. We see the effect Robert Oliver’s illness has had on the lives of the people around him but not how he developed this illness; this obsession with a woman who he has never known and who lived in another century and to whom he is attached so fanatically by the letters she has written and the few paintings she has painted.

The novel is multi-layered with each character having his or her own story to tell so that the person telling the story changes from Andrew to Kate to Mary and then occasionally, the omniscient narrator takes up the thread of the narrative. Here the author is very skilful in making each voice sound entirely individual. The novel is also peppered with a reproduction of the letters exchanged between Beatrice de Clerval and Olivier Vignot and there are some nice transitions back and forth in time. However, the overall effect of this style makes the novel a bit uneven especially when for example the author drops using the letter writing device and just starts narrating the story of Beatrice and Olivier.

I have the impression that the author began this novel by creating Andrew Marlow and used the other characters, including the character at the heart of the story Robert Oliver, to fill in details around him. Andrew Marlow is a likeable but odd sort of fellow constantly searching for a soul mate. When he finds that soul mate in the person of his patient’s ex mistress the author does not explain how he, as a physician, rationalized his professional code of ethics nor how he explained the affair to the patient he was treating. There are definitely a few problems with the plot

I think this novel would have been far more satisfying if the author had shown how the character of Robert Oliver came to be so caught up in the life of a minor painter of the 19th century. We understand that her talent seems to have been never fully developed because she stopped painting soon after she gave birth to her only child. There is a sense that Robert Oliver’s depression was derived from the immensity of this loss but we are never made privy to his thoughts. Which reminds me of a similar lucarne that exists in Carol Sheild’s final book Unless wherein the principal character’s daughter is suffering from a depression caused by the obsessive idea that women in modern society are hopelessly doomed to lives that will be forever unfulfilled. As in the Swan Thieves, there is no explanation of how the character arrived at what became an obsessive idea that threatened to ruin her life. Perhaps this reflects the fact there is so much still to be learned about mental illness and the workings of the human mind. However, I think that a novelist might be able to imagine some of the steps that leads one into such an obsessive state.

Miss Buncle’s Book By D.E. Stevenson

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Miss Buncle’s Book is the sparking invention of the author D.E Stevenson, a Scottish writer who was a second cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. According to the notes on the book’s dust cover, she wrote over forty novels of which some seven million copies were sold on both sides of the Atlantic. The edition of Miss Buncle’s Book that I read was a reprint by Persephone Books London, a publisher dedicated to reviving out of print books by English women of the twentieth century. The book is dressed in a lovely dove grey cover and contains beautiful end papers in the design shown below. This is a book as pleasurable to hold, as it is to read.

Miss Barbara Buncle, the shy and gentle protagonist named in the title lives in the tiny village of Silverstream just a short train ride from London. The period is the early 1930’s and the economy is not very prosperous thus while her deceased parents were thoughtful enough to leave her a trust fund as well as the house in which she lives,  Miss Buncle’s dividends have diminished to a desperate trickle. How could anyone have predicted the worldwide depression that occurred between the two world wars? Luckily for Miss Barbara Buncle she is not entirely alone in the world, some of the old English values prevail and the one servant in her employ loyally stays on to be the maid of all work so that Barbara may go down to breakfast every morning assured that the drawing-room would be dusted, the fireplace cleaned and breakfast served. The maid of all work was previously her nursemaid and apparently did not mind living in the shadows caring for Barbara’s domestic needs which harkens back to an age when domestic servants were a class of their own, a notion we find hard to comprehend in the twenty-first century. Barbara is facing the menacing dilemma of impoverishment because she does not have the means to support her genteel lifestyle. However, having been raised a child of the middle class and above all being a woman there is no thought of her going out and finding a job. What to do? The conventional solution to this dilemma would be the traditional one that predates the literary era of Jane Austin and even the earliest English novel for that matter. That solution of course would be to marry a gentleman who had the means to support her comfortably. Alas, for Barbara, there were no such suitable candidates in her neighbourhood.

Barbara may have had a very sheltered upbringing but she was not one to sit back and let circumstances ruin her life. She was in her own way a woman of action and at the suggestion of her maid, Dorcas, decided to write a novel in order to improve her financial situation. She did not believe she possessed a great imagination and thought of herself as more of an observer then an inventor. In her book she told the real life stories surrounding the characters that lived in Silverstream describing their vanities and mis-adventures in the arts of social-climbing and seduction. Miss Buncle’s descriptions of the lives and eccentricities of the inhabitants of Silverstream were drawn in a way that was so vivid and precise her novel was accepted by the first publisher that reviewed it and almost overnight it became a best seller. She was careful to write under the pseudonym of John Smith and changed all the names of the people and places she worked into her story. Despite her efforts at discretion the inhabitants of Silverstream recognised themselves in her novel and were not flattered by the truth. They vowed to track down John Smith and possibly horse whip him.

The narratives that make up Barbara Buncle’s book are both mischievous and endearing and in them she allots happy endings to those she feels are deserving and harsh consequences to those who have behaved badly. The UK author, Aline Temple, creator of the D.I. Marjory Fleming mystery series, wrote the preface to this reprinted book that is a very fine piece of writing all by itself. Cleverly (in fact I wish I had thought of it myself), she quotes Miss Chism in the Importance of Being Ernest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means!” This describes precisely the twist of magic D.E. Stevenson has added to this book. Thus, for example, the retired Colonel Weatherhead lived the life of a bachelor in a large dreary brick house near the Silverstream Bridge. He was comfortably pensioned and still quite vigorous but lead a sedentary life where his main occupation was fighting the weeds in his garden. Across the way lived Dorothea Bold, widowed, pretty and very lonely. In Miss Buncle’s book the character representing the Colonel makes a passionate plea for the widow’s hand in marriage, which she accepts. After the Colonel reads Miss Buncle’s book he suddenly realizes that he has always felt quite attracted to his beautiful neighbor and within in a week they are engaged, elope and begin married life with a honeymoon in Monte Carlo.

As for deciding what should happen to the ‘bad’ Miss Buncle wished the verbally abusive Professor Bulmer would be humiliated by the poor, brow beaten Mrs. Bulmer whose good looks and health were being destroyed by his wicked ill temper. In her book Miss Buncle imagines that the abused wife has an affair and runs away with a more agreeable gentleman. Mrs. Bulmer’s destiny was not quite as dramatic as a passionate love affair but she does take her children and return to the peace of her childhood home with her parents leaving Mr. Bulmer behind, livid with anger at the anonymous author of this tattle tale book.

The best consequences of Barbra’s writings are bestowed on her own humble self. She regards herself as being rather ordinary and not endowed with gifts of intellect or beauty. The inhabitants of Silverstream reinforce this idea regarding her as a mild-mannered frumpy woman who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. No one suspects the mousey Miss Buncle might have the wherewithal to write a best seller. In her novel Barbara calls herself Elizabeth Wade and develops a character who is both pretty and vivacious. Sometimes when she is in London shopping or dining with her publisher Barbara imagines she really is the Elizabeth Wade she describes in her book. With the help of the money she earns from her book and a young dressmaker in London she updates her wardrobe that was sad and quite shabby due to penury and maybe a lack of fashion sense. In doing so she gained new confidence in herself. There arose an improvement in her from the inside out that manifested itself as a renewed joie de vivre.

This novel may have been published over eighty years ago but it retains a freshness and a liveliness that is entirely enjoyable. Does it represent village life in the U.K. in the 1930’s? I do not have the expertise to venture an opinion. However there were hints of there being many military families in the neighbourhood. This seems a plausible legacy of what would have been the recent events of the Great War and a foreboding of what was to come as in the year before this book was published Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany; a very sobering thought. Nonetheless, despite some nasty behaviour, (including a kidnapping), by the neighbours who are trying to find out who wrote Miss Buncle’s infamous and scandalising book, all is revealed in the end and Miss Buncle’s personal story arrives at it’s own perfectly happy ending.

N.B.

This is the address of Persephone Books London catalogue, which is well worth a browse. http://www.persephonebooks.co.uk

Lionel Asbo: State of England By Martin Amos

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Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

It is fascinating to think how much time Martin Amis must have spent in imagining his brutish anti-hero, Lionel Asbo. Every aspect of this character is utterly detestable and just when the reader thinks Lionel has reached the limit of his mean and heartless behaviour he will do something to make the reader despise him even more. Lionel is a petty criminal who lives in the fictional English town of Diston (meaning Dystopia) where the citizens live short miserable lives in ignorance and poverty. Here Lionel gets along as a small time extortionist and money collector using his two pit bulls as the, “tools of me trade”. He hones their viciousness by tormenting them with sticks and smothering their food with hot sauce so that their digestions are continuously upset. Juxtaposed to Lionel and truly the protagonist of this story is his young nephew, Desmond Pepperdine who is taken under Lionel’s wing when his mother Cilla, Lionel’s sister, dies. Her one night stand with a gentle Trinidadian resulted in Desmond’s procreation. Martin Amis has obviously worked hard to create a true satire so that even the names of his characters have certain significance. Take for example the nephew’s name, Pepperdine.  Like the ill-treated pit bulls Desmond is forced to dine on Lionel’s acidic indifference to his painful loneliness. Desmond craves affection, Lionel shrugs off any demonstration of affection but like the dogs, Desmond loves him anyway. Then there is Lionel’s adopted surname; ASBO, which is the acronym for Anti Social Behaviour Order. This was a measure adopted by the British Parliament to address the borderline bad behaviour of young people without having to send them to reform school or prison. Lionel reveled in being anti social and totally incorrigible and so changed his name to ASBO as an affirmation of this.

Lionel, the young adult, spent much of his time in and out of prison, which did not bother him in the least. He rather liked prison and admitted something to the effect that when in prison “at least you know where you are”. During one of his prison sojourns he wins a lottery in the multi-millions. The money does not improve his lot in life, as his rapid rise to millionaire status becomes the fascination of the popular press. Lionel does not adjust well to fame and his early combative attitude toward reporters earns him the ignoble title of Lotto Lout.

Lionel does not share his fortune with any members of his family including his nephew Desmond and his half brothers John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stuart (this is Martin Amis having fun with celebrity names). The brothers all have in common their mother Grace but each has a different father and all live in a state of poverty. Even Grace is not permitted any favourable share of the lottery fortune. Lionel figures he is being generous when he sees that she is tucked away in a distant nursing home and forced to live in isolation suffering from untreated clinical depression. (not a nice thing to do to your mother).

In the meantime there is another storyline running in the background. Desmond has a secret. At the impressionable age of fifteen Granny Grace seduced him. Grace, a young grandmother at forty-eight was something of a nymphomaniac while Desmond was a confused orphan in need of a little human affection. The affair is introduced in the first chapter of the story which was the point at which my husband threw the book aside deciding it was too strange and unbelievable. Admittedly this aspect of the story is a bit ‘over the top’ but I think the reader has to keep in mind that the novel is a satire and is meant to be outrageous along the lines of something created by the Monty Python crew. Desmond’s secret is a constant worry. He knows that if Lionel finds out about the affair the consequences could be fatal for him because although Lionel is an amoral sort of dullard, when it came to his mother he had no tolerance for her flirtatious behaviour.  Later the incestuous affair is a key to one of the more sinister twists in the plot.

Desmond remains in the old high-rise, low-rental apartment he had shared with Lionel but eventually meets the love of his life, Dawn whose gentle influence and optimistic name inaugurates the dawn of a better life for Desmond. They finish school and then college, struggling with their finances but enjoying fulfilled lives. Lionel too finds a somewhat stable partner in a poetess named Threnody. Her name means “a lamentation esp. on a person’s death (Concise Oxford Dictionary. I had to look it up). So who is dead?…not Lionel as he is ever blustering around even while in prison. I think the lament is for what currently passes as the literary arts. Threnody is a poetess producing the occasional thin volume of poetry. She makes her living as a nude model for the tabloids and a publicist specialising in improving the image of the famous and the notorious. Thus she promotes the wealthy with their couturier clothing and their fabulous yachts and manipulates the paparazzi into turning the most heinous, such as Lionel, into the darlings of the press.

Encouraged by Threnody, Lionel, purchases a huge Downton Abbey style country estate full of art work and precious antiques that Lionel regards as junk he would like throw away. He says he hates the old stuff because, “it aggravates me class hatred.” To make himself feel a little more at home he changes the name of this historic mansion once visited by Henry VIII from Crendon Court to Wormwood Scrubs, the name of the last prison where he had been an inmate. Lionel is never content to let go of his old petty criminal way of life and so, to maintain a toe hold in that past existence he insists on keeping a key and possession of one of the bedrooms of Desmond’s and Dawn’s apartment even though they need the room for the baby they are expecting.

Despite his wealth and despite the existence of people who want to love him Lionel never evolves as a person, never improves, never grows up; he never engages in self discovery, never sees beyond his own limited circle. He is a misogynist who prefers pornography to developing even a superficial physical relationship with a woman much less an emotional one.  Oddly, in an interview with a famous newspaper columnist he said that he would like to leave a legacy, something for people to remember him by and the writer wonders to herself will that legacy be ‘how to fill out a lottery card.” Even Lionel’s pit bulls manage to find improvement in their lives when Dawn takes over their care and feeds them a normal doggie diet and a little affection. They learn to prefer curling up on the couch and having their ears caressed to pounding around on their four paws snarling and snapping at people.  Lionel on the other hand always remains a sort of human pit-bull.

The sub-title of this book is: State of England. If this is a clue as to what the book is about it seems Martin Amis would have us think that there is a large number of the English reading public who believe everything they read or hear in the entertainment news. Although, as an aside, here in Canada we have the example of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford who, while not quite a Lionel ASBO has nonetheless admitted to criminal activity; smoking crack cocaine while in office and has been seen on video drinking excessively and generally acting more like a ridiculous buffoon than a statesman. Months after all this has come to light Rob Ford is not only still in office but he is planning to run again in the next municipal election!!!!! The Canadian press, including the Toronto Star and even the tight-laced, CBC cannot get enough of his antics. To think that he should be given equal time in a news report as the assimilation of the Crimea is very sobering and lends credibility to Martin Amis’s concern.

I think this book could have come together quite well as a graphic novel which would have better suited the cartoonish nature of its principal characters and probably found a wider audience. I loved the author’s play on words and literary references or maybe I was reading too much into some of his writing. For example Des and Dawn lived in Avalon Towers… might that be a reference to the  towers of King Arthur… a recognition of those with nobler ideals? The irony of the whole thing is that while Martin Amis deplores the myths and distortions created by the English tabloid press and the avid support it gets from its readership his own beautiful crisp, readable prose negates the very idea that English literature is in decline.

Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

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Late Nights On Air by Elizabeth Hay  published in 2007  has measured up upon reading to all the praise it received at that time. A Canadian best seller, it attracted critical aclaim  and went on to win the Giller Prize. For a long time it  was on my ever-growing literary wish list. I am very glad to have moved it to the top at a friend’s suggestion rather than left it in the middle and it has inspired me to seek out more of this author’s work.  Lost in the Classroom is in the line-up on my bookshelf somewhere after On Beauty but before Lionel Asbo.

Elizabeth Hay writes with the calm assurance of someone who observes but does not judge the shortcomings of we poor mortals. The cast of characters is a collection of damaged but resilient souls seeking a safe haven to mend their metaphorical broken wings and splintered bones. It is 1975 and the story telling involves an expat community of southerners living in Yellowknife linked one way or another to a local radio station that is expected to decline in importance because television is on its way north. There is Harry; the charming middle-aged romantic with a cauliflower ear who is head over heals in love with the beautiful mysterious Dido. Harry considers himself to be a loser having failed at marriage and his broadcasting career, his downhill path accelerated by bouts of uncontrolled alcoholism. Dido cannot reciprocate his feelings because she herself has run away from forbidden love involving her father-in – law; a passion that destroyed her marriage.   In chapter two Gwen, a mousey little creature in her early twenties arrives with an ugly bruise on her throat looking for a backdoor into broadcasting. In an odd twist she enters through radio’s front door being asked to step into Harry’s job as the late show host while he temporarily fills the position of station manager. Then there is thirty something Eleanor, the receptionist described as the gatekeeper of the radio station but more of a maternal figure watching over the cast of characters as they come and go, providing encouragement and comfort in an unselfish sort of way.

So these are the principal characters but  it would be impossible to demonstrate in a few words  how Elizabeth Hay’s storytelling creates such compelling portraits of these and other individuals as they deal with the past and embrace their futures. To do so I would have to quote long passages, which would be entirely out of place here. Her characters size each other up, draw conclusions about each other then change their minds… so very like human beings everywhere who have thrown together in a small place. They keep their own insular company; create their own little social and working world. The North as an idea slyly insinuates itself into their world as the days grow longer into twenty four hours of daylight and then when Autumn approaches the nights close in making the Northern world of these individuals smaller and so narrow they are left with but themselves. The world opens up again with the arrival of Spring as light fills the horizon and with the return of the sun each individual finds a new spirit of adventure and the courage to move on with their lives.

I like the structure of this book. It opens with telling the story of the main and secondary characters so the reader knows their past and what has brought them to Yellowknife. Soon we are drawn in and begin to like the characters despite their failings and become interested in their wellbeing and disappointed when they do not measure up to their own expectations such as when Dido allows herself to be drawn into another destructive relationship. The characters are situated in the story like the spokes in a wheel. Then in the second part of the book something extraordinary happens as the story moves away from the small humble frontier town of Yellowknife further North onto the pristine plateau of northern lakes and tundra. Four of the characters decide to take a canoe trip that follows the trail of a late 19th century expedition that ended in tragedy.  At this point the mood of the novel changed so abruptly that I was left somewhat worried that the author had allowed it to loose its energy and had gone off on another tangent without properly finishing the story she had started.  However a few pages in I realized that this was where we as readers were meant to be lead; into the merciless splendor that is the North. It is early spring and the barely thawed lakes are a powerful metaphor of human love, so beautiful but potentially so cruelly destructive.

There are two things I want to mention about this part of the novel.  First, it is very dangerous to move a novel from the realm of straightforward prose to that of near poetry; the danger being that you can loose the reader with such a ninety-degree turn. There is no worry here because the transition is masterful and I was swept away by the language; it felt right and I willingly went along for the ride. The second thing I want to mention is something of a conceit of mine that comes out of being a Jane Austen fan (or maybe, to use the full word, fanatic). As I settled into this second part of the book I was reminded of the novel Northanger Abbey which undergoes the same abrupt transfer of location that puzzles the reader at first as if the author had started a whole new story. The heroine is relocated from the parties and dances and many distractions of Bath to a gloomy country house where the company is drastically reduced and the atmosphere as felt by the heroine, becomes dark and sinister… a completely different world. To my mind, Elizabeth Hay has done something similar in that the light filed plateau of perfect sky mirrored in crystal lakes is a different world from the rough hewn town of Yellowknife. There you have it! Elizabeth Hay keeps very good company.

I won’t describe the canoe trip, as that would give too much away. The last couple of chapters leap forward into the nineteen eighties. The story comes to a satisfying end with everyone situated where they should be.

Long Time No See by Dermot Healy

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In launching this blog I thought I might start by writing  about one of the of the best books I have had the pleasure of reading in the last year or so. Perhaps I warmed to, Long Time No See, because the cadence of its dialogue reminded me so much of the lilt and music of the brogue spoken along the Cape Shore of  my own island home of Newfoundland where the Irish settled in droves in the mid-nineteenth eighties.  Also, this book is about life in a small village such as you find around here: Placentia or Twillingate, where there is a main road with a dozen or so shops and a cottage hospital, a school and a church and somewhere tucked away there is the ubiquitous well-worn pub (we would call it a beer parlour) where the locals, wander in looking for a yarn as much as they might for a glass of beer. This village of Ballintra that Dermot Healey has created as the backdrop to his story is a universe in miniature where all the stories of Irish mythology and the plays of the ancient Greeks and the works of Shakespeare and the films of Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen could very well be dramatized on the scale of that tiny stage.

The story is narrated by a young man, Phillip Feeney and takes place the summer after he has written his final exams before university. He is on the brink of his future but hesitates there on the edge held back from enjoying the pleasures and promises of his youth by a tragedy that occurred in that final year at school when one of his friends was killed in a car accident. He is saddened by survivor’s guilt but quietly convalesces while working at odd jobs and looking out for his elderly great-uncle, Joejoe whom he calls Grandda. Joejoe lives in a draughty cottage by the ocean with his dog and his memories. He calls Phillip, Mr. Psyche for a reason never completely explained but I suspect it is because Phillip is a particularly sensitive, perceptive fellow. This is in complete contrast to Phillip’s father who is awkward in his affections; a bit of a bull in a china ware shop. Joejoe has a best friend, Tom, nicknamed the Blackbird because as a young man he was strikingly handsome with raven coloured hair. He is an octogenarian and a bachelor like Joejoe and together they share a taste for Malibu rum and a bit of gossip. Then there is an arch nemesis and rival called The General who may have stolen Joejoe’s fiancé sixty or so years ago… or did he? It is a one of many little mysteries in this book. The other thing that remains vague is what is going on in Joejoe’s head. In the fourth chapter a shot is fired through one of Joejoe’s windows. He is convinced it was the General’s doing, Phillip’s father thinks it was the Blackbird and Phillip is not so sure but that Joejoe may himself have fired the shot accidentally and then forgot all about it.

So we do have a quickening of the action in chapter four but the plot is not so much the thing although it is dotted with secrets half revealed and puzzles solved; such as how to feed an angry dog trapped inside a locked and bolted house. Would you like to know the solution? …post his food through the letter box. Beyond the narrative the reader’s attention is captivated by the circle of characters that come and go making entrances and exits as if this were a play of many short scenes. There is Phillip’s girlfriend who is kind hearted and always jogging, running like someone treading water, marking time and waiting to get beyond the summer break. Then there is Phillip’s bombastic but caring father who is a labourer and likes to play with heavy equipment (harmlessly) in his spare time and Phillip’s mother who, as a nurse, is closest to the base line of the human condition: birth, life, death but who enjoys a glass of Sauvignon blanc on her day off. There is Miss Jilly of the disappearing gentry who keeps her husband’s ashes in an urn next to her armchair and an assortment of foreign workers from Poland or Lithuania or Latvia and landlocked sailors and a mysterious foreign diplomat and from out of nowhere a group of latter-day hippies who make it their mission to be neighbourly and helpful.

I’ve just read over what I’ve written so far and find I have not explained why this is such a readable book. I think if I analyse it carefully the strength of this book resides in the masterful way the author constructs dialogue. This is the power and the engine of the novel. These are not dialogues encumbered by quotation marks and the monotony of always noting he said this and she said that. Instead dialogue is in free form and flows as if the characters are engaging in a dance: a waltzing of words. I heard an interview with Dermot Healey either on radio or a podcast when he was introduced as a novelist, poet and playwright. Is this the secret then? Have we here a play disguised as a novel?

There is also the landscape of Ireland: the twisty country roads, the green meadows, the bogs and woods where people drive around in their Fiats and might occasionally and optimistically have to tow a Mercedes-Benz. This is the Ireland of mobile phones and computers and the tamed Celtic Tiger existing side by side with the very ancient Ireland where a raging storm might churn the sands of the shore and reveal in its wake an ancient sea wall built by medieval monks or where the last of the of the Irish fairies can sit in your pocket or the palm of your hand. Here I must stop. I’ll not say anymore as it would not be fair to the story were I to give too much away.