Category Archives: Fiction

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

I would not change the beginning for anything.”

Author Darcy O’Brien (1939-1998) was best known for books on true crime, including Two of a Kind: The Hillside Stranglers. While I’ve read about the case, I won’t be reading that book about a couple of sickos who hunted, tortured and killed women in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Given that O’Brien produced a seminal book on those brutal murderers, it’s practically impossible to align that part of O’Brien’s career with A Way of Life, Like Any Other, his wonderfully lighthearted book told by a young man, the sole offspring of unstable Hollywood film stars. O’Brien was the child of silent star George O’Brien and actress Marguerite Churchill, and while no doubt O’Brien incorporated many experiences from his real life into the book, some major differences exist.

Our unnamed narrator begins by recollecting the golden years of his early childhood which was spent mostly at Casa Fiesta, a ranch in the Malibu hills owned by his father. It’s here that the narrator lives an almost dream childhood. He’s the cosseted son of Hollywood film stars, and while his surroundings are real, there’s still a sense of fabrication–as though someone somewhere has sketched an idea of stage-set perfection, but as always in the book, the narrator’s parents behave inappropriately, and we see that sneaking into the scene even in these halcyon days:

I would not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon’s son, and I was baptized by the archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe.

The only child surrounded by various Hollywood luminaries, the narrator’s role, even in early childhood, seemed to cast him as part of the entertainment, a miniature adult. The first crack in this picture appears when the narrator is seven and his mother begins talking longingly about New York. Meanwhile the boy’s father, George, lives the acting roles he loves by dressing as a cowboy all in black and riding his horse “just like the old padres” even when he’s off the set. There’s a telling moment when George decides to take a grueling four day trek by horse to Santa Barbara which is ended by a stay in a luxury hotel, an expensive meal, and a drive home in a Lincoln.

The war intervenes in everyone’s lives, and after that, nothing is the same.

Life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed.

The marriage between the narrator’s parents sours and peels apart. At first, the pre-teen narrator lives with his needy, hysteric mother in Los Angeles, and their roles, in terms of maturity and responsibility are reversed; he’s her confidant throughout her many love affairs, her nurse when she attempts suicide and her 12-year-old bartender for the parties she throws. A long, steady stream of unsuitable men pass though their lives:

Mr. Johnny Standfast, whose real name turned out to be Reilly, and who had been a handball partner of my father’s at the Hollywood Athletic Club, came to stay for a week, but the old magic didn’t click. He left with a black eye. The man who invented the Hawaiian shirt ran strong for almost a year. He would fly in from Honolulu and take us to expensive restaurants. We were going to live on his yacht. Life would be an endless cruise. Then he began to notice mother’s drinking, and one morning he had to drive me to school because she couldn’t get up. Mother said she hated the sun anyway. She had had enough of it with my father.

Aging and losing her looks, the narrator’s mother confesses that she’s spent her life “looking for the perfect man, the perfect love.” After a series of disastrous relationships, the ‘perfect’ man turns out to be Anatol, a short Russian sculptor, a “compact rhino of a man” who works for Disney, but this regular paycheck supports Anatol’s real love–statues of “mythological creatures performing sexual acts of every description.”

As his mother’s life sinks into alcohol-soaked drama, eventually the narrator returns to live with his father.  George, “his money almost gone, his wife gone altogether, his motion picture career apparently behind him,”  lives “in diminished circumstances,“with his ex-wife’s mother, a strange arrangement laced with disgust:

She watched him pining and growing fatter and behaving more and more peculiarly. He had fallen into a religious mania, attending mass and taking holy communion every morning, participating in every sort of church function–novenas, missions, Holy Name Society breakfasts. The Ladies’ Alter Society, which arranged flowers, kept the sacrament bread and wine in stock, and laundered the costumes of the Infant of Prague, had made him an honorary member. He twirled the cage at bingo, he raffled automobiles and turkeys. When the parish sedan was broken down or otherwise in use, he chauffeured the priests on their errands of mercy. He never missed a funeral. Because of his physic and the glamour that still trailed from him, he was in great demand as a pallbearer.

With “the Navy and the Church” now the “twin props of his existence,” George’s ex-mother-in-law addresses him derisively as Captain, yet this militarism invades the household with George granting her military status and promoting her rank periodically.

Within a month of Mother’s desertion she was made Chief Petty Officer, and soon afterwards Chief Engineer and First Mate. Yet her climb in status was accompanied by no improvement in her decorum. She flouted military discipline, rising and retiring in defiance of the Order of the Day; defacing the labels he so painstakingly affixed to every cupboard, closet, and drawer; taking out the garbage on the windward side of the house; refusing to stand watch, causing many a sleepless night for him; battening down the hatch to her compartment so that it was impossible for him to carry out his inspection rounds; countermanding his orders for provisions

George trying to run his ex-mother-in-law’s house to military standards is, of course, very eccentric, but the behaviour goes deeper and addresses George’s need to bring status, order and some meaning to his life. No wonder then that the narrator imagines he’s found greener pastures when he moves in with the son of a famous director, but if he’s hoping to find the stability that has so far eluded him, he still has lessons to learn. Affluence does not equal stability, and neither is it a replacement.

Upstairs, Mr Caliban’s bedroom was done in a Genghis Kahn motif, all read, black, and silver with weapons on the walls and full set of Mongolian armour standing in a corner. Mr. Caliban used the armor to hang his suits on, when he came home from work and changed into his relaxing clothes. Mrs. Caliban’s bedroom knocked your eyes out. It was entirely chartreuse, the walls the rug, the bedspread, everything. The bed was a four-poster job and the chartreuse hangings had been made to order by some nuns in France.

This story could have been written with anger, resentment and bitterness, but there’s none of that here. A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story told by a young man who grows up & matures in spite of his many problems. While never critical of his parents, the narrator instead matures to understanding and acceptance, approaching his damaged parents with empathy & humour, and part of the book’s magically light tone is created by the narrator’s initially naïve explanations of the unfiltered adult life which surrounds him. He grows up listening to a running commentary of his father’s faults, but there’s one painful moment when he sees his father’s weak character unadorned by movie screen presence or Navy bluster, and it’s a scene of painful truth.

For Max’s review 

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The Mad and The Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Eccentric, wealthy businessman, former architect Michel Hartog arrives at a swanky country asylum to collect Julie Ballanger, a young woman who’s lived there, voluntarily, for 5 years. She’s leaving to be employed as a nanny for Hartog’s young nephew, Peter aka “the snotty brat.” Hartog inherited his wealth unexpectedly when his brother and sister-in law died in a plane crash, and their deaths left him in charge of the family fortune and the well-being of his nephew, the heir. Now Hartog has hired a former mental patient as a nanny. What’s wrong with this picture?

If you listen to Hartog’s driver, Hartog has a reputation as a philanthropist for hiring people who have physical or mental problems. Hartog’s home is a “house of defectives.”

Julie nodded. The driver handed her the drink. He had poured himself a Ricard. He drank half of it and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Physically, you are better built than Old Polio.”

“Old Polio?”

“The nursemaid before you. Completely off her rocker. Fifty if she was a day. And an idiot. What about you? What’s your thing?”

“I don’t understand at all,” said Julie. “My thing? What do you mean?”

“The thing that’s screwy with you.”

“I’m cured,” Julie stated.

“The hell you are!” exclaimed the driver. “The boss’s way of doing good is over the top. He only hires retards. He sets up factories for cripples to work in, can you figure that?”

“Not really.”

“Those guys who go around in little motorized wheelchairs? He’s got them working on a production line! In this house it’s the same baloney. The cook is epileptic. The gardener has only one arm, pretty handy for using the shears. His private secretary is blind. His valet suffers from locomotor ataxia–no wonder his meals arrive cold! The snotty brat’s old nanny–well I told you about her. As for you, you must know yourself.”

Hartog is certainly very odd, but his first scene at the asylum shows us that he’s not a nice man, so does he hire Julie from some sort of philanthropy or contrariness or is there something deeper at play?…..

the mad and the badJulie’s introduction to Hartog’s nephew is not reassuring; Peter is a difficult child, and Hartog, who encourages Julie to drink, is strangely repellent, with a smile which “resembled the coin slot of a parking meter.” Julie is not the only one who hits the booze hard in Hartog’s house; it’s “a drinker’s paradise,” and even the valet downs Guinness with his breakfast omelet. Hartog runs his home in a paradoxical fashion. On one hand, he whimsically expects his employees to be available whenever he pleases, sharply dressed and ready to perform their duties, but on the other hand, he indulges certain vices.  Thrust into this new stressful environment, Julie washes down tranquilizers with alcohol.

Although we never get the whole story of Julie’s past life, some information is revealed in fragmented hints, but these crimes are only the external projections of something much deeper. Julie who claims to be “allergic” to the police is politically alienated from bourgeois society. Hartog plucks her from an insane asylum, hands her a job, a wardrobe full of clothing and a regular paycheck. He expects her to be impressed and grateful:

“What do you think of me?” Hartog asked. “What do you know about me? Do you get the feeling you are in a fairy tale?”

“I don’t believe in fairy tales.”

Okay. But what then?”

“You are a soap, oil, and detergent magnate. You are rich and you are a philanthropist.”

“Let’s not exaggerate.”

“You do Good. You are probably trying to compensate for the feeling of being a usurper. Because your wealth is not the fruit of your own labor. Only the death of your brother and his wife made you the owner of it. You must have developed a strong sense of guilt, even if you had no wish for them to die. Anyway, one always wishes for the death of one’s brother at some level.”

“Congratulations!” said Hartog in a toneless voice. “Is that what they teach at the asylum?”

“It’s not an asylum. It’s an open establishment. I could have left any time I wanted.”

“But you stayed there for five years. Why?”

“You’ve seen my records. You know why.” 

While this is a crime story, The Mad and the Bad also contains a socio-political undercurrent. Hartog expects gratitude from Julie for offering her ‘another chance,’ but he also wants to see awe–awe for his wealth and his accomplishments. But Julie is unimpressed. She sees Hartog as an unexceptional human being with the advantage of controlling a fortune:

“Quite the little rebel,” he observed. “I know all about you. Pickpocket. Arsonist. Congratulations.”

“Of course you do,” replied Julie. “It’s all in my file.”

“You, all you poor people, are just too stupid. You go about things in the dumbest way.”

“Everyone can’t inherit money.”

Hartog shrugged.

“For my part I do something with my inheritance. You people wouldn’t know what to do with one.”

I’m not going to reveal much of the plot–the back cover of the book reveals more than I intend to address here. But since this is a crime novel, a hit man and his sloppy henchmen enter the scene, and Julie’s brief re-entrance into society comes to a screaming halt. Suddenly, she finds herself back in a life on the run, and all of her old survival skills return. Julie describes herself as looking like a “post-op transsexual,” but this is just a reflection that Julie eschews bourgeois society’s signifiers of the feminine ideal; in reality she’s fit, attractive, handy with weaponry and adept at survival. As the book continues, there’s a parallel metamorphosis that takes place as both Julie and Thompson, the hitman with a nagging ulcer, return to primal behaviour.

The Mad and the Bad is a deeply subversive novel and contains the same sharply observed criticisms of bourgeois society that are found in Fatale. As the novel continues, Julie’s ‘madness’ becomes questionable, and as her violent history morphs into her violent present, she is removed farther from society’s norms and sinks deeper into self-preservation. Her past insanity is seen mal-adjustment–a reaction to the hypocrisy of a decadent, materialistic society and a drive to anti-social behaviours; she simply opted to no longer live in the world and voluntarily retired to the asylum where, drugged and removed from aggravation, she was “cured.” Her re-entry into society has turned into a nightmare, and those same anti-social behaviours that sent her into the asylum in the first place, now allow her to survive. Another character, Fuentès, a failed idealist, has also rejected society, and in his case, he’s not locked up in an asylum, but chooses to isolate himself in a bizarrely constructed building whose labyrinth design grants security and is a testament to his individualism. Is Fuentès, another fringe dweller, also mad, or is his abandonment of society a signifier of sanity?

There are moments when Julie seems aware of her delusions, but there are other times when she can’t control herself. One scene in which a preacher emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between religion, the government and the police seems to awaken something in Julie:

She had to get rid of all these bastards who were out to destroy her. This was no time to lose her head. She would have loved to open fire with a machine gun and create a bloodbath.

It’s no coincidence that one of the book’s destructive, brilliantly explosive scenes takes place in a large department store–a temple to consumerism. Violence detonates with a darkly humorous edge as Julie is pushed to extremes in order to shock the customers and shop assistants out of their stupor. Yes, Julie uses the location for her purposes, but as the tranquilizers wear off and she blazes across France, Julie comes alive, all those old skills ignite, and we cheer her on. 

Manchette shows that while the ‘bad’ are predictable, the ‘mad’–those who reject society–are not. This is the fourth Manchette novel I’ve read, and my favourite to date. For its irony, its unexpected twists, and for the marvelous character of Julie, The Mad and the Bad will make my best-of-year list. For those interested, here are reviews of Fatale, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill

Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith & with an introduction from James Sallis.

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Amy’s Children by Olga Masters

In the novel  Amy’s Children, Australian author Olga Masters creates characters who commit appalling acts of betrayal: a mother abandons her children, a husband betrays his wife, relatives turn on each other, and an unforgiving daughter rains down retribution on her mother’s head. Yet in spite of these things, or perhaps even because of them, ultimately there’s a sense of understanding underlying these people’s actions. Amy’s Children follows the life and decisions made by one young Australian woman over the course of a few decades–through the depression, WWII and beyond in a judgmental society in which the struggle for survival creates tough moral choices.

Amy is from Diggers Creek “a hamlet of school, post office, public hall, general store and All Souls Anglican Church.” It’s the Depression, and Amy, with three small children, finds herself abandoned by her husband, Ted, who leaves to find work and fails to return. It’s a miserable, hardscrabble existence for everyone when Amy moves back home with her three little girls. The poverty of the era is tangible with Amy walking back to her parents’ home, children in tow, and one of her brothers carting her pathetic pile of belongings in the farm truck. A few years of marriage have left Amy with little beyond a kettle, two saucepans, a frying pan, an old butter box the children pretend is a pram, and of course, the three children.

amy's childrenThe restlessness in Amy begins as she watches the road for Ted’s return, and perhaps this is where it all her dreams begin:

She would dream of having a job, buying a new dress and silk stockings, and a blue band for her hair to go to the Tilba Tilba dances.

She sometimes dreamed aloud on the front veranda, sitting between Kathleen and Patricia, with her feet among the arum lilies growing thickly on either side of the front steps.

“Mummy might get a job one day, you never know,” she said once, her eyes on a car racing along the road, going south. It might stop, she said silently, a man might get out and come up to me and say, I’ve got a job for you in my big shop. There will be clothes for you very cheap, and clothes for the girls. Come on, I’ll give you half an hour to get ready. All she needed to do was to wipe their faces and go.

Unfortunately the ‘dream’ doesn’t include the children:

The car had gone but there was another coming. Perhaps this time, Amy thought. The baby cried and Kathleen took a sharp breath and watched Amy’s face.

‘Lebby’s crying,’ she said gently as if Amy were sleepwalking and she didn’t want to shock her into waking, In a moment there were footsteps inside and the crying stopped. ‘Gramma’s got her,’ Kathleen said.

Inside herself Amy said, I won’t be taking her. She didn’t either. Or for that matter the other two.

Amy eventually makes it Sydney, solo, of course, and she moves in with her Aunt Daphne, Uncle Dudley, and their two sons. It’s an agreement given grudgingly, but then almost everything given in this tale–love, attention, food, relationships and even accepting responsibility–is given under some bitter constraint or unspoken protest. Once in Sydney, Amy, masquerading as a young single woman is able, with some struggle, to find employment and improve her circumstances, but it’s only a matter of time before her past arrives on her doorstep.

This is a novel which examines individualism and moral responsibility, and no matter which Amy chooses, there’s a terrible price to pay. These days, Amy’s small materialistic desires and dreams of city life seem modest, but due to the times and her circumstances, she chooses between staying in her parents’ home and being a mother, or abandoning her children to their grandmother’s care while picking up her life as if she’d never had children. Just as Amy effectively creates a narrative for her life in order to gain employment, Kathleen, the first of Amy’s three daughters builds a narrative of her own, and we see how two generations of lives are bitterly interlocked by Amy’s choice to abandon her children. Amy sheds her children lightly, like tossing aside yesterday’s clothing, but it’s not quite that easy. Amy’s husband Ted manages to disappear, and no one seems to think this is particularly strange or hold him accountable, yet Amy’s decision to do the same is seen as a moral failing by those who know her secret. Kathleen, who possesses a sort of twisted primness, seems to have a submerged desire to see her mother destroyed while there is no lingering resentment for the father who also abandoned her.  This double standard isn’t overworked, but it’s there deep in the subtext of the story.

The introduction provides some background information on Olga Masters (1919-1986). The mother of seven children, she worked part-time as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and her career as a writer came late in life–in her 50s. It’s clear that Olga Masters wants us to treat Amy, a young woman who wants very little from life, with generosity. The introduction mentions the Misses Wheatley, Heather and Grace, two spinster sisters in their sixties, as unpleasant characters. Somehow I think that Olga Masters would want us to take the same generosity that we show to Amy and spread it to the Misses Wheatley. These two spinsters lead a fragile marginal existence on a monthly allowance. Their brother Henry takes over the family’s wheat & sheep ranch, and when he marries a widow with two children, he wants his sisters to have an “independent life.” There’s no share in the family sheep ranch for the Misses Wheatley; instead they’re shipped to Sydney, live in a boarding home and exist on ten pounds a month. They’re a postage stamp from disaster:

Heather, eating her half of the apple carefully because an unsteady tooth at the rear of her upper jaw, looked keenly at Grace, wondering if her pallor meant she was coming down with the bronchitis she had suffered all her life, and how she would cope with the expense of a visit to doctor if this were necessary. Their cheque was due to arrive at the end of the week, but it could fail to arrive should an emergency like floodwaters keep Henry from getting into Dubbo to the post office. Heather automatically and foolishly looked out the window to the sky, clear and blue, and hoped for the same for Dubbo.

The Misses Wheatley provide all the judgment on Amy’s behaviour that she’s managed to escape from her own relatives, and it’s through the behaviour of the Misses Wheatley, and their Victorian attitudes (they must have been born in the 1880s), that we see how toxic judgment is. These two women have never had to make the choices Amy faced, and because they’ve never been in Amy’s position, they feel free to judge her. Through the Misses Wheatley, Olga Masters shows the slippery ease with which judgment falls into place as these two sisters extend the lack of options in their own narrow sterile lives towards Amy. At least Amy never uses anyone as a moral crutch which is a great deal more than can be said for Kathleen. And yet Masters even gives us pause to understand and forgive Kathleen. Kathleen is Amy’s daughter, and yet her appearance, her existence causes Amy to feel threatened, and when she must sacrifice for Kathleen, she sees Kathleen as a resource sponge:

I won’t let her see that perfume, she will want it. And Amy slammed the drawer shut and shut out the angry picture of Kathleen eating a sandwich she didn’t want, while Amy’s throat craved for one. She saw herself drinking water for the rest of her life while Kathleen ate.

Olga Masters paints a quietly savage portrait of suburban Australian life: in the grab for limited resources, children step over their parents and siblings shove aside siblings; spouses depart to feed themselves, and parents begrudge the food and necessities their children require. This all sounds quite glum, and yet, miraculously, somehow Amy’s Children isn’t glum at all. It’s a wonderful, rich, life-affirming book, for we understand that while Amy makes new choices and her life heads in one direction, Kathleen’s adventure is just beginning…

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Agostino by Alberto Moravia

Alberto Morovia’s novella Agostino follows one summer in the life of a young boy who goes on holiday to the Tuscan coast with his widowed mother. At 13, Agostino is no longer a small child, but he’s not yet a man; he’s in that awkward in-between phase when children ‘wake’ up to the adult world, its rules, its inconsistencies, and its hypocrisies. It’s a phase with Agostino, not locked out of the adult world, as much as if he’s looking through a window trying to understand what he sees.

In the early days of summer, Agostino and his mother used to go out to sea every morning on a small rowboat typical of the Mediterranean beaches known as a pattino. At first she brought a boatman along with them, but Agostino gave such clear signs of annoyance at the man’s presence that the oars were turned over to him. He rowed with deep pleasure on the smooth, diaphanous, early-morning sea, and his mother, sitting in front of him, would speak to him softly, as joyful and serene as the sea and sky, as if he were a man rather than a thirteen-year-old boy.

Agostino wants to be the man in his mother’s life, and for most of the time, he has that role, but his mother “a big and beautiful woman still in her prime,” gets a lot of attention wherever she goes. Agostino, proud of his mother, and also possessive, feels that they are “onstage before an audience of hundreds of watchful eyes.” Alone on the boat, his mother will sunbathe naked, and Agostino takes his role of protector very seriously–never invading his mother’s privacy as she strips.

agostinoOf course, all this idyllic time must come to an end, and the change begins when a man begins a relationship with Agostino’s mother. Literally and symbolically he’s “a shadow [who] obstructed the sunlight shining down on” Agostino.  Over the course of a few days, Agostino, humiliated and sulky, witnesses changes in his mother’s personality as she flirts and shows a sort of helplessness that was previously entirely absent. Agostino notes this side of his mother that he’s never seen before, and in his turn, he begins to show new behaviours too. He resents what he sees as his mother’s betrayal, but at the same time, her relationship with the man has stirred Agostino’s developing sexuality; he’s confused by all these conflicting feelings, and then he becomes involved with a gang of local boys.

Agostino is not a typical coming-of-age novel. Agostino’s on the brink of the adult world and his experiences that summer open a window into troubling and confusing adult sexuality. Agostino sees things which he doesn’t understand, and when he becomes involved with the local boys, he’s introduced to a far more dangerous world. Author Alberto Moravia creates a languor in this story that contradicts the turbulence under the surface, and the many scenes of the ocean or the river juxtapose that languor and serenity to the unspoken dangers of sexual relationships.

For a moment Agostino felt happy as he swam while the cold powerful stream tugged at his legs, and he forgot every hurt and every wrong. The boys were swimming in all directions, their heads and arms breaking through the smooth green surface. Their voices echoed clearly in the still air. Through the glass transparency of the water, their bodies looked like white offshoots of plants that, rising to the surface from the darkness below, moved whichever way the current took them.

Agostino steps away from his mother’s love and protection, and feeling neglected, he enters the much harsher, cruel world of the local boys who all hang around the lifeguard Sero, a brutal individual who surrounds himself with the boys and creates a marginally criminal enterprise. Used to worshipping his mother, Agostino now discovers how women rate in this world of bottom-feeder males, and the company of these rough, poor children only complicates his feelings for his mother as he’s torn between protecting her image and showing the boys that he’s just like them.

While sexuality, emerging or hidden is a major force in the book, class also plays a role. Agostino, as a holidaymaker with leisure time, is clearly from a different class than the local children, and he falls back on this difference for security and power whenever he has the chance, so that we see how money spares Agostino from raw experience and simultaneously allows him bragging rights to experiences and conditions the poor children envy. In one very clever scene, Agostino has the opportunity to play a power card through a different role to another boy whose circumstances mirror Agostino’s privilege.

Morovia emphasizes the sensual and it’s no coincidence that sexual encounters occur on boats as they rock gently on the tranquil sea. This is a seemingly simple story that resonates with a sort of brutal truth. We all have to grow up and we can usually point to pivotal moments when childhood was stripped away. Agostino begins with a proud boy with complex feelings about his mother and ends with a troubled teen who understands that the treacherous  world of adult sexuality awaits him.

“But the intensity of his filial vanity and the turmoil of his infatuation would linger for many years to come.”

Translated by Michael F. Moore

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Never Coming Back by Tim Weaver

You don’t hear much about whole families going missing like that. Like … not together, and definitely not down in south Devon. That place is so safe. It’s like a theme park.”

I decided to read Tim Weaver’s novel, Never Coming Back, without knowing that it is number 4 in a series (Chasing the Dead, Dead Tracks, Vanished). Never Coming Back is this British author’s American debut, and for reasons that I don’t understand, the 4th in the David Raker series is the first to see the U.S market. Actually I’m really glad that I didn’t know about the other three novels, as I wouldn’t have picked up number 4, and that would have been a mistake.

Yes, there’s a backstory to the book, to David Raker’s past life and exactly why he has chosen to be a PI who specializes in missing persons cases. That back story is covered here–covered very well, I’ll add, so crime writers could do themselves a favour and read this to see how the author plays catch-up for those readers who’ve missed earlier books or need a reminder. The back story is always a problem in a series. How much do you include? How much repeat ground do you cover? Reading Never Coming Back made me want to read the 3 backlist novels, but I never felt confused about the plot or characters.

never coming backNever Coming Back finds David Raker in Devon, in the house he inherited from his parents, recuperating from savage wounds and an abandoned relationship. He’s not alone as he shares his house in an uneasy cohabitation arrangement with former Met copper Healy, freshly fired from the force. Raker acknowledges that he has “the same kind of ghosts as Healy,” but that Healy, who’s floundering around “full of anger and resentment and bitterness,” isn’t sure what to do with the rest of his life. A body washes up on the shore and amidst the fallout, Healy decides policing is what he does best, and Raker is contacted by Emily, an old girlfriend, for help locating her sister, brother-in-law and their two children who vanished without trace several months previously. How can four people vanish without a trace? There were a few reported sightings, but the case became cold fast. Perhaps even too fast…

Here’s Emily describing the family’s mysterious disappearance, and the house as she found it, “like a museum,” a “snapshot of time.”

“Their cars were still on the drive, the lights were on in the house, so I rang the doorbell, five, six, seven times.”

A pause.

 [...]

“I walked through to the kitchen and the dinner was still cooking.”

“It had just been left like that?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “I remember it vividly. The potatoes were still cooking even though there was no water left in the pan. The pork steaks were burned to a crisp. Vegetables were half prepared, just left on the chopping board. It was like the four of them had downed tools and walked out of the house. There was nothing out of place.”

She turned her coffee mug, lost in thought for a moment. “In fact, the opposite really. Everything was in place. Even the table was set: cutlery laid out, drinks prepared.”

“Did it look like they’d left in a hurry?”

She shook her head, but in her eyes I saw a flicker of hesitation as if she’d remembered something but wasn’t sure whether it was even worth bringing up.

“Emily?”

“The milk,” she said.

“Milk?”

“The fridge had been left ajar. This big four-pinter was lying on the floor, and all the milk had poured out of it, across the linoleum, but that was it.”

The novel goes back and forth in time with the back story concerning the disappearance and the present with Raker investigating the cold case. There’s a little awkwardness to this at first, but this disappears as the plot swings forward. On the down side, there were a couple of clues …  the noise of inconsistency, that Raker should have investigated but didn’t. These things, because they were neglected or failed to sound alarm bells, allowed the plot to move forward in a specific direction, so I’d fault the novel there. Now either Raker needs to go back to PI school or I’ve been reading too many crime novels. Take your pick.

But… those complaints aside, Never Coming Back is a riveting story. I read the book in two sittings and deeply resented any interruptions. In spite of its minor faults, this is a moody, dark, atmospheric novel, packed with incredibly suspenseful, descriptive scenes.  Suspense wrapped with dread kept me turning the pages. The author shows terrific skill in building scenes through description: a deserted country house, the steely cold secrets of the indifferent ocean, and the eerie remains of Miln Cross, a coastal village swept into the sea –we know that bad things happened in these places, and there’s the feeling that we are not just reading safely at home–instead we accompany Raker to these places where the suspense, violence and sense of impending doom are tangible. Noise and silence play important roles in this book, and while those two elements are literal, they are also figurative: the noise of clues in an otherwise ordinary domestic scene and the silence of the missing:

I ignored him, ignored the sound of the water stirring on the lake, something gliding across its glassy surface. The rain had eased off, but there was the whistle of a soft breeze, like air traveling through the neck of a bottle. And behind it all was the sea, its noise smothered by the whispering reeds

And another evocative passage:

As I got to the first of the houses, the whine of the wind seemed to fade away into a gentle whisper, a strange disconcerting sound like voices–deep within the roots of the buildings–talking to one another. There was a sudden stillness to the village, its street protected from the breeze coming in off the water, even from the sound of the sea itself: there was no roar from the waves anymore, just a soft slosh as they grabbed and shoved at the plateau the village rose out from. When I paused for a moment at the open window of the first building, it hit home. Miln Cross was a graveyard, its hushed silence the same as every place I’d ever been where people had been taken before they were ready. In those places there was always a residue, a feeling that echoed through it.

Review copy

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Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret In their Eyes , a crime novel from Argentinean author Eduardo Sacheri, was made into an excellent film. I saw the 2009 film first–and I suspect that the film’s success prompted the book’s translation into English. The Secret in their Eyes is the story of Benjamin, an Argentinean clerk who formerly worked in an office which investigated crime, and now in retirement, Benjamin begins writing the story of a decades-old crime that haunts him still. The film version featured one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin as the sensitive, troubled Benjamin, and I mention Darin as I also imagined him playing Fernando,  one of the characters in Papers in the Wind, the second novel by Sacheri to be translated into English.

While The Secret In Their Eyes is a crime novel which delves into Argentina’s Dirty War, the novel also is partly about the friendship between two men.  Papers in the Wind explores the friendship between four men and what happens when one of them dies of pancreatic cancer, but the novel is not just about friendship; it’s also about letting go of one’s dreams and accepting middle-aged reality & regrets.

papers in the windWhen Mono dies of cancer, he leaves behind a daughter, Guadalupe who lives with Mono’s bitter, angry ex-wife, Lourdes. Mono didn’t have much of a legacy to pass on, but he did ‘invest’ in a soccer player, Pittilanga, a young man whose transfer was purchased by Mono with his severance pay of 300,000 pesos. According to the advice Mono received from a possibly questionable source,  Pittilanga was supposed to be a promising player, and Mono, once a soccer hopeful himself, expected to see a big return on his investment when one of the top teams purchased Pittilanga’s transfer. But now Mono is dead, and Pittilanga is still on a team “out in the sticks,” and due to his continued poor performance–not exactly helped by his weight gain–he’ll probably soon be booted even off of this  bottom-rung team. Then it’s back to his village and a dead-end job for the rest of his life.

Mono died with “practically nothing in the bank,” and Mono’s brother, teacher Fernando, feels obligated to recoup Mono’s investment in Pittilanga with the plan to use the money for Guadalupe’s future. He asks Mono’s childhood friends, serial failed businessman Ruso, and materialistic lawyer, Mauricio to help. Ruso, who shared Mono’s enthusiasm for the soccer player scheme in the first place, is only too happy to be involved, but Mauricio sees it as a lost cause and offers minimal help.

While the plot concerns the friends’ efforts to recoup and sell Pittilanga as a promising young soccer player, most of the novel delves into the relationships between these four very different men. The chapters alternate between past and present, so the story begins with Mono’s funeral, and then moves forward to the problem with Pittilanga. Every other chapter then traces the back story of how Mono decided to take his severance pay, how he dealt with his diagnosis & the series of failed cancer treatments. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. At first these chapters have some sort of point–there’s one good segment when Mono meets an oncologist whose treatment of his patient is so inhumane Mono’s friends almost cause a riot, but the merits of these short chapters quickly fade as Mono’s options whittle down, and we begin to follow his death with pointless chapters such as this:

Hey, Fer …”

“What Mono.”

“I asked you a question.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

I asked you if you don’t console me because I asked you not to, or because you think I’m done for.”

“And?”

“the truth.”

“of course.”

“Both.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

This is about half of one of those backstory chapters, and when these chapters begin to replay the last times Fernando and Mono spent together, during Mono’s treatments and end stage, some of the conversation is relevant, but most of it isn’t, and I do not understand the constant appearance of the “..”.  This would have been a better novel with the back story just cut back to Mono’s purchase of Pittilanga’s transfer, the diagnosis and aftermath. As written, we move forward with one chapter and then move back into these chapters of private moments between Fernando and his brother. The constant  “…” felt like someone had censored the more sensitive exchanges.

The novel’s strength comes from its characterizations. Ruso and Mono have a symbiotic relationship; they are both dreamers, and their enthusiasm feeds off of each other. When Mono comes up with this scheme to buy a soccer player’s transfer, eternal optimist Ruso, with a long history of failed business ventures, is all for it. Fernando understands that part of Mono’s dream includes memories of his brother’s thwarted desires to become a world-class soccer player; there’s “an element of revenge, of outstanding debt.” Also well conveyed is the character of Mauricio. Fernando doesn’t particularly like Mauricio, and while Fernando recognizes that Mono wanted to involved himself in the world of soccer any way possible, he lacks the insight to see that some of his dislike of Mauricio is based on the lawyer’s material success. These men grew up in the same neighbourhood, but their lives all took different paths, and Fernando sometimes ponders just how much their characters say about their success or failure. Ruso, who holds playstation tournaments with his employees during business hours at the car wash, seems oblivious to the idea of money and success. Obsessive Fernando, however, often knocks his own status and mulls over exactly why Mauricio is so successful. There’s a buried resentment and envy there that Fernando doesn’t recognize and which is layered with antagonism.

But what of the women in the story? Mauricio has a high-maintenance wife, Mariel, whose good looks are due in no small part to her pampered life style and the wonders of plastic surgery. Mono’s “testy” ex, Lourdes, seethes with resentment and hate for her ex–dead or not, and Ruso’s long-suffering wife, Mónica, is driven to desperate pleas when her husband’s feckless ways threaten to bring the roof down on their heads.

Fernando thanks him and thinks, as always, that Ruso is a real case. Since they finished high school he has set up an infinite number of businesses, all on his own, all preceded by fantastic predictions of “this is a surefire business” and “I’m going to wear out my shoes walking to the bank.” And all them buried, sooner or later, in debts and failure. Fernando and Mono talked about the issue, more than once. Because Ruso’s surefire knack for missing he mark in his investments seemed forced, as if he were intentionally avoiding success. Mono claimed that Ruso’s problem was questions of timing: all the businesses that he thought up were sound, but two years before Ruso  got involved with them. By the time Ruso considered them, and put all his hopes and his shrinking pesos into them, they were on their way out. Fernando , for his part, didn’t know whether to be sorry about the fact that Ruso, when he left high school, had been able to count on a modest fortune his father and grandfather had amassed in their leather workshop in Móron. On the one hand, that money had financed only failure after failure. On the other, it still allowed Ruso, his wife, and his daughters to eat every day.

 Translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Review copy.

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God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster

Epistolary novels were tremendously popular in the 18th century, and now we’re seeing an emergence of the e-pistolary–a novel told exclusively though e-mails. In the case of Alyson Foster’s novel, God is an Astronaut, the e-mails are one-sided; they’re written  over the course of a few months from married Botany professor, Jessica Frobisher to her “favorite colleague” and fellow professor Arthur Danielson, who is on sabbatical in the “wilds north of Winnipeg.” Jessica pours her private thoughts into the e-mails to Arthur while she shares a lot less with her emotionally distant husband, Liam, the senior engineer for Spaceco, a shuttle company with a long waiting list of commercial passengers who want to travel into space.

astronautJessica, or Jess as she prefers to be called, begins writing e-mails to Arthur a few days after the explosion of the Spaceco shuttle Titan which resulted in the deaths of the two crew members and four passengers. With reporters camped out in the driveway, and Liam travelling back and forth to Arizona to the Spaceco launch site, Jess is left to her own devices. The shuttle explosion heralds disaster for Jess’s marriage–a marriage already in trouble and locked into a “passive-aggressive standoff.” Jess admits “we have no shortage of skeletons in our marital closets–the predictable collection of festering specimens, the things that go bump in the night, etc.” She begins an e-mail exchange with Arthur, and also begins long-delayed work on a greenhouse.  While the physical labour of digging trenches is a satisfying distraction, the e-mails to Arthur reveal Jess’s private, candid thoughts. Liam is entrenched in the details of the shuttle explosion and the subsequent media storm, and for Jess, under scrutiny from the neighbours and colleagues, the e-mails to Arthur seem to be the one way she can express her real feelings and moral concerns about the shuttle explosion. Troubled and yet trying to hold her life and home together for her two children, Jess admits to Arthur: “There’s something about trying to sum up your own take on a terrible truth.”

While Liam tells Jess not to speak to reporters camped outside (“the CNN crew had some sort of miniature grill out, and they were barbecuing what appeared to be breakfast sausages,”) she is required to show solidarity with her husband and other Spaceco executives and wives. Spaceco hires a pushy crisis consultant who orders Jess to dress a certain way for the press conference:

she finally settled on the least objectionable outfit she could find, that green silk suit I wear once a year when I’m presenting at a conference, the one you said makes me look like a woman playing a politician in a mini-series.

Much to Jess’s annoyance, Liam invites filmmaker Theo Lacroix and his latest wife Elle back to Michigan in order to make a documentary film about Spaceco. Lacroix has a habit to popping up at the most inconvenient moments with his camera, and Jess finds that Lacroix’s presence in her home is unsettling. How much does he see and understand? Here’s Jess explaining to Arthur her exchange with Lecroix after telling him that she retained her maiden name:

But he didn’t seem offended. “Ah,” he said, “A woman after my own heart. I wouldn’t allow any of my wives to take my name. ‘Get your own,’ I said.”

He bent down, picked up my ergonomic shovel, and inspected it. “Besides you never know when you might have to change it back. And then there will be all that bureaucratic nonsense and—” he waved his hand dismissively. “It is all very tiresome. When it comes to marriage, most people are very … What is the correct word? Unrealistic. It is better to be prepared.”

It was impossible to tell, Arthur, whether he was bullshitting me or not. “That’s a great philosophy,” I said. “I bet all your wives really loved it.”

“They understood. Some of them sooner than others.” Lacroix flicked a piece of dirt from the sleeve of his sweater. “They were smart women,” he said. “And beautiful.” He sighed with a touch of what I assumed was nostalgia.

 Jess’s voice is engaging, lightly humorous in tone and very real, but the e-mails occasionally do not sound like e-mails at all. Ok, so perhaps not everyone knocks off short e-mails, and perhaps some of us wax poetic, but sometimes the writing here is just too good to be a believable e-mail.  Conversely, there are also times when the e-mails seem to be a false construction:

I shut the laptop. I left the bathrobe in a puddle on the kitchen tile. Still half naked, I walked through the living room and up to the bedroom.

At other times, Jess is describing a dramatic event, and divides it into several long e-mails, and again, this felt a little false. I read some reviews in which people expressed frustration that the e-mails were just one-sided. Actually I liked that aspect of the novel because I had to read between the lines, and also pay close attention to the subject header topic which was the best way to gauge Arthur’s response. Plus on a deeper level, just what is Arthur to Jess? A colleague or something more? Over time, of course, we learn the truth which was easy to guess almost from the first e-mail, but even when the truth is finally revealed, it’s clear that Arthur served many purposes for Jess, and here he is as a sounding board as Jess rides out the greatest crisis of her life.

I particularly liked the way in which Jess is shown avoiding dealing with reality through the distraction of her greenhouse, and at one point she even describes the space beyond the dining room designated for the new greenhouse as “an escape hatch.” Liam disapproves of the project, mumbling about their “sasquatch-size carbon footprint,” which is hypocritical given what he does for a living, and there’s the sense that he disapproves of a great deal to do with Jess. Perhaps she finally begins construction of her greenhouse, not only as a meaningful distraction, but as a type of defiance. After all, she buys many exotic, delicate plants with the plan that they will defy the Michigan winter in this superb construction and, as Lecroix, points out, with her “ruthless gardening.”  God is an Astronaut, a light read,  is well-written and engaging. Author Alyson Foster captures that period of disintegration in a marriage when both partners are aware that the relationship is pathological, but neither chooses to acknowledge the problems. Yet.

Review copy

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Fairyland by Sumner Locke Elliott

“Some people, he thought, and I am one of them, are servitors without knowing it, and go through their lives implementing other people’s fates.”

Author Sumner Locke Elliott (1917-1991) is best remembered for Careful, He Might Hear You, the story of an orphaned Australian boy who becomes the subject of a custody battle between his two aunts.   Fairyland is acknowledged as “largely autobiographical,” and if there’s any doubt about that, just re-read the introduction after reading the book, and you’ll find that significant signposts match. The introduction written by Dennis Altman includes a short biography of the author, who like his fictional creation Seaton Daly, moved to New York. Fairyland, published the year before the author’s death is his “coming out novel.” The story follows the life of its homosexual protagonist from early childhood through to adulthood, and Altman states that “remains one of the most striking records we have of camp life, as it was then referred to, in Sydney of the 1930s and 40s.”

Australian Seaton Daly grows up in post WWI Sydney under the baggage of a particular myth concerning his parents. His father is a fallen WWI hero, and his mother, a valiant war widow wrote “Australia’s most sacred patriotic song, Just a Little Soldier Woman.”  The truth about this myth, when it arrives, serves as a stunning revelation, but then almost everyone in Seaton’s sphere seems to have constructed myths, in one form or another, about their lives.  While a child, Seaton understands that he’s attracted to members of his own sex, and although he’s not confused about his sexuality, he is constantly and repeatedly confused by other significant people he meets in his life. Part of this can be explained, of course, by the fact that during the period in question, homosexuality was illegal and many of the homosexual men Seaton meets have created surface heterosexual lives. But this cannot fully explain Seaton’s confusion as he missteps repeatedly, sometimes with painful results, throughout the novel. Various characters, including Seaton’s mother, cherry pick their pasts and their present, creating a version of life that they can accept and deal with while other characters exhibit a strange duality of behaviours.  This effectively creates a subtext of schizophrenia, a “fairy tale” that rends Sydney society with pretense on the surface and reality behind closed doors, and Sumner Locke Elliott makes it quite clear that this is a troubling facet of Sydney society that our hero, Seaton Daly, never quite comes to terms with.

FairylandSince this is a novel that encompasses Seaton’s childhood and on through several decades, the plot includes the most significant people and events in Seaton’s life. Orphaned and then brought up by Essie, Seaton initially is sent to the expensive private Prince Albert Day School courtesy of Essie’s eccentric wealthy employer. Essie is Miss Dalgarno’s “loving servant,” who “once in  great while” is granted a day off.

Essie, his cousin on his father’s side, cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, baked, stewed, peeled, polished, got up at six in the morning and often wasn’t in her bed until after eleven. At times Essie looked fagged out and so pale she might not have seen sunlight in months, which was not far from the truth. Once in a great while Miss Dalgarno awarded her a day off, and she and Seaton went to the pictures at the Crystal Palace or Hoyts in Double Bay. Not that Miss Dalgarno was draconian–it was merely that nothing occurred to her until there was a dramatic confrontation. Not until you fainted across the vacuum cleaner did it occur to her that you might be overworked.

There, as the poorest child in the school, unwanted by Miss Peel, the school owner, a heavily powdered “ageless virgin,” he makes one single friend, Hilary, a serious little girl with the ethereal goodness of Jane Eyre‘s Helen Burns. Hilary is one of the few people Seaton meets who has a calm, sincere, cohesive core. There are no games, no misunderstandings, just acceptance of one child of another. It’s a short, significant relationship; “He would remember her in years to come somewhat like a river.” 

Still in childhood, Seaton moves from Point Piper, the affluent area of Sydney to the “unenviable workingman’s suburb” of Arncliffe with a view of Botany Bay, and there he sees the wild swings of class levels within Sydney society.

There was only one barefaced word for Arncliffe–common. It was the common denominator. It was the omnipresent Monday morning washing on every clothesline in every similar backyard, the unadventurousness of hydrangea and cosmos and lantana, the pretentiousness of plaster storks holding up bird-baths. It was the waxed fruit on the dining room table and the wedding photographs arranged on the piano and people’s never used hand embroidered guest towels as pious as their teetotalism. It was the dull nasal voices expecting nothing new, the men all wearing collarless shirts but showing the collar stud at the adam’s apple, the women in curlers and carpet slippers wet-mopping the veranda tiles “of a Saturday morning,” the plaintive twangy voices of the children. It was hearing for better or worse the steely pianolas playing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and knowing that the Sunday roast with two vegetables was as certain as birth, marriage, and death and that there was nothing else to look forward to and, worse, their unheeding of their dreadfulness of not caring. It was the common bond of their common-place assurances that held them together, and although at twelve years of age he was not yet able to digest the significance of this, he had become quietly aware, perhaps ashamed, of his knowledge of growing secret antlers, possibly wings. That among these people he was a changeling.

But not even to Essie, not even in a whisper or a dream, did he ever voice it. “I am different.”

While Seaton has various homosexual relationships, he also has several significant relationships with women. Cousin Essie is one of those, and Hilary, of course, but then there’s also the darkly neurotic Gin, and Betty Jollivet who “burned with an incandescence.” But there’s also Seaton’s mother, a woman who remains a mystery until Seaton, in maturity, can finally understand her behaviour.

Not until he was a grown man, and it became necessary for him to go through Her papers before he left the country forever, did he discover what it was that She was composing behind that shut door as blank as her face; when he discovered the dozens of patriotic stories and poems she had written for long-ago defunct magazines with names like Digger and Battalion Bulletin. Reading them he was flushed with outraged pity for Her and shame for his priggish parsimoniousness toward Her. They were, patently, all about herself and they had titles like “The Little Subaltern” and “Doing Her Duty” and the heroines were always slips of girls standing bravely up to  Cruel Huns behind the lines and rescued by big gentle lieutenants who took their tiny hands into their great paws and gazed into their liquid eyes. He now was able to see Her against the background of Armageddon that She had created for herself after his father was killed and that for Her the war which had brutally taken from Her the source and reason for Her living had been adjusted or rather She had rearranged it into a singular compassionate glory.

The book conveys the difficulties of negotiating homosexual life in the 30s and 40s “knowing that just the shadow of a wrong move could bring on catastrophe,” as Seaton walks through the minefields of hidden sexual orientation and becomes a bookbinder working for a lustful, married, pretentious bookseller, joins the Drury Lane Players, works as a copy writer and eventually lands in radio. Along the way Seaton has various disorienting, hilarious sexual encounters; he is always the prey and is targeted by the pompous, predatory actor Byron Hall,  and Seaton’s employer, the lascivious Mrs. Dick. She’s  “on a strange sort of antiquated anti-queer crusade” and has a convenient arrangement with her accommodating, apron-sporting spouse, Minty Milton Dick who found his wife “working in a fish-and-chips place and took a girlish fancy to her and more or less adopted her and made her over into the lady he would have liked to be .”

Other memorable relationships include Seaton’s slow, teasing courtship of an opportunistic young man who works in the men’s department of a clothing shop, and unexpected, surreal wartime passion. All of these relationships–with both men and women, sexual and non-sexual, underscore the schizophrenia of Sydney society–a world in which no one is quite what they appear to be. Optimistic, life-affirming, generous, full of wonderful characters and amusing in tone, this is the story of a man who yearns to live a one-stranded life, a life without the schizophrenia of deception. His dream is to live in America, “that land of cars and movie stars and night baseball, where, according to some recent survey, somebody was fatally shot every eight minutes.”

Highly recommended.

From ANZ LitLovers Litblog, here’s Lisa’s review

Review copy

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The House at Number 10 by Dorothy Johnston

“In small and large ways, Sophie felt herself adjusting, and wanted only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days.”

With the finer weather, prostitutes are now appearing in the dozens. Well they are, at least, whenever I look out of the window. Most of them seem to live in the cut-rate motel down the street, and at about 11 in the morning, the early birds appear in the motel parking lot–some stroll a block or two until they are picked up and whisked away in cars. The returns, which occur thirty to forty minutes later are always interesting–the cars don’t seem to stop; they just slow down. The prostitute steps out, sometimes a bit wobbly on outrageously high heels, and the car speeds away. The drivers can’t seem to get away fast enough, and as for the prostitutes, they never look back but stalk away. The space between these two, the prostitute and her client grows, and there’s the sense of contempt, a disavowal of what just happened in the air.  

All these observations ran through my head as I read Australian author Dorothy Johnston’s novel The House at Number 10–a book recommended to me by Gummie over at Whispering Gums. The story takes place in Canberra with legalization of prostitution looming and concerns a young woman named Sophie who has just been abandoned by her self-absorbed husband, Andrew after six years of marriage. He left “not for another woman, but a floating open-ended freedom.” When he offers her the old marital home, she refuses, “thinking of him floating through these rooms designed for a family on his raft of girls.” This motif of space, literal and figurative occurs frequently throughout this quiet, subtle novel–literally, in the way we define space through architecture, and figuratively through Architecture of the Self.

the house at number 10Sophie joins Elise and Kirsten working in a bordello owned and operated by a man named Marshall, who seems to find his role hip, and cutting-edge rather than exploitive. Marshall has a long-term relationship with Elise, a woman whose prickly nature keeps everyone at a distance. The third woman in the bordello is world-weary, chain-smoking Kirsten who schools Sophie, in her trial period, about sticking to limits with johns: a strict thirty minute rule (which Sophie learns to enforce), and the mandatory use of condoms.

With no clear time demarcations, the story manages to convey a pervasive sense of drifting,”this pressure of suspended animation”--not only Andrew is floating on his figurative raft. Similarly Elise’s space within the bordello, between customers is spent stretching and meditating on her yoga mat while Kirsten chain smokes in a large armchair which faces the window. Sophie cast adrift from her former life and role as a wife, initially nervous about becoming a prostitute, but fueled by curiosity, adapts to her new employment. She gathers a few regulars, tosses away the occasional offering of flowers but keeps the chocolates, and learns how to control the sexual encounters.  Although Sophie has made a very deliberate choice to become a sex worker, there’s the sense that her life is in a holding pattern, and when she leaves the “house at number 10,”  she sheds the experiences like an extra skin.

The motif of architecture is cleverly weaved into the novel; Marshall and Elise want to make the bordello a little smarter, more welcoming to customers, and they employ Sophie’s friend, Ann, an architect to draw blueprints modifying the small house in suburban Canberra. Similarly, the garden, a blank space is ear-marked for renovation. Meanwhile Sophie, who finds herself without the clear lines of her marriage to Andrew, must arrive at some point of self-knowledge in order to redefine herself. Working as a prostitute doesn’t encourage Sophie to redefine herself or her new life, as once she steps inside the house at number 10, she becomes the fetish object for the men that she encounters as they define her for their own needs. Again there’s the sense that Sophie is drifting along through life, and that having survived the detonation of her marriage, she has yet to select her new course, her new design. Andrew has the gall to produce pamphlets for university courses, telling her, a woman he’s abandoned in order to begin a life, “you should go back to study.”  No small amount of patronage and guilt there. Sophie doesn’t tell him where to stuff his pamphlets but instead, perhaps due in part to the way in which she’s learned to simulate feelings, she even manages a ‘thank-you’ when Andrew takes umbrage at her lack of gratitude.

It takes a crisis for Sophie, the mother of a small  daughter, to take control of her life, stop drifting and make some decisions.

I’m not a writer, but as a reader, writing about prostitution is a tough subject as we bring our assumptions, fantasies and prejudices to the subject. The prostitutes in this Canberra suburb with their regular customers are a different breed from the streetwalkers I see daily. Elise, Kirsten, and Sophie’s lives seem positively tame compared to the bottom-feeders of the prostitution world. The novel doesn’t dwell on the sexual encounters–rather the plot emphasizes how Sophie copes with various situations, and how she manages the men who come to her for sex.

We learn that Sophie is drawn to prostitution by the “enticement of making some fast money behind her ex-husband’s back,” revenge and at one time thinks that it ‘serves him right.’ But the transition from abandoned wife to prostitute occurs so swiftly that while this may be explained by numbness and a desire for revenge, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Sophie as a character. But the author doesn’t shy away from this aspect of the novel, and at one point, grabby Marshall shares my thoughts when he tells Sophie  that she doesn’t “look the part.

Particularly interesting is how the author uses the motifs of design of space and the design of the self. Do we design our spaces or do they define us? All of these characters inhabit their own spaces in the world, Andrew, his “raft of girls,” Elise her yoga mat, and Kirsten sequesters the ancient armchair. The encounters between prostitutes and their clients, although intimate, remain fundamentally business like; the psyches of these women are inviolate and impenetrable. In these cases, physical intimacy heralds the terrifying gap of the emotional void, a vast empty space between two people, breached only by money. A simple transaction, and yet immensely complex. The bordello, like a cheap motel, is functional, but blank, bland and anonymous. Sophie finds that the “walls and the curtains of the side room would not give her away. … The homely, unfashionable room, with its few simple props, became her silent ally.”

Sophie felt the pressure of suspended animation in herself as well, as her nights spent at the house increased in number, as she sought her level and her place there, as the past before Andover Street began to slip behind her, not only into another time frame, but another life as well.

The House at Number 10 is a thought-provoking, provocative read for its topic and what’s not overtly stated–is Sophie’s decision to become a prostitute, for example, a reaction to her earlier sexual exclusivity? Prostitution is, for Sophie, a means to designing a new Architecture of the Self. Through becoming the “Sophie of the Kingston house,” she learns what she is capable of.

 Sophie knew her face was a blank. Sometimes, clients, when she turned to face them, willing them to get off the bed, get dressed, had a look of apology, sometimes they even apologized in words, and this she could not bear. The ones who became quickly, simply, self-sufficient, wanting nothing more from her ever now the agreed exchange had been completed–these ones Sophie recognized, though she did not respect them. They answered her desire for clean lines of division, endings that were neat.

 

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part II)

Following from Part 1

The Lorimer sisters forced to earn their own living or accept the charity of relatives opt for the former and open their photography shop with painfully high hopes.

Think of all the dull ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business–that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking.

This speech is made by Gertrude to her sister, Lucy, and at this point the photography shop is still in the planning stages. We could say that Gertrude is optimistic, but with Lucy and Phyllis , there’s a more romanticized view which becomes contagious:

“And I,” cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, “I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!”

“Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!” added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.

“We would take afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody would flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!” finished off Gertrude.

The Romance of a Shop is faulted for its ending–the wrap-up of the fates of our 4 sisters. Would I fault the novel?… Yes, but I’m not the only one, and this criticism is addressed in the intro which includes a comment from author Deborah Epstein Nord (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City) who argues that the last chapters revert to “a shoddy Pride and Prejudice with all four sisters searching for an appropriate mate.” Also quoted is Deborah Parsons’ argument  (Streetwalking the Metropolis; Women, the City and Modernity) that “Levy backs down from the implied female radicalism” with a conventional conclusion for the sisters. The author of the Broadview edition, Susan David Bernstein addresses those criticisms with her interpretation of the conclusion.

The Romance of a shopI was initially disappointed by the novel’s conclusion as the plot slid into romance, new and old as well adding the looming threat of a slippery seducer. Still, I think that Levy might well be adding realism here by creating characters who opt for marriage as the practical choice, and in the quote above, we see that clearly marriage is in the minds of these sisters. Levy planted the seed for the reader to see very early in the novel, so should we be so surprised when that is what occurs?  There’s another later moment when Gertrude, left to her own melancholy thoughts, admits that in all likelihood, at least a couple of her sisters will marry and move on. We could even argue, as noted in the earlier quote, that the sisters see their photography business as paving the way for an introduction into the best of society and a way of making them more desirable and eligible.  For this reader, a far worse flaw than the conventional ending was the drama involving Lucy. It seemed contrived solely for the element of suspense.

The Broadview edition clocks in at 278 pages, but the novel itself is about half that. This is an instance when I would have preferred one of those Victorian triple-deckers as The Romance of a Shop is thin on character development. Sister Fanny, for example, is barely glimpsed except as a housekeeping figure, and added scenes of the sisters actually at work, instead of the recounted details, would have enhanced the plot.  Gertrude is the most interesting sister, and the scenes that yield her thoughts, and the scenes involving Gertrude and Mr. Darrell are the most interesting in the book. Mr. Darrell wants Phyllis to sit as a model for a painting. He dislikes Gertrude and sees her as a frumpy “dragon-sister to be got round.”  Here’s a stunning moment between Gertrude and Darrell:

She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike.

It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it.

Amy Levy “modeled the Lorimers on her friends the Black sisters,“(Clementina Black was a suffragette, author and a trade union organizer who fought for equal pay for women). At one point, Levy slips in the statement that customers “seemed to think the sex of the photographers a ground for greater cheapness in the photographs.” There’s an authenticity here in the attention paid to detail to the lodgings, and the glimpse of the professional woman’s perspective in London of the times is unique.

Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the vulnerability of these sisters now that they are running a shop. Most of their old friends drop them, and Aunt Caroline is scandalized by their behaviour. Their work forces them out into the world; they have to mingle, and sometimes go alone to studios owned and operated by men.

We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to sacrifice all social enjoyment? … we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?

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