Category Archives: Fiction

The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

“There had always been in her this meanness which every now and again got out of control.”

Ignore the sweet-looking hints of the cover. The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster is the story of Julia, a strangely disaffected child who becomes a successful child psychologist. It’s Julia’s job to explore the hidden corners of culpability in her patients’ anti-social, self-destructive and sometimes deviant behaviour, and yet this is the very thing that Julia sidesteps so neatly in her own past and present. The Unknown Bridesmaid, the twenty-sixth novel from the author, is subtle and intelligent, but far more than that, this is a dark tale of self-deception and motivation in which the murky impulses of the main character lurk just beneath the surface of her actions.

The Unknown BridesmaidJulia is just eight years old when she’s invited back to Manchester to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Julia’s mother is surprised by the invitation as she and her sister Maureen aren’t close. Even Julia recognizes that “her mother and her aunt were engaged in some sort of complicated battle,” and there’s the sense that Maureen’s life took a turn for the better while Julia’s mother’s did not.  We’re given an impression of Julia’s mother, and it isn’t pleasant:

Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.

Julia as a bridesmaid is not the main gist of the story, but it is a pivotal event in which we see Julia for the first time. She’s an odd child. If we want to be kind we’d call her ‘quiet,’ and if we dislike Julia, we’d call her ‘sneaky.’ It’s at Iris’s wedding that we first grasp the idea that Julia has a certain emotional disconnect from the people around her. Iris is a wonderful young woman, warm, kind, loving and much-loved, “admired” and joyful, yet Julia, much like her own dreary, joyless mother, holds back, and “sees how everyone was in thrall to her cousin.”

The wedding is just the first event in a chain of tragedy that binds Julia to her relatives in Manchester. Financial circumstances and a dark secret involving Julia’s father bring Julia and her mother back to Manchester to live, and so the lives of the two sets of relatives twine together initially through the wedding and then through death. A horrible incident occurs involving Julia, and she may or may not be responsible.

She was the one who had always, as a child, wanted to ask questions but had been trained not to. She liked being asked them, too, or thought she did until the questions became tricky and she began to worry about what her answers were revealing, to herself, as much as to the questioner.

Julia shoves aside her involvement and the hint of guilt and plunges ahead into a childhood and adolescence full of emotionally disconnected acts of casual cruelty towards the other people in her life. As she grows into her teens, the acts becomes increasingly more serious and focused….

The Unknown Bridesmaid maintains a quietly restrained narrative tone while exploring how a close-knit group of people deal with a young girl who’s emotionally disturbed. As the narrative goes back and forth in time between the past and the present, there’s a fine film over all these events which covers & obscures Julia’s culpability and intentions. Julia’s childhood of increasingly abhorrent acts is spliced with her present as she counsels children with various emotional and behavioral problems. As a psychologist, Julia recognizes that “it was tempting to confuse a child’s evasion of the truth with a calculated piece of lying.” She’s good at uncovering the motivations behind various children’s destructive actions, and while this talent may spring from her own emotionally difficult past, the clarity Julia shows with her patients stops there. Her insight is towards others–not herself.

Author Margaret Forster includes weddings and bridesmaids a few times in the novel, and when these occasions emerge in Julia’s life, they illuminate Julia’s estrangement from the people in her life. She cannot participate emotionally and these happy celebrations always leave Julia on the outside, disinterested, bored, and yet aware that somehow she’s ‘different.’

The Unknown Bridesmaid, primarily a character study, is a stunning novel, and perhaps part of my admiration for the book comes in no small part to the fact that it plays into one of my pet theories: those of us who give the most to strangers, give nothing to our families and those we are supposed to love. It’s a version of Mrs Jellyby’s telescopic philanthropy. Structured differently, let’s say chronologically, the plot would not contain as much mystery, but the plot goes back and forth with the past and the present, so we see Julia as a damaged child and later as a well-functioning adult. But as Julia’s present unfolds we begin to question just how well-functioning she really is. As for Julia’s past, how should we judge the intentions of children when they don’t understand their own impulses? Julia very much remains an enigma to herself and her relatives, especially Elsa, a girl who once adored Julia and yet found herself the target of Julia’s malicious spite. Julia also remains a mystery to the reader–partly due to the novel’s clever structure and brilliant characterizations, but also due to the novel’s wonderful ending which while deliberately anticlimactic brings only deeper questions involving the elusiveness of the truth and multiple versions of events.  Should we admire Julia for how she managed to recoup her life and become a professional success or should we dislike her for treating her family badly and failing to overcome her emotional problems?

The Unknown Bridesmaid is going to make my best-of-year list. I’d never read Margaret Forster before and I’m delighted to have found her at last.

Finally this novel should appeal to fans of Penelope Lively.

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Aurora Floyd by M. E Braddon Part II

Continuing from part I

Talbot Bulstrode is looking for a suitable wife who’ll provide him with heirs “who should do honour to the name of Bulstrode.” He has a vision of the ‘ideal’ woman, but so far no one has met his impossible expectations. Then he meets Aurora Floyd, the only daughter of a wealthy banker. At first he’s struck by her beauty:

A divinity! imperiously beautiful in white and scarlet, painfully dazzling to look upon, intoxicatingly brilliant to behold. Captain Bulstrode had served in India, and had once tasted a horrible spirit called bang, which made men who drank it half mad; and he could not help fancying that the beauty of this woman was like the strength of that alcoholic preparation; barbarous, intoxicating, dangerous and maddening.

but then she opens her mouth…

Good heavens! what a horrible woman,” is the stuffy Talbot Bulstrode’s response to the first words Aurora Floyd speaks. Up to the point she asked the question, “Do you know if Thunderbolt won the leger?” Bulstrode had viewed Aurora as a “Cleopatra in crinoline.” That first impression is rapidly abandoned as Aurora launches into a discussion of horse-racing:

She looked at him rather contemptuously. ‘Cheops wasn’t much,’ she said: ‘he won the Liverpool Autumn Cup in Blink Bonny’s year, but most people said it was a fluke.’

Talbot Bulstrode shuddered afresh; but a feeling of pity mingled with his horror. ‘If I had a sister,’ he thought, ‘I would get her to talk to this miserable girl, and bring her to a sense of her iniquity.’

Once Bulstrode reveals that he knows nothing about horse-racing, the brief conversation is over. Aurora looks bored and moves on. Bulstrode is stunned; part of his reaction stems from Aurora’s inappropriate conversation which revealed a blatant “taste for horseflesh,” but there’s no small amount of ego involved here. Aurora didn’t flirt or simper; in fact she seemed disinterested in the Bulstrode name and fortune, and so begins Bulstrode’s fascination with Aurora. She’s far from his “ideal,” but pride is the key to Bulstrode’s character, so he’s spurred on by Aurora’s lack on interest.

Talbot Bulstrode’s ideal woman was some gentle and feminine creature crowned with an aureole of pale auburn hair; some timid soul with downcast eyes, fringed with gold-tinted lashes; some shrinking being, as pale and prim as the mediaeval saints in his pre-Raphaelite engravings, spotless as her own white robes, excelling in all womanly graces and accomplishments, but only exhibiting them in the narrow circle of a home.

Bulstrode’s ideal woman exists: she’s Aurora’s gentle cousin Lucy, but Bulstrode hardly notices Lucy; he’s much more interested in the “goddess,” Aurora. Lucy, who’s naturally retiring anyway, sinks into the background whenever her glamorous cousin is in the room. From the moment Aurora shows complete disinterest in Bulstrode, his  fascination begins, and when Aurora and Lucy travel to Brighton with Mr Floyd to enjoy the sea air, guess who shows up? Yes, Bulstrode, but soon there’s a rival on the scene; a good humoured Yorkshireman, John Mellish.

This is a tale of blackmail, bigamy (the horror!), and murder. I’m not going to give away much more of the plot as to do so would spoil the fun. Secrets from Aurora’s past emerge, in typical Braddon fashion, but there’s a lot here apart from scandal. Braddon also takes a subtle look at love through her four main characters: John Mellish, Talbot Bulstrode (the two men are friends) and Aurora and her gentler cousin, Lucy. Just as you expect the novel to go in one direction, Braddon introduces some complications for her lovers while exploring the idea that we are all too-often attracted to people who are unsuitable for our natures.

Braddon puts some distance between herself and her main character, Aurora. Initially our heroine is not particularly likeable, but this image melts and she becomes more sympathetic as the novel continues. She’s an ardent animal lover, even taking a horse whip to a man (a servant, naturally) who’s cruel to her elderly, crippled Newfoundland (which seems to be Braddon’s breed of choice). We know there’s some dark secret in Aurora’s past gnawing away at her daily. We also know that the secret is somehow connected to her life in Paris, and we also know, because Braddon laces the novel with dire warnings, platitudes, and some glorious, highly dramatic breast-beating, that this dark secret will OUT.

But Braddon is a trickster of the first order. She shamelessly pinched the idea for The Doctors’ Wife from Flaubert giving the excuse: “The idea of The Doctor’s Wife is founded on ‘Madame Bovary,’ the style of which struck me immensely in spite of its hideous immorality.” Blatant marketing there, and I don’t believe for a moment that Braddon thought Madame Bovary was immoral at all. She knew a good idea when she saw it and simply capitalized on it. An example of Braddon’s trickery (well there are loads of examples in the plot) also occurs in the presentation of Bulstrode’s Ideal. Bulstrode’s Ideal woman is clearly not the sort of woman Braddon prefers or admires. Braddon gives us scenes of Lucy, a veritable angel, but nonetheless annoying. She acts as a mirror for the man she loves; he just has to say something, or give an opinion in order for Lucy to reflect back male glory:

 It was part of her nature to love in a reverential attitude, and she had no wish to approach nearer her idol. To sit at her sultan’s feet and replenish his chibouque; to watch him while he slept, and wave the punkah above his seraphic head; to love and pray for him, –made up the sum of her heart’s desire.

Nauseating. But again, Braddon takes on a subtle stand on this character. She shows Lucy as annoying & uninteresting–even though she meets all the qualifications of a so-called female Ideal.

Aurora Floyd is a delight to read, and once again, I am impressed with Braddon’s incredible ability to plot. As the saying goes: this woman could write her way out of a paper bag. Braddon creates some wonderful detective characters, and in this novel we have Mr. Grimstone from Scotland Yard. Most of the novels revolve around the upper classes, and the glimpses we get of Braddon’s detectives are frustratingly short. They appear, solve things, and then disappear like vapour.

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Aurora Floyd by M. E. Braddon Part I

Continuing my fascination with Victorian Sensation fiction, it was time for another M. E. Braddon, and since she wrote over 90 novels, there were plenty to choose from. Lady Audley’s Secret is the favourite so far, followed by The Doctor’s Wife, and I’d place Aurora Floyd above the story of stolen identity: Henry Dunbar.

Bigamy, blackmail, deceit, and murder. Yes these things all plague the life of Aurora Floyd, a beautiful yet troubled heiress, the only child of an extremely wealthy banker. We’re told that her father, Mr.  Archibald Floyd, led the staid, boring life of the confirmed bachelor until a visit to Manchester caused him to leap off the deep end and into a scandalous, hasty, short marriage to a penniless actress, the daughter of a certain Captain Prodder. The actress, Eliza, died after producing her only child, Aurora, so she’s in the frame and out again before she can put the malicious gossip from the neighbors to rest. Naturally Aurora, in the absence of a mother, and brought up by her aging, grieving father at his estate in Kent, grows up spoiled rotten & willful….

aurora floydFast forward to 1857, and Aurora returns from an exclusive girls’ boarding school in Paris, but there’s something a bit fishy about this period in Aurora’s life, and that is confirmed in hints. She returns “loth to talk” about the school, she “slept badly, was nervous and hysterical,”  and it’s clear that she’s distracted and bothered about something. Aurora’s cousin, Lucy, a sweet, intelligent young woman with a sunny disposition arrives to visit, and decides Aurora’s dark mood must be due to her dislike of Paris.

Mr Floyd organizes a ball in honour of Aurora’s 19th birthday, and it’s here that Talbot Bulstrode, the proud, inflexible heir to a Cornish baronetcy meets Aurora Floyd. Bulstrode, at 32, has very definite ideas about the sort of woman he wants to marry, and so far, he’s never met “a woman whose stainless purity of soul fitted her in his eyes to become the mother of a noble race, and to rear sons who would do honour to the name of Bulstrode.”

He looked for more than ordinary every-day virtue in the woman of his choice; he demanded those grand and queenly qualities which are rarest in womankind. Fearless truth, a sense of honour keen as his own, loyalty of purpose, unselfishness, a soul untainted by the petty baseness of daily life–all these he sought in the being he loved; and at first warning thrill of emotion caused by a pair of beautiful eyes, he grew critical and captious about their owner, and began looking for infinitesimal stains upon the shining robe of her virginity. He would have married a beggar’s daughter if she had reached his almost impossible standard; he would have rejected the descendant of a race of kings if she had fallen one decimal part of an inch below it. Women feared Talbot Bulstrode: manoeuvring mothers shrank abashed from the cold light of those watchful grey eyes; daughters to marry blushed and trembled, and felt their pretty affectations, their ball-room properties, drop away from them under the quiet gaze of the young officer; till, from fearing him, the lovely flutterers grew to shun and dislike him, and to leave Bulstrode Castle and the Bulstrode fortune untangled for in the great matrimonial fisheries.

Bulstrode definitely seems to be channeling Austen’s Darcy. Personally I didn’t buy the argument that Bulstrode would marry a “beggar’s daughter” if she met his exacting standards, but no matter. There’s the subtle idea here that no one is good enough for Bulstrode–he really wants to marry himself. As we see later in the novel, he does the next best thing.

So Bulstrode attends the ball, and he’s already making snarky comments about the heiress, Aurora, he’s yet to meet. In his insufferably egotistical way, Bulstrode expects that Aurora will have already investigated his background and his wealth, so he fully expects her to simper and flirt, but the meeting subverts his stuffy expectations. Firstly, Aurora is dressed simply, yet magnificently, with a garland of scarlet berries wrapped in her blue-black hair. The other young ladies dress alike, sporting pinks, pale blues and yellows, and too many jewels & flowers.  Aurora doesn’t flirt with Bulstrode; she barely acknowledges his presence; he’s reeling from the stunning effects of her appearance when she opens her mouth and launches into a discussion about horse racing. Bulstrode is horrified and speechless.

It’s a wonderful scene–one of the best in an entertaining and extremely well plotted book, but it’s also through this scene that Braddon starts playing with her readers as she draws us in to the central mystery which surrounds Aurora Floyd. We have every reason to suppose that Bulstrode is the romantic hero of the piece, and we have every reason to expect that he’ll fall in love with Aurora in spite of his instincts to run like hell.

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In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower

I was attracted to the strangeness of his mind as a psychiatrist might have been drawn to an interesting case. He wanted a resident analyst. Neither of us understood.”  

In Certain Circles, Australian author Elizabeth Harrower follows the intertwined  lives of four characters, two sets of siblings from vastly different economic circumstances, from youth to middle age. Siblings Stephen and Anna Quayle are orphaned after their parents are killed in a railroad crossing accident. Subsequently brought up by an intensely distracted uncle and his neurotic invalid wife, Stephen and Anna both learn that life isn’t a golden opportunity as much as a series of insurmountable obstacles. In contrast to Stephen and Anna are the Howards, siblings Russell and Zoe. The Howards, a prominent Sydney family, are educated, affluent and influential people, and Elizabeth Harrower explores the two dynamics of the Haves and the Have-nots, and shows that growing up with privilege and love cushions and cocoons, and yet sometimes can also be its own handicap in unexpected ways. In certain circlesWhen the novel begins, Zoe is seventeen, and her brother Russell is now home after some years in a POW camp. Russell, already altered by the death of two close friends in a swimming accident, returns from war and “proceeded to alarm and disappoint his parents by refusing to involve himself in any of the activities they felt him suited to.” Russell is subdued, controlled and it’s clear that there are strong emotional undercurrents hidden beneath the surface of his calm demeanor, so while he’s actually adrift, he covers this well. Outwardly Russell doesn’t present too many concerns; there are two constants in his life: his close friendship with Stephen Quayle and his relationship with Lily. The Howards approve of Lily, a lecturer in German, a woman of their social circle and a neighbor. She’s considered ‘good’ for Russell. Stephen introduces Zoe to his friends, Stephen and Anna, and he asks Zoe to befriend 15-year-old Anna. Zoe isn’t used to being around people outside of her family’s social sphere, and the “signs of want” in Anna’s cheap clothing “were repellent.” But since Zoe loves her brother Russell, she makes a few weak attempts to befriend Anna noting that “it was awkward to know people who had less money and no proper home.” Meanwhile, Zoe finds herself strangely attracted to Stephen, “a weird irascible character out of some dense Russian novel.” Zoe’s attempts to befriend Anna are reluctant and spurred by the desire to please others. In one painful scene, she attempts to give Anna some discarded clothing, and the offer backfires:

Up off the chair, Anna shot, her eyes growing larger by the second. She backed away, saying, ‘I don’t need anything.’ As if she had unwittingly fired a revolver point blank at someone she’d never seen before, Zoe’s own eyes and face opened with a sort of belated, reciprocal shock. ‘I know you don’t need anything. You’d be doing me a favour. One of my ratty ideas. Stay here while I get us some coffee. We both missed out in all the turmoil down there.’ Escaped, dropping from stair to stair, she gave a series of low groans, not having to imagine self-indulgently what it might be like to be Anna. This small blow was in addition to the rest of her life, Suffering, endurance, were things that Zoe herself knew nothing about, except through art, and because of Russell. And even that, what she had seen and read that pushed her beyond her own experience, had the very impact, she realized now, of watching an experiment in chemistry, never having studied the subject.

Of the four main characters Zoe, Russell, Stephen, Anna–five if we count the neurotic Lily, only Zoe has the capacity for happiness. She’s uncomplicated and thanks to her privileged childhood, she doesn’t grasp how difficult life can be. The introduction of Stephen and Anna into Zoe’s world casts a shadow onto her simplistic view of life, and she cannot understand why Stephen has a menial job, or why he doesn’t go to university. This lack of understanding springs partly from Zoe’s youth, but also partly because she doesn’t want to leave the “pink marshmallow castle of her life.”

She was too young to be thoughtful, or interested in someone else’s problems. She felt a huge impatience at this unwarranted check to her self-absorption and happy conceit and ambition. So they had all had more troubles than she. Did that really make them superior? If two men were walking along the street and a brick fell on one, missing the other, did that make the injured one a better person? All he had learned was what it was like to have a brick fall on his head. It had happened to him. Why make a virtue of it?

The plot allows us to see both sides of the Want-Equation: Stephen’s bitterness that other people have privileged lives, and Anna’s sagacious realization that adversity doesn’t necessarily make people ‘better.’ Of all the characters in the novel, Anna seems to grasp the painful, touchy dynamics of the Haves and the Have-Nots–with one side exhibiting their largesse, and the other side showing their gratitude.

You can admire the way someone meets hard circumstances, but you can’t admire him because of them.

We follow the troubled lives of Zoe, Russell, Stephen and Anna for several decades–through marriages & love affairs, and these are lives in which duty, pity and obligation play large roles. As one character admits: “If we lived forever, there would be time to recover from mistakes of twenty years duration.” These are not happy people, and when it comes to the intelligent observations of the minutiae of marital politics, author Elizabeth Harrower has a painfully fine, unflinching eye. Conversations between those trapped in marriage are laced with the undercurrents of lashing criticism, and we see three examples of how years spent under a subtle domination directed by invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouses. Even though this sort of marital dominance is clearly seen in others (the relationship between Anna & Stephen’s aunt and uncle, is one example), other characters seem unable to avoid similar traps, and over the decades, we see misery gradually descend and dominate two other marriages. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the book’s ending which seemed to wrap things up far too conveniently for a couple of the characters after an implausible deus-ex machina event, but that’s not the part that stays with me. The part that remains is the lingering unhappiness. This is my second Harrower novel, but there will be more. For Lisa’s review go here

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The Dance of a Sham by Paul Emond

Brilliantly witty, mercurial and almost disorienting, The Dance of a Sham is narrated by a wily character who recounts, with some zest and no small admiration, the exploits of his more conniving friend, Caracala. The narrative is one long sentence which pours out of the narrator’s mouth with lightening speed.  Have you ever been in a situation, perhaps at a party, work, or at the pub, trapped in a corner while someone tells you a story that sounds less-than-authentic? You could, perhaps, escape but choose not to because the storyteller’s energy, sheer force of personality, and gift for bullshit becomes almost mesmerizing. At about 160 pages, The Dance of a Sham is the perfect length for this sort of narrative voice; any longer and you might have to seek the advice of a Professional.

the dance of a shamCaracala, is according to the narrator who admires him, a man “with the gift of the gab and crafty as a monkey to boot.” Here the narrator brags about the carousing and mayhem the two men indulge in.

we could drink all night and stay up the whole next day fresh as a daisy, occasionally the police found me one time and brought me home, my mom was shouting, haven’t you brought enough shame on us already, eh, haven’t you, and she was shouting so loudly the police were more scared that I was  they cleared out really quick, apologizing for the inconvenience but my mom wasn’t listening, I was the one she was after, you see, and she went on with her litany, aren’t you ashamed, don’t you feel any shame, I’ve got to say, that was a serious bit of merrymaking, I’d been out with my buddy for three days and went to every bar in a seven-mile radius, I’d even lost him at some point without realizing, he must have stayed with some girl because you couldn’t imagine the success he had with the young ladies, he’d serve them up one of his nest speeches, hot, just the right word to get them giggling and he had a knack even with the most reluctant ones, they never had time to get bored with him, he was never one to beat around the bush, my method’s a straight line, he’d say, cutting the air with his hand, but once it was over there was no question of sentimental primness, it was more of a hello, can I slide into your bunk, drop my little men and see you later, he had to have all of them , a blond then a brunette, one after the other, he was the champion of hanky-panky and proud of it but they knew what he was like and didn’t hold it against him, not usually, except one who wanted to kill him because she got pregnant, he claimed he wasn’t the father, no way I’m going to be the pigeon here he told me

That particular part of the tale doesn’t end well, but this is just one episode in Caracala’s demolition-derby-of a life. The story of Caracala’s escapades escalate seamlessly in severity, and the adventures of an amoral Lothario slide into criminality.  In his relationship with Caracala, the narrator compares himself to “that guy on his donkey following a half-crazy knight around,” so we need no more evidence about the narrator’s view of himself, but wait… just as we get one impression of the narrator’s slippery relationship with Caracala, that impression shifts and the narrator’s admiration of the lowlife Caracala morphs into something different, something much darker. The narrator’s versions of events alters–there’s the woman he claimed he liked, Marie-Ange who became fat and unhappy after she married someone else. End of story, or so we think, and yet in subsequent versions she has a “bad reputation,” has an “affair with the station-master,” and brags about her “flings.” The various images we are given of this woman are completely different. How much is delusional fantasy? Lies? Insanity? As the story continues and various versions of events multiply and shift, the truth becomes more elusive, and it becomes entirely possible that our narrator is a murderer.

there are some things that are hard to tell, you hesitate, procrastinate, you know, there are stories you wouldn’t envy share with your best friend, stories you try to bury once and for all in the most unobtrusive corner of your little imaginary garden, and if by some unfortunate chance they resurface one day, you feel so nauseous you’d rather be dead.

Slowly the mask slips:

the more far-fetched stories you tell them, the more they believe them, the bigger the starship you paint for them, the more they start itching for an implausible journey, but it isn’t easy to fool your listener, to lie well, to lie sensitively, if I can put it that way, there’s an art to it, you have to be able to stand your listener in front of a mirror, then slip a second mirror between his face and the first one, and then another, and another, and you go on like that as long as you like and your victim keeps smiling sweetly at each new mirror, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

We have every reason to doubt what the narrator tells us, and the persona he presents, that of an idle, naïve, careless man with little thought of the consequences of his actions, is replaced by something else entirely.  I would normally pass on a novel that consists of one long sentence–even if it’s less than 200 pages, but in The Dance of a Sham, the narrative voice matches the slippery tale. The style could be stream-of-consciousness, but when you consider just what we’re being told, it’s clear that what flows from the narrator’s mouth isn’t stream of consciousness at all;  it’s cleverly conceived fabrication deliberately weaved around some very dark events.

The novel includes a Q&A interview with the author. One of the most interesting aspects to The Dance of a Sham is the transaction that occurs between the reader and the narrator, and the author addresses the complicity created by the text in this interview and how the book “transgresses” the  “pact” between author and reader. If this all sounds elaborate, it is, but the narrative trumps all other considerations of experimentalism and intellectual exercise. A sociopath will happily construct and deconstruct an event until he finds the version which suits, and this is exactly what happens here.

Translated by Marlon Jones.

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The Secret Place by Tana French

“Young girls slip between worlds very easily, Detective.”

I missed Tana French’s first three crime novels concerning the Dublin Murder Squad (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place), but I caught up with her for number 4: Broken Harbor, a book so good, it made my best-of-2012-list. The story of Broken Harbor is haunting; it was one of the best new crime books I’d read in ages, and yes, it was a page-turner, but the book was a lot more than that; it was also an exploration of human nature and how some of us deal with crisis.

The problem is that when a book such as Broken Harbor is that good, you start wondering if the author can hit the same stride for the next novel, and that brings me to The Secret Place–a book which is going to make my best of 2014 list. While Broken Harbor concerned the murder of an entire family in a seaside ghost estate, The Secret Place concerns the murder of a teenager, a boarder at an elite boys’ school.

The secret placeDetective Moran is stuck working cold cases when Holly Mackey, the teenage daughter of Frank Mackey (from Faithful Place), and a boarder at St Kilda’s girls’ school, arrives with evidence in the cold case murder of sixteen-year-old Christopher Harper. The year before, Christopher, the son of a wealthy banker, and a boarder at St. Colm’s, an equally elite boarding school for boys, was found murdered on the grounds of St Kilda’s. Various theories floated throughout the investigation at the time, none proved, and the case remained unsolved. Holly arrives in Moran’s office with a card which includes a picture of Christopher and the words “I know who killed him.” She tells Moran that she found the card posted on “The Secret Place,” a noticeboard devised by the school as an outlet for students to “express emotions that they don’t feel comfortable expressing elsewhere.” That’s PC-speak to explain that the noticeboard is ideally to curb internet bullying.

Moran approaches the lead detective for the case: Antoinette Conway, an attractive, icy, woman who has a poisonous reputation in the Dublin Murder Squad.

A woman working Murder shouldn’t rate scandal, shouldn’t even rate a mention. But a lot of the old boys are old school; a lot of the young ones too. Equality is paper-deep, peel it away with a fingernail. The grapevine says that Conway got the gig by shagging someone, says she got it by ticking the token boxes–something extra in there, something that’s not pasty potato Irish: sallow skin, strong sweeps to her nose and her cheekbones, blue-black shine on her hair. Shame she’s not in a wheelchair, the grapevine says, or she’d be commissioner by now.

While she’s made good career moves so far, the palpable antagonism against Conway in the squad room from her male colleagues has left her isolated and “flying solo” without a partner after her previous sidekick retired.  Aware that his career is stalled, Moran sees Holly’s tip as a way of getting out of Cold Cases and into the Murder Squad where he’s currently on the “shit list for the forseeable.” Conway’s life in the Murder Squad is hell. She’s not treated like one of the guys, and she won’t tolerate the sexual innuendos, so in the eyes of her rejected male colleagues this makes her perceived sexual orientation/preferences a source of jokes–to them, she’s either a lesbian or a dominatrix:

Conway was in an interview. I sat on an empty desk in the Murder squad room, had the crack with the lads. Not a lot of crack, now; Murder is busy. Walk in there, feel your heart rate notch up. Phones ringing, computers clicking, people coming in and out; not hurried, but fast. But a few of them took time out to give me a poke or two. You want Conway? Thought she was getting some, all right, she hasn’t busted anyone’s balls all week; never thought she was getting it off a guy, though. Thanks for taking one for the team, man. Got your shots?  Got your gimp suit?

Moran’s origins are working class, but whereas Moran can accept the knowledge that privilege and money will always open doors, Conway, from Dublin’s inner city “tower blocks IRA-wannabe graffiti and puddles of piss,” has zero patience for social status and niceties. Conway hit a wall in the investigation a year ago, and she got nowhere with the “shiny pedigree bitches” at St Kilda’s, girls from the wealthy homes who sniff her working class origins. The only lead Conway ever caught was that the victim was rumoured to be dating a St Kilda’s student named Selena.

The book goes back and forth from the present investigation to the past events which led up to the murder. The present, set within St Kilda’s, has a tightly, compulsively readable claustrophobic feel as Moran and Conway begin interviewing girls who knew Christopher. They try to penetrate the social world of these teenage girls, tentatively probing the membrane of friendship, loyalty and rivalry, and discover two sets of suspects: one group nicknamed the Daleks: 4 students dominated by a girl named Joanne, and another clique which includes Holly and Selena. Moran interviews each girl with intriguing results, and he’s very good at reading people, crafting an individual approach for each interview:

You want in a witness, you figure out what she wants. Then you give her that, big handfuls. I’m good at that.

Just as Broken Harbor recreated the desperate human face behind the housing crisis, The Secret Place showcases the artificial world of a girls’ school where the teenage girls compete, often viciously, for the attention from the boys at the boarding school next door. The nature of school life is ephemeral, and while some things that happen at school seem so important at the time, in the bigger scheme of an entire lifetime, these incidents will fade and disappear. But St Kilda’s, for some girls, is a crucible and because many of them have problem home lives, they’ve developed bonds that are unhealthy.

You forget what it was like. You’d swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled right enough to scold you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds.

Tana French brilliantly explores the world of teenage girls–girls who are at a delicate, crucial time of life when their flexible morality is developing in the shift towards adulthood.  Broken Harbor concerned the death of an entire family in a house which held the echoes of the crime, and the same is true of The Secret Place. St Kilda’s is a vast school set on beautiful grounds, but there’s a strong sense of disquiet, the rumor of a ghost, and an atmosphere that fed murder–a very particular murder set firmly in its context and its unique set of circumstances.  The case throws Moran and Conway back into their pasts. The girls at St Kilda’s remind Conway of everything she had to overcome, and Moran finds himself remembering his own teen years while stepping very carefully to avoid the hazards of some of the more dangerous St Kilda’s students. A murder set among teens would normally not pique my interest and would more likely result in a yawnfest. The Secret Place is so much more than a crime novel, and yet it’s my favourite sort of scenario that explores a crime created by a unique set of circumstances, time and place. Highly, compulsively readable, the novel is structured to keep us guessing until the end while throwing in issues of class conflict, class acceptance, teen angst, sexual politics and above all, the extent, and the limits, of loyalty.

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The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s novel, Moon in a Dead Eye, is set in a gated retirement community, and concerns a set of paranoid residents who worry about who might get inside; really they should have been more worried about each other. That same dark irony is at the heart of Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger–a short novel which concerns a widower who isn’t exactly mourning for his dead wife.  

Fabien is a wonderful Garnier creation, for this author seems to excel in formulating characters who don’t possess appropriate emotions. That’s certainly true in The Panda Theory, a novel in which the main character, Gabriel travels to Brittany and befriends a number of people who seem to think he’s the solution to their many problems. In the case of Gabriel, a lack of appropriate emotions is deadly whereas in The Front Seat Passenger, Fabien’s inappropriate responses leave him open to a very dangerous situation. There’s something off about Fabien; he’s not likeable, and so in a sense he deserves what he gets.

the front seat passengerFabien is visiting his father–a man who never recovered from his wife, Charlotte’s desertion thirty-five years earlier. After hearing that she has died, he’s gone into full-blown mourning, and Fabien doesn’t understand his father’s deep sense of loss. This mystery of emotion eludes Fabien, and in a way its absence protects him, but only for part of the novel. Here’s how Fabien feels about children, so it’s just as well he doesn’t have any:

To Fabien children were just receptacles that you constantly had to empty and fill. They clung to you for years, and as soon as they took themselves adults, they reproduced and ruined your holidays with their offspring.

Upon returning home to Paris, Fabien receives the news that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car accident along with her married lover. Fabien is flabbergasted. While he was aware that he was having marriage problems, he had no idea that Sylvie was having an affair. After identifying Sylvie’s body, Fabien asks questions about the man who died in the car with Sylvie. He tells the police that he and the dead man are, after all,  “sort of related now.”

Exactly why does Fabien track down and proceed to stalk, Martine, the frail, shy woman married to Sylvie’s dead lover? Is he curious? Does he seek revenge? Does he think he has some sort of ‘right’ to Martine in a spoils-of-war mentality? Or is it just that he has nothing better to do? Why is he so obsessed with this mouse?

the other man’s wife looked singularly uninteresting, She was a pale blonde of about thirty, with staring blue eyes, practically no lips, and dressed in navy and beige. She looked like an overexposed photo, with so little presence that one wondered if she was capable of casting a shadow.

Martine may be a widow, but she has a constant companion, Madeleine–a “muscular fifty-year-old with the sharp eye of a bodyguard,”–the keeper of her figurative chastity belt. Fabien stalks the two women, waiting for his opportunity to approach Martine without her duenna/bodyguard, and when he discovers that the two women are planning a holiday in Majorca, he decides to follow them….

This is a scenario that’s ripe for various unfolding disasters, but that’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss. I’ll add another long quote, however, from the section describing Fabien’s chaotic living arrangements with his friend Gilles. Fabien, claiming to “feel nothing,” can’t stand being in his own apartment surrounded by Sylvie’s things, so he moves in with the divorced Gilles, whose wife Fanchon has moved out, taking most of the furniture and leaving the fridge, the TV and the stove. The place looks like it’s been burgled. Gilles, who’s unemployed, sits around smoking Columbian weed, and shares custody of his small son with his ex-wife. Fabien fits right in with the chaos surrounding Gilles:

An open space filled with toys and smoke. Fabien decided he liked the new décor. After half an hour neither of them were giving a thought to their pitiful status as abandoned males. They were on all fours on the carpet building a dream Lego city and arguing over the bricks.

‘No! You can’t have the chimney. I need all the chimneys! It’s for a reception area for Santa Clauses. Don’t you get it?’

‘Ok, but pass me the red staircase; everything in the temple has to be red.’

Why did no one ever point out the delights of unemployment? Whilst everyone else was dashing about, coming and going, bent under the weight of their responsibilities and worries, two middle-aged mates, one widowed, one divorced, were happily playing Lego at four o’clock on a weekday afternoon.

“Gilles, can you hear animal scrabblings in the kitchen?’

‘That’s Casimir. The stupid bitch took the hamster cage without noticing that he wasn’t inside. I’ve bunged him in the oven in the meantime. Otherwise he eats everything.’

Something approaching life began to flow in Fabien’s veins.

In Emma’s review, she mentioned that ‘The Front Seat Passenger’ translates to La Place du Mort: the deadman’s place/seat. Here taking that seat in a car is called ‘riding shotgun.’ It’s strange, but both of those phrases: deadman’s place and ‘riding shotgun’ can be applied to the plot.

This is now the fourth novel I’ve read by Garnier, and once again I’ll urge any fans of Jean-Patrick Manchette to check out Garnier. Garnier has the blacker, nastier sense of humour, but there are many connections between these two French crime writers–brevity, energy, irony, attitude towards the bourgeoisie, and the sucker punch of characters who find others more violently explosive or more unpredictably psycho than themselves. And for anyone interested, here’s my order of preference for Garnier so far:

Moon in a Dead Eye

How’s the Pain? (very closely tied with)  The Front Seat Passenger

The Panda Theory.

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Translated by Jane Aitken

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F by Daniel Kehlmann

Initially from German author Daniel Kehlmann seems to be something from a Woody Allen film, and that’s partly due to the insertion of the nebulous influences of a magician, but it’s also partly due to the dysfunctional family dynamics and the relationships between 3 male siblings–two are twins who are almost telepathically connected and yet vastly different from each other.

The book begins in 1984 with unemployed, would-be author Arthur, married to an ophthalmologist, taking his three sons to see a magician. There’s an immediate sense that Arthur is a slippery individual: an irresponsible disinterested father, husband, and human being, so it doesn’t seem too surprising to read that his oldest son, 13-year-old Martin, waits for over two hours for his father to show up for the outing or that it had been “fourteen years since he had tiptoed swiftly” out of Martin’s mother’s life. Martin’s step-brothers, Ivan and Eric, are identical twins who dress alike, are practically impossible to tell apart and “seem like an optical illusion.” And these early scenes set the tone for the novel in which chance, Fate, illusion, fabrication, and identity play large roles.

FArthur takes the boys to see The Great Lindemann: Master of Hypnosis, and since Arthur firmly believes that hypnosis doesn’t work on him, the choice to see the magician seems a little odd, but it’s a choice that indicates Arthur’s wish to stay always on the boundaries of life, skeptical, superior, and ready to slip out the back door if the feeling takes him. When Arthur is called up on the stage, a strange event occurs, which may or may not occur under hypnosis, and which acts as a lever to spring Arthur, yet again, from the domestic life he secretly despises. Abandoning his second family, he disappears to pursue a writing career.

No matter how often Martin thought back to that day, and no matter how much he tried to summon up that conversation from the shadows of his memory, he always failed. The reason was that he had imagined it too often before it took place, and the things they actually said to each other soon merged into the things he’d imagined so often over the years. Had Arthur really said that he didn’t have a job and was dedicating himself to thinking about life, or was it just that later, when Martin knew more about his father, he simply attributed this answer to him as the only one that seemed to fit? And could it be that Arthur’s answer to the question of why he had walked out on him and mother, was that anyone who gave himself over to captivity and the restricted life, to mediocrity and despair, would be incapable of helping any other human being because he would be beyond help himself, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, his life cut short, rot invading his still breathing body?

Arthur becomes a famous author, with his most memorable book being: My Name is No One. The book, which adds a meta-fictional aspect to the novel, with a main character known only as F provokes complicated  “theories” regarding its meaning, a “well-known radio talk-show host [who] voluntarily checked into a locked psychiatric ward after declaring on the air that he was convinced of his own nonexistence,” and instigates a “wave of suicides.” While Arthur more or less disappears and then reappears later in the book, his books and their meaning (if any) weave throughout the novel as the plot follows the subsequent careers of Martin, Ivan and Eric. Unable to make a living with his mastery of the Rubik’s Cube, Martin becomes a Catholic priest who munches bars of chocolate in the confessional. This section is hilarious, and poor obese Martin, unable to get a girlfriend, finds security in his identity as a priest, even though part of his job is to listen to the salacious details of the life of a chronic philanderer. Eric becomes an investment banker whose private life spirals out of control in conjunction with his professional malfeasance, and Ivan, an art historian becomes an art forger, manipulating the market as he bids on his own fakes. All of the sons are inauthentic in their own way–fakes, frauds, and a forger. Add to that the last name of all the male characters: Friedland, shaped by the example of a shifty irresponsible father, and it’s clear that F stands for a lot of things in this book, but more than anything else, F stands for Fate:

“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.

Each of the three sons narrate their own chapter on a particular day August 8, 2008, and these chapters are very funny indeed as we see how the three brothers have grown up, their lives intersect, and exactly what messes they’ve made of their lives. There’s a sense of both design (fate) and chaos here, as Ivan and Eric, in particular, attempt to scramble out of the webs of deceit they’ve created by their own Finagling. The chapter Family however is an exposition of genealogy, and it detracted from the novel overall. By the time this chapter appeared, it created not a diversion as much as a distraction. I wanted to return to the main characters.

F is a very clever, complex, Existentialist novel which asks some big questions about identity & the absurdity of life: how ‘Free’ are we (there’s that F again)? Can we escape our Fate? And how much does chance play a role in our lives? What of Family (role models & genetics)? F shows how Fate, Chance and Family all influence the lives we build for ourselves, but in the case of the males in the Friedland family, there’s equal emphasis on how these characters attempt to dig their way out of those messy lives.

There’s the sense, at times, that the author places Ivan and Eric under the microscope recording the absurdity of their actions as they scramble around attempting to disentangle themselves from the chaos their lives have become. Their father managed his quest for Self effectively by Abandonment: dumping his wife and children, and looting the bank account along the way in his quest for Self & the authentic life. Will his sons achieve the same? With its frantic energy and humour, F is funny & entertaining, and, for the most part the novel manages to juggle dense philosophical ideas well with plot; if you felt so inclined, you could probably write a paper on “Symbolism in F” or “Existentialism in F. Some readers may not enjoy the novel’s cleverness which at times seems to tug at the narrative and leaves the characters less than whole human beings and more ‘types.’ I appreciated the Woody-Allensque humour, the chaos, the absurdity, and the moral dilemmas everyone seems to ignore.

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Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” (from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the debut novel from David Shafer pits three thirty-somethings against  ‘The Committee,’ a powerful, sinister organization that appears to infiltrate every layer of society.  While Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a techno-dystopian thriller, it’s a dark-mirrored reflection of the world as we know it–a world in which technology advances have eroded privacy–those aspects of our lives that we have not chosen to share with governments, mega-corporations and/or the world in general.  Novels in this genre take risks and often don’t work, but Shafer carries the day with spiky humour, salient, identifiable issues and realistic characters, normal people who find themselves fighting against the sinister committee. The novel begins very strongly indeed, and when plausibility is stretched a little as the plot deepens, I was happy to go along for the ride.

WTFThis is the kind of novel where discussing too much of the plot will spoil the experience for other readers, so instead I’ll stay on safer ground by focusing on characterization and the author’s tone and style. Readers should not read this with the expectation that all will be resolved (is there a sequel in the pipeline?), so the conclusion may prove frustrating.  Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (and you can’t miss what that stands for) should appeal to fans of Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie novels: Fun and Games, Hell and Gone, and Point and Shoot. Swierczynski’s trilogy begins with an overweight housesitter inadvertently stumbling across Hollywood Star Whackers. Each subsequent novel takes our hero deeper into a global conspiracy, and once you accept the initial premise, the impossible, the conspiracy theories, the shadowy power-brokers, our deepest fears and paranoias becomes strangely, and terrifyingly, possible, and that’s also the scenario with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

The novel begins by grounding us in the lives of three excellently drawn main characters: Leila, Mark and Leo–all in their 30s and all just a little bit lost when it comes to their place in the world. Persian-American Leila works in Myanmar with Helping Hands a “bush-league NGO.”  Intense and directed, she’s trying to establish a public health program but is making little headway when she stumbles across something she isn’t supposed to see. Bad things begin to happen to Leila and, more importantly, to her family back in America.  She’d chalk it all up to a horrible misunderstanding, some sort of error to be fixed with litigation,  but then she receives the tip that the actions against her family have been deliberately manufactured to divert her from asking questions.

Leo Crane, trust fund kid, failed bookshop owner (“he’d emptied his trust fund like a kid shaking a ceramic piggy bank,”) and fired daycare centre worker ends up in a strange rehab facility after his sisters jointly conduct an intervention. To Leo’s sisters, he’s good-hearted but going off the rails:

He drove a wine delivery truck, he drove a taxi; he was a mediocre waiter, a drunken bartender. The periods of hope and courage came less frequently. And as his twenties became his thirties, the landscape came to feature swamps of gloom doted with marshy hummocks of anxiety. He worked on getting better. He tried jogging; he limited his drinking; he sprinkled seeds in his yogurt. A girlfriend got him into yoga. He practiced having a good attitude. But it was trench warfare. He lost his yoga mat and had to buy another one. Then he lost that one and couldn’t see buying a third. He watched other people claim to enjoy drinking; they baffled him. The same people spoke of hangovers almost fondly, as evidence of their propensity to dissipation. His own hangovers were whole days mined with grim, churning thoughts, He saw therapists and psychiatrists; he tried Wellbutrin, Klonopin, Effexor, Celexa, Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Also meditation, core work, and juice fasts. He cut out meat. Kept a garden. Clawed through months of clean living, then fell back into blurred days like and acrobat into a net.

“Tell me about the people who you say were watching you,” said the doctor.

Oh that. “You mean the paranoia, right?”

“If you call it paranoia, you will think I don’t believe you.”

After being fired from the daycare centre, a job Leo genuinely valued, he started a blog: I have Shared a Document with You–a venue for his conspiracy theory that a shadowy organization engineered a “massive plot to control all the information in the world.”  Certain he’s being followed and monitored, dropped supposedly due to ‘concerns’ by his pot dealer, Leo sinks into paranoia and isolation until his sisters intervene and toy with sending him to a mental health lock-up but finally agree to rehab. But in the rehab unit, Leo begins to wonder just how the doctor there knows all the little details of his life. Is the doctor even a real doctor?  There are brief moments of illumination in Leo’s life when “truth holes [..] flare” in his “field of vision” and appear to connect information. Is Leo paranoid or via his blog was he on to something big?

The third main character is Mark, the author of an immensely popular hip self-help book Bringing the Inside Out.  Mark, Leo’s former best friend from college, a vain, weak, self-centered dickhead catapulted to fame largely thanks to “craven SineCo squillionaire James Straw” whose “devotion” and patronage comes with a price. There’s a complex financial arrangement between James Straw and Mark, Straw’s “life coach” which includes Mark’s promotion of the Node, “SineCo’s newest gizmobauble,”  a “biometric and surveillance device.” Mark sees two diverging paths for his future, and Straw’s powerful friends make it clear that if he doesn’t sign on for the full programme as a SineCo executive, then his brief meteoric career as a celebrity is about to go down the toilet.

Opposing The Committee is an underground network known as Dear Diary which can be accessed in the Darknet through various portals, including one that appears to be a “house-swapping” site. Leila, unaware that she’s already picked a side, and unaware that “she could be extraordinarily renditioned from, like, a women’s toilet,” contacts Dear Diary for help, and then it’s down the rabbit hole…

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a great romp and yet still manages to be surprisingly prescient by maintaining just the right note of quirky, sharp-edged humour and serious, imminent threat. The author presents the 21st century of socialverses, and electronic gadgetry where technology is in every aspect of our lives and runs headlong into surveillance–a world in which “85 present of electronic correspondence (worldwide) and 100 percent of electronic correspondence (English-language) was run through a threat-sieve network commission by the U.S. government but increasingly outsourced to a consortium of private companies.”  This is a world in which special contact lenses exist that implement  “visual-channel-collection technology,” and private security firms possess extraordinary power to reach into and ruin people’s lives. Finally, the book isn’t about left or right politics (a few passages make that clear); the focus is on power.

Why didn’t she know more about computers? That knowledge suddenly seemed more important that feminist theory or eighties’ song lyrics, both of which she was well acquainted with. Computers had risen around her all her life, like a lake sneakily subsuming more and more arable land, but she’d never learned to write code or poke behind the icons or anything like that. She was like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass.

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Victorian Murderesses, Scandal and Literature

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Thirteen Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes by Mary S. Hartman. Originally I thought I was going to read the details of the cases, but while the cases are covered, the book’s emphasis is on the circumstances that lead to murder, and if the women were (possibly) innocent, what led them to being accused and society’s reaction to these women who seemed to be the antithesis of everything Victorian Womanhood was supposed to be.

Anyway, for info on the book there are two parts: here and here.

The book takes a different, much less sensationalistic approach than let’s say a ‘true crime’ book, but one of the issues brought up by the author sticks out, and that is the role of literature in some of the crimes examined here. Repeatedly, during the trials, the reading material consumed by these women became an issue, and an explanation for their deviant behaviour.

The author argues that in the cases of both Madeleine Smith, the daughter of a wealthy architect, who lived in Glasgow and Angélina Lemoine, the daughter of a lawyer, “their educations, in different ways, contributed to their decisions” to engage in actions that led to murders that occurred as the result of sexual relations outside of marriage. The common thread here between the two cases is that both women, fed a steady diet of romantic literature, initiated sexual relationships laced with faux romantic ideals, which compromised their social standing, and that they then took actions to remedy their errors. Both young women had a less-than-stellar education, but that’s hardly unusual for the times; Madeleine Smith attended Mrs. Gorton’s Academy for Young Ladies near London, a finishing school with a drab daily programme of “prayers, piano lessons and practice, walking trips, discussions of current affairs, needlework, and most important, deportment.”

Madeleine Smith was eventually accused of murdering her lover with arsenic, and although there was considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt, the Scottish jury returned the verdict of “not proven.” Angélina Lemoine was accused and later acquitted of murdering a baby born out-of-wedlock. Since the murder took place immediately after the birth, and with Angélina’s mother in charge making all the arrangements for the disposal of the infant’s body, it’s obvious that she made the fatal decision to kill the newborn baby.

Both trials included evidence from letters written from the accused women to their lovers. Most of us don’t  expect our letters to be read out in public, let alone in a court of law, and it’s in these letters that the issue is raised of just what these young women were reading. Madeleine, in her letters to her lover “announced her intention to abandon Byron, who stood, she knew, for all that was unhealthy and impure.”  Angélina Lemoine’s father wrote her a letter (her parents were separated) in which he admonished her to read history (“a lot of it“) and travel literature.

But above everything do not read these products of the imagination of our so-called modern men of letters, these novelists, the reading of whose works leaves nothing behind, either in the heart or the memory.

Angélina adored the novels of George Sand–including The Confessions of Marion Delorme, a 17th century courtesan, and Angélina, clearly a precocious girl who was eager for sexual experience, saw herself as the heroine in a George Sand novel, at one point stating that “her pregnancy was “the only way to complete my novel.'”

Marie Lefarge, convicted of the arsenic poisoning of her husband, is another woman who seemed to want to live in a romantic novel. Marriage to Charles Lefarge was less than ideal, and Marie, another fan of George Sand, took drastic measures to end the relationship. Author Mary S. Hartman makes the point that “the natural result for the avid readers of such fiction, especially given their limited experience, must have been the creation of a huge ‘credibility gap’ as the realities of actual courtship and marriage in their society dawned on them. But documented evidence of such casualties among bourgeois daughters is difficult to uncover, except in  literary portraits themselves, such as Emma Bovary.”

Another point made in Mary Hartman’s book Victorian Murderesses: The True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes is that so many ‘respectable’ 19th C women, fascinated by the headlines of murder by ‘respectable’ women, dashed off to the courts to hear the juicy details of these crimes. But is that so surprising given the popularity of Sensation fiction–books that delve into the deep, dark depths of pathological male/female relationships? In the book’s conclusion, Hartman brings up Sensation fiction and how it subverts the “stereotypes of the domestic novel” and that the characters “display ‘female anger, frustration, and sexual energy.’ ”  (Elaine Showalter).

Since I began reading Victorian Sensation fiction, I’ve become fascinated with the genre. In an art-mirrors-life-way, Sensation fiction seemed to fit perfectly with Mary S. Hartman’s scholarly book about Victorian Murderesses. M.E. Braddon doesn’t shy away from those lurid topics of murder, blackmail and bigamy, and let’s not forget that in The Doctor’s Wife, (written by Braddon as a response to Madame Bovary’s “hideous immorality,”) poor Isabel’s mind is ruined by Sensation fiction. Of course, Braddon can’t be serious about Flaubert since her own novels were also criticized as immoral. Perhaps she is having a laugh, I think at her notoriety, and why not? That very notoriety gave her a career.  Nonetheless, Isabel’s dreams of romance lead her to a sad little marriage, and then once shackled for life, she meets a man, a romantic hero, who could very well have walked out of the pages of one of her books.

Victorian Sensation literature is aptly named and great fun, but I’m going to throw another name out here now–a writer who scandalized, whose books were censored and labeled ‘obscene.’ Yes, Zola. Hardly Sensation fiction since it lacks all the melodrama and convenient coincidence, but nonetheless Zola bravely confronted the issue of the unhappily married woman and how women ‘fit’ into 19th century society. Just consider the female characters he created:

Therese Raquin–another woman locked in a loveless marriage, a woman with sexual desires which combined with a “duplicitous nature” lead to an explosive adulterous relationship and murder. Then think of all the women in Zola’s Rougon–Macquart cycle: Gervaise worked to death in a three-way relationship by two exploitive men, and Nana, one of Paris’s most popular prostitutes. In La Bête Humaine, Severine commits adultery and then conspires with her cuckolded husband to murder her lover. Charming. In The Kill, Renee has an adulterous affair with her step-son. The Conquest of Plassans gives us a masochistic woman whose misplaced sexual desires land on religion before she turns into a pyromaniac. In The Earth, two sisters turn on each other. Zola isn’t afraid to show his readers bitterly unhappily marriages and the way people try to compensate and cope with those devilishly difficult relationships.

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Filed under Braddon M. E., Fiction, Zola