Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

I watched and thoroughly enjoyed the mini-series The Slap–the story of what happens when a man slaps a child at a neighbourhood barbecue. The premise itself didn’t sound that gripping to be honest, but the reality, as the episodes followed the fallout, was riveting. So when Sue (aka Gummie) from Whispering Gums read and reviewed Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda earlier this year, I knew I wanted to read it. Barracuda is just one of the two nicknames given to Danny Kelly by other young boys on his swimming team. The other nickname, not so pleasant, is Psycho Kelly. Which one is accurate? Answer: well they both are.

BarracudaDanny Kelly, the son of a Irish/Scottish long distance lorry driver and a glamorous attractive Greek hairdresser mother, comes from an intensely working-class background when he’s poached from his working class school by the swimming coach of “Cunts College” as Danny likes to derisively call it. Cunts College is an elite Melbourne school and with a full scholarship, Danny transfers from his socioeconomic peer group into the school for the “filthy rich.” Just given the basic premise, this is a recipe for disaster.

It was like his two worlds were parts of different jigsaw puzzles. At first, he’d tried to fit the pieces together but he couldn’t do it; it was impossible. So he kept them separate: some pieces belonged on this side of the river, to the wide tree-lined boulevards and avenues of Toorak and Armadale, and some belonged to the flat uniform suburbs in which he lived.

While Danny doesn’t blend in with the boys at his new school, there’s one place he’s can’t be beaten, and that’s in the school’s swimming pool. He’s not at the school long before he feels that “only in the water did he feel like himself. Only in the water did he feel he could escape them.” While other boys have their body hair removed professionally, Danny’s mother uses an old-fashioned razor. While the other boys have “shiny new speedos,” Danny wears cheap trunks. The difference between Danny and the other boys at the school cannot be breached, and even when slight relationships form after Danny’s talent, bravado, and aggression win him a tentative acceptance, these relationships are fraught with tension and class-awareness and everything is held together by Danny’s ability to win at swimming competitions: “he knew that hate was what he would use, what he would remember, what would make him a better swimmer.” This makes for a high stakes situation with an Olympic gold medal as the eventual goal and his ticket to fame and success:

He hated them, he absolutely hated them, the golden boys. He hated their blondness, their insincere smiles, their designer sunglasses, their designer swimmers and their designer sports gear. They made him feel dark and short and dirty. He detested them and he couldn’t wait till he was wearing those sunglasses, till he had those brand names across his sweatshirt

The novel  begins with Danny living in Scotland and then goes back to 1994  when Danny first transfers to the posh Melbourne school. The novel concludes in 2012 for a total time span of 18 years and covers significant incidents in Danny’s life–a life in which Danny’s self-loathing coats his actions. This self-loathing is an impenetrable membrane, and it doesn’t matter who believes in Danny–his mother, his coach, his handful of friends, Danny loathes himself so much, that we know the anger summering beneath the surface will eventually explode in the most self-destructive manner possible. Danny’s coach, at one point, tells Danny that he can help him build muscles and improve technique, but that he can’t do anything about what goes on in Danny’s head, and as it turns out, this is Danny’s greatest stumbling block: not other swimmers, not other students at the school. He is his own worst enemy.

That afternoon, when he dived into the pool, that was when he finally spoke. He asked the water to lift him, to carry him, to avenge him. He made his muscles shape his fury, made every kick and stroke declare his hate. And the water obey; the water would give him his revenge. No one could beat him, not one of the pricks came close.

We see Danny make horrendous mistakes. Removed from his socioeconomic peer group, and given this fantastic ‘chance’ to train for Olympic competition there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Danny, and author Christos Tsiolkas conveys that pressure while very cleverly making Danny’s self-loathing the central issue rather than his homosexuality. The book really gets to the heart of class conflict. Danny, in a David Copperfield sort-of-way, is invited to share space with some of the wealthiest people in Melbourne. Danny is made to feel inferior, and he reacts with more self-loathing and shame, but there’s also no small amount of class envy. In one great scene, he’s invited to a dinner party for the matriarch of the Taylors, a wealthy family whose members fall over themselves to pay homage to the Grande Dame who holds the family purse strings.

The old woman whispered, “Come closer.”

Danny lowered his head.

“I’ve always admired the working class, my dear, always. Like us, you know exactly who you are. But look at them.” She waved a hand dismissively at the others at the table. “They have no idea how abysmal they are. Lord, how I detest the middle class.”

Danny looked into her bright shining eyes and knew he had just been given a gift, but he didn’t know how to unwrap it, could not figure out how to accept it. The old woman shrugged and rose from her chair, dropping her napkin onto the table.

Mrs. Taylor looked up. “Mother,” she blurted out, “you mustn’t smoke.”

“Oh, fuck off, Samantha,” the  old woman replied as she followed her son out to the courtyard.

Danny’s self loathing is so destructive that he lashes out at everyone who tries to help him, and there are times when Tsiolkas risks, alienating his readers from this character. He’s angry, unpleasant and yet we realize that there’s a brittle ego underneath. A deadly combination as it turns out. I found myself trying to reason with Danny at several points, but of course Danny has to hit rock bottom before he can turn his life around. On one level, the book argues well that talent and skill are not the only elements to make a champion, but there’s a bigger picture here, and that’s taking responsibility for your actions:

You construct a ladder and you climb that ladder, out of the hell you have created for yourself and back into the real world.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Tsiolkas Christos

Ten North Frederick by John O’Hara

Joe was like a young fellow that never grew up. In many respects that was what he was. But if you let it end there, you wouldn’t have the full picture of the man. I can’t believe that what I was allowed to see of Joe was all there was. If that was all there was, he was a dull man, perhaps a stupid man.”

Joe Chapin is the main character of John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick. There’s nothing really special about Joe, and he would have been a very average man if not for his inherited wealth. Born into the privilege that always cocooned him and also denied some fundamental, necessary experiences, he attended law school, married and had two children. He was a good husband, a good father, and as a conservative, he was also a lifelong member of the Republican Party. He never travelled to Europe, didn’t fight in a World War, but he did have political ambitions which grew, almost preposterously, from his innate sense of self-worth. In many ways it’s a small life, and it’s definitely a sad life. From early childhood, Joe was conditioned to act a certain way, think a certain way, and only mingle with certain types of people. Joe was a man who never stepped out of line–except once, and that incident led to his permanent unhappiness.

ten north frederickTen North Frederick is the address of Joe’s home–an old mansion in the fictional town of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. This was also Joe’s parents’ home; Joe was born in the house, and he died there. He obeyed his family’s wishes to keep the family home in spite of the fact that it wasn’t the most elite address in Gibbsville, because the best families–not the richest or the most fashionable–lived in that section of town, and even Joe’s address said a great deal about the sort of man he was.  We could say that Joe was defined by external markers rather than internal. Joe was, in fact, a rather hollow person.

The novel’s focus is on the hypocrisy of small-time American life. In the introduction, written by Jonathan Dee in my Penguin Classics edition, Dee argues that O’Hara’s work is primed for a renaissance. He states that the novel is “pitilessly accurate” in “freezing the details of a bygone era in American history,” and citing the 2008 financial clash, that the novel blasts “the great American fairy tale of class mobility.” One of my pet beliefs is that no one writes as well about the excesses of wealth and the tentacles of selective power than Americans, and Ten North Frederick, surely one of the giants of 20th century American literature bolsters my argument. O’Hara’s style is heavy & ponderous–think Dreiser.

The novel begins with Joe’s funeral, and then the narrative expands with various pallbearers’ versions of Joe. A picture begins to form of the man who was the epitome of conformity, but then O’Hara moves in closer to see Joe through family members, and cracks begin to appear in the image we have until, by the end of the book, the vision we have of Joe and his life is of a big blank hemmed in and defined by conformity. Joe moved in a circle of influential people who all thought like him, shared the same values and beliefs, and rarely, if ever, stepped outside of their comfort zone.

In Gibbsville, in 1909, only a few men could tell with exactness the true wealth of the wealthy Gibbsville families. A family that had assets worth $800,000 could, and usually did, live in great comfort without spending much more money than a family worth $200,00. It was a matter of pride with the best people of Gibbsville to live comfortably, but without the kind of display that would publicly reveal the extent of their wealth. A few families, whose names were given to large holdings in coal lands and to breweries and meat-packing houses, lived in American luxury. They were the owners of the early motor cars. they employed the larger staff of servants. They had summer homes at distant resorts and led the lists of contributors to church and charity. Their wealth was a known fact and they were free to enjoy it. But behind them, obscured by the known wealthy, were the well-off, who possessed considerable fortunes and who quietly ran the town.

The book goes back in time over Joe Chapin’s life. We meet his parents locked in a bitterly miserable marriage. Joe’s neurotic, sexually repressed, vindictive mother Charlotte transfers all of her ambition and attention to her son while sidelining her husband into becoming a marginal, distant figure in his own house. Joe eventually marries Edith Stokes, a woman made in the same mould as his mother, and so he steps from his mother’s leash to his wife’s. Nothing is spontaneous with these people, and everything is decided by a name, an address, or a bank account. Here’s Edith planning the wedding invitations which are designed to let people know whether or not they are important enough to be invited to the reception:

Her lists had been checked and rechecked long before the engagement announcements, so that when she took the list to Charlotte Chapin, the mother of the groom and the bride-to-be were almost in perfect accord. Names marked with an “R” for reception remained marked with an “R”; a few, but a very few, marked with a “C” for church-only, were remarked with an “R” because Charlotte felt that this husband or that husband was slightly more important in the business affairs of the town than Edith could be expected to know. “It will mean a lot to Joe later on, Edith dear. I’d have done just what you did, but if you let down the bars just a little bit, just in one or two instances, I know it will be appreciated. And they’re worthwhile people, and in one more generation there wouldn’t be the slightest question about their being invited. So don’t you think we ought to be nice to them now?”

And so Joe’s life is controlled from the cradle to the grave–first by his mother, and then by his wife. He rarely makes a decision about his own life; his college is selected for him; his friends are arranged–even his college roommate is no accident, and Joe’s carefully conditioned to not question the status quo or who should be considered as acceptable society. There are many great scenes in the book that illustrate this but my favourite occurs when Joe’s mother, Charlotte takes offence with how 10-year-old  Joe is treated by another mother, Blanche Montgomery, at a child’s birthday party. She vindictively colludes with an acquaintance  to punish Blanche by shutting her out of the ‘best’ society.

The exclusion of the Montgomerys from the informal little dinner club was not noticed until the unannounced twenty-couple limit had been reached and nominations closed. It was an informal club in that there was no clubhouse, it had no rooms, no place for a bulletin board, no stationery. Its name was The Second Thursdays, without the word club. When it was seen that the Montgomerys were not included (and it became known they had not been asked), their social indispensability was at an end. Charlotte’s strategy had included extra, direct snubs for Blanche Montgomery, but she need not have planned so carefully. The absence of the Montgomerys from The Second Thursdays lowered their standing in the eyes of nonmembers and members–and no one, or almost no one, ever knew what had happened. One day they were a first family; then in a short while they were just another old family with money. And even Blanche Montgomery did not suspect Charlotte, who was not a member of The Second Thursdays; nor did she suspect Bess, a woman incapable of intrigue. In her tears and anger she blamed herself, but she never discovered the real reason for the snub. Perhaps she spent too much money on clothes? Perhaps she had flirted with someone’s husband? Possibly they did not like the color she had chosen for the repainting of the old Montgomery mansion? She was fully aware of the enormity of her failure: not even being married to a Montgomery was enough to carry her, but being married to her was enough to hurt a Mongtomery. In 1930, when her son was a lawyer for the big bootleggers and organized prostitution, dressed like a bootlegger and one of the prostitutes’ best patrons–she still blamed herself, and wished that her boy could have turned out like Joe Chapin.

The novel is packed with unforgettable characters: the vicious, yet hale and hearty politician, Mike Slattery, a very powerful man who runs the local political scene, and his wife, Peg who wanted the wives of the local elite  to “not forget for a minute that she was the most powerful human influence upon one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth.” If you want a favour–someone run out-of-town or an abortion arranged, then Mike is your man. Mike never forgets that people owe him, and he sees himself as the puppetmaster behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the Chapins never really understood that Slattery’s power did not run on the same level as their own. Since a great deal of the novel’s focus is on conformity and hypocrisy, it’s not too surprising that there’s a thread of sex–illicit, secret, repressed–running throughout the book and seen in the thoughts and actions of several characters.

Ten North Frederick, which was incidentally made into a film, is the portrait of a privileged American but it’s also the portrait of the first few decades of the American century with landmark historic events which don’t touch the Chapin family. WWI takes place off in the distance, prohibition reigns–not that the alcohol ban makes any difference whatsoever to Joe and his friends who always have plenty of alcohol to drink, the 1928 crash, (Joe loses money but life doesn’t change),  the depression and there are distant rumblings of WWII. Ten North Frederick is a monumental achievement. It begins with Joe’s funeral and the many versions of this man, so at first Joe appears in our vision as a complicated piece of origami which over the course of the book is unfolded, through his various relationships, to reveal … a blank, creased piece of paper, a remarkably empty human being. And yet at the same time, it’s to O’Hara’s credit that the character of Joe remains fundamentally sympathetic.

** For foreign readers, there are a few passages of Pennsylvania Dutch which I had to work my work through phonetically.

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Filed under Fiction, O'Hara John

The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover by Linda Wolfe.

The book The Murder of Dr Chapman: The Legendary Trials of Lucretia Chapman and Her Lover gives us a glimpse into the attitudes and prejudices of early 19th century America. The title also holds no secret as to what happened to Dr Chapman, an affluent speech therapist who died after a long, painful, violent illness, or that his wife (hardly a grieving widow) and her lover were hauled into court for the crime. So while the title gives us the basic premise of the book: husband dead–wife and lover accused, some of the most intriguing elements of this crime include questions of guilt, but also how society closed ranks against Lucretia–but only when convenient to do so.

After reading about various Victorian murderesses–some who got away with their crimes, I was ready to read about the Chapman case–a cause célèbre of its times partly due to the degree of scandal involved but also a famous case thanks to the salacious memoirs of one of the accused and also the extensive journalistic coverage of the case by William E. Du Bois.

dr chapmanLucretia and William Chapman ran a boarding school, taught the children of the local elite, and enjoyed successful careers. William had an international reputation for improving stammering, and ambitious, well-educated Lucretia was known to bring her charges to church every Sunday. Images of both of these people seep through the pages, and there’s the sense that this was a marriage that ‘worked’ well as a business arrangement but that by 1831, 5 children later, all romance, passion and even affection, if they’d ever been present in the first place, were now, at least, entirely absent.  William had gained an enormous amount of weight, seemed to have delusions of his own grandeur and chose to be increasingly absent when it came to family life interactions.

So with the Chapmans’ marriage stagnant and at a stalemate, trouble arrived on their doorstep in the form of a man, originally a Colombian, whose family relocated to Cuba: Carolino Estrada Entrealgo, otherwise known as Lino, a thief and a murderer who was tossed out of Cuba and who washed up, eventually, at the Andalasia mansion owned by the Chapmans. Well, you can guess what happened next….

We see Lino as a clever con-man and exactly the circumstances that contributed to Lucretia being duped by a penniless, tattily dressed, albeit exotic, stranger who posed as the son of the governor of California. It’s interesting, though, that while Lucretia and Wiliam Chapman were duped into thinking that Lino was a wealthy man who’d suffered from a series of catastrophes, the merchant who was told to supply Lino with new clothing on credit was not fooled for a moment, and, in reality, all the signals of Lino’s duplicity were there–including his refusal to write anything because he was “ashamed” of his handwriting.

The book covers the story of William’s horrible death, Lucretia’s hasty marriage to Lino (9 days after the death of her husband), Lino’s behaviour after his marriage, the investigation into William’s death, and the trial.  I can only conclude that Lucretia must have been head over heels in love with Lino. If she didn’t see the warning signs before the death of her husband, Lino rapidly gave her reason to suspect his motives soon afterwards.

The book draws a portrait of Philadelphia life, a city known to be “particularly stuffy,” and we’re told that “Charles Dickens complained that after he walked about the town for an hour or two, its monotony made him feel as if he was metamorphosing into a Quaker.”  Coincidentally, I just finished reading John O’ Hara’s Ten North Frederick which is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Gibbsville, and the impression I gained from that book was that the region was insufferably stuffy–well at least the circle of society O’Hara’s characters moved in.

The book includes details of the notorious trial with its many colorful participants–including lawyers who saw the case as an important step in their careers. Towards the end of the book, author Linda Wolfe offers her own version of what really happened at the Chapman home. I won’t give away the verdict or the fate of Lucretia and Lino, but it’s interesting to see how society and the law closed ranks on this pair. Society’s judgment proved every bit as effective as the legal judgment.

Review copy.

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

It’s just that you must understand–this knees-up in Brussels, well, it’s a wonderful idea in principle of course, but there are dangers involved.”

Early on in Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58, we are told that our main character, married bureaucrat Thomas Foley bears a striking resemblance to both Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde. This isn’t the only time in the novel that the resemblances are mentioned, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that Thomas is a romantic hero here, but in reality Thomas isn’t a hero at all; he’s a civil servant swept up into Coe’s comic spy caper, and while Thomas goes off the rails for a period, he’s largely oblivious to the significance of the events taking place right under his nose.

expo 58Thirty-two year-old Thomas Foley has worked, since 1944, in the Ministry of Information, now called the COI. He’s a junior copywriter and a great deal of his job is spent “drafting pamphlets on public health and safety, advising pedestrians of the best way to cross the road and cold-sufferers of the best way to avoid spreading germs in public places.” Depending on his mood, some days he thinks he’s done well in life but “other days he found his work tedious and contemptible.”

Little does Thomas suspect that life is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Expo 58 is scheduled to be held in Belgium and the COI has “overall responsibility for the content of the British pavilion at Expo 58 and this had immediately led to a frenzy of headscratching and soul-searching around that maddening, elusive topic of ‘Britishness’. What did it mean to be British in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed on that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past, scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look when defining Britishness? Forwards or backwards.”

The COI is faced with a “conundrum” when it comes to organizing the content of the British pavilion. Everyone knows that both the Americans and Soviets “were bound to produce national displays on a massive scale,” so the dilemma centres on the image Britain wants to project.  Amongst a lot of muttering about the “bloody Belgians,” one firm idea emerges: there must be an authentic pub, and so it’s agreed to build a British pub next to the British pavilion. This is where Thomas comes into the picture. Thomas’s father ran a pub, and was married to a Belgian woman. Thomas’s  boss decides that Thomas, with all that ‘experience,’ is the perfect man for the job and that he should oversee the running of the pub at Expo 5–an establishment that will be called the Britannia and which will offer traditional British fare:

as British as bowler hats and fish and chips, representing the finest hospitality our nation can offer.” Mr Ellis shuddered. “Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.”

If that sort of ribbing about British traditions appeals to you, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this mostly good-humoured book which is laced with just a twinge of bittersweet regret. The book captures beautifully the nuances and attitudes of the time. The 60s have yet to arrive and Britain has emerged from WWII, the emphasis remains on tradition–not change, and meanwhile the menace of rock & roll and the cold war colours all official attitudes.

So Thomas is put in charge of the pub at Expo 58, and his new position means that he will have to stay there for approximately 6 months. Since he has a wife and a young baby, he’s given the option of taking them along, but Thomas decides to leave them at home, and it’s a decision that illustrates Thomas’s desire for freedom and change. Thomas’s personal life becomes mixed up with skullduggery and some rather exotic characters at Expo 58, including  the fascinatingly assertive American actress, Emily, Belgian hostess Annecke, and a member of the Soviet delegation, Mr Chersky–a man who develops a passion for British crisps. Meanwhile, Thomas’s wife Sylvia, resentful that she’s been left alone while her husband is off partying in Belgium, encourages a relationship with a neighbor who’s only too happy to step into Thomas’s place.

The novel’s emphasis, especially initially, is on humour. There’s one scene, back in London, still at the planning stages of Expo 58 when the discussion of a display which covers “A history of the British water closet,” is shot down by COI officials. An argument then rages concerning the fact that  “Britain’s contribution to the disposal of human waste has never been recognized,” and that we all do “number twos,” even the queen. Definite Carry On material here, but most of the humour directed at fussy establishment tastes and what it ‘means’ to be British is much subtler. Then there’s two spy chappies from MI6, Radford & Wayne, who reminded me of Tin Tin’s Thompson & Thompson,  sniffing around Thomas trying to vet whether or not he’s a commie:

“Ah yes. The classics. Nothing like a bit of classical music, is there? I expect you like Tchaikovsky?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“What about the more modern bods? Stravinsky, say?”

“Oh yes. First rate.”

“Shostakovich?”

“Haven’t heard much.”

“Prokofiev?”

Thomas nodded, without really knowing why. He couldn’t see where any of this was heading. The waitress brought their coffees and they all stirred in their sugar and took their first sips.

“Of course,” said Mr Radford, “a lot of chaps would rather read than listen to music.”

“Curl up with a good book,” agreed Mr Wayne.

“Do much reading?”

“A bit yes. Not as much as I should probably.”

“Read any Dostoevsky? Some people swear by him.”

“What about Tolstoy?”

“I’m rather parochial in my tastes. I like Dickens. I read Wodehouse, for a bit of light relief. Do you mind telling me what this is all about? You seem to be asking me an awful lot of questions about Russian writers and composers.”

But the British aren’t the only ones whose zest for their own culture reveals fusty archaic attitudes and prejudices; the Belgians have the bad taste to build a fake Belgian Congo exhibit for Expo 58 which involves the creation of an entire village and even importing Congo natives to man and ‘authenticate’ the display.  No bets accepted about how this ends up. Since Expo 58 is part spy novel spoof, a sly reference to that ultra smooth spy 007 creeps into a discussion between Thomas, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford.

“Well, Foley, it’s very good of you to come all the way out here to join us,” said Mr Wayne at last.

“I wasn’t aware,” said Thomas, “that I had any choice in the matter.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr Radford, “whatever can you mean?”

“We thought Wilkins was bringing you out here.”

“He bundled me into a car and pointed a gun at me, yes.”

“A gun?”

At this, they both started to chortle.

“A gun! Dear me!”

“Poor old Wilkins!”

“Really, he is the end.”

“He’s the absolute limit.”

“Lives in a fantasy world, poor fellow.”

“Reads far too many of those books. You know the ones I mean.”

“I know the ones. What’s the author’s name?”

“Fleming.  Have you read them, Foley?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Having a terrible influence, you know … on the chaps who work in our department.”

“Pure fiction, of course. Gadding around the world …”

“Bumping people off without so much as a by your leave …”

“Sleeping with a different woman every night …”

This detail, it seemed, struck both of them as especially implausible.

“I mean, dash it all, Radford, when was the last time you did that?”

“Bump someone off, you mean?”

“No–sleep with a different woman.”

Expo 58 is a light, gently comic read–the story of an Everyman who steps out of his comfort zone into a dangerous world of spies, assassins and perhaps even a femme fatale. Coe’s novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a humorous novel which explores the issue of relationships in the age of the socialverse, and Expo 58, with a similar style of humour successfully spoofs British attitudes , ethnocentrism, & the Establishment in the cold war 50s. The quotes give a good sense of the novel’s tone, so if you find yourself smiling at the quotes, you’ll probably enjoy the novel.

Review copy.

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A Dancer in the Dust by Thomas H. Cook

When I first came across a book from the author Thomas H Cook, I read that he is known for writing cerebral crime novels. That description got my attention, for while I thoroughly enjoy a good crime novel, I prefer my crime reads to be a little off-the-well-beaten track with more time spent on the why rather than the how. A Dancer in the Dust, my third Cook novel so far, concerns a murder that takes place in New York, and the novel begins with its narrator, Ray Campbell, returning to the African country of Lubanda as part of an unofficial investigation. Decades earlier, Ray, an idealistic Aid worker lived in Lubanda and fell in love with Martine, a female farmer. We don’t know the details of what happened, but we do know, within a few pages, that the western-supported president of Lubanda was deposed in a bloody coup led by the psychotic Abbo Mafumi who called himself “the Lion of God and Emperor of All Peoples.” Ray left his idealistic past far behind wrapped up in his memories of Lubanda, and now he works as a New York based risk management consultant. Ray lives in a “risk aversive world,” but all that changes when he’s contacted by Bill Hammond, a man he knew in Lubanda who now runs a charity trust.

He was now at the top of the heap, the Mansfield Trust being a kind of holding company for a large number of charitable institutions and NGOs. At its recommendation, billions in aid might or might not pour into an particular country.

With the death of Mafumi, Lubanda is again about to start receiving billions in aid money, but before Bill makes his decision to begin sinking money into Lubanda, there’s a “loose end” that bothers him. He’d been contacted by Seso, a refugee from Lubanda, now an African street vendor in New York. Seso asked for a meeting with Bill, but before that takes place, Seso is tortured and murdered Mafumi style. Bill asks Ray to assess the risk of giving money to the newly established Lubanda government by investigating the death of Seso, who was Ray’s employee in Lubanda twenty years earlier….

a dancer in the dustSo here we have our crime, the murder of a penniless African that takes place in New York. In due course, Ray finds himself on a plane back to Lubanda and all the painful memories he’s shoved aside come flooding back.

Everything had gone wrong. The three Cs of devastation: corruption, crime, chaos. Add the rampant spread od AIDS to that mix and the road to hell was fully paved. Of course, it was easy to lay all this at the foot of that fourth demonic C, colonialism.

The death of Seso is just the first crime in the book. Other crimes include reference to the atrocities of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo (Martine is of Belgian descent), and of course there’s also the bloody takeover of Lubanda by a psycho dictator who unleashes his frenzied army on the entire population. But at the heart of the novel is the story of yet another crime–Ray’s betrayal of Martine. Martine was born in Lubanda and so she considers herself Lubandan, yet when the political climate in the country shifts, Martine, who is white, is in the crosshairs of both the government that wants to grab her land, and the forces of Mafumi who want to see her destroyed. Ray is told to persuade Martine into accepting the government demand that she abandon growing crops that support the local economy and culture, and instead move to a crop that is supported by western aid.Ray’s best intentions lead to a horrific chain of events, and in a world in which there’s no room for principles, Ray spies on Martine and reports back her activities while Martine stands her ground and takes the ultimate risk.

While this is the story of how one man made some really bad decisions, in many ways  in his relationship with Martine, Ray is a symbol of western colonialism and exploitation of Africa. He wants Martine and is capable of doing some very underhand sneaky stuff to get his way, all in the name of the ‘best intentions.’  In the final analysis, he doesn’t understand Martine at all, and his desire for her blinds him to everything else. Ray’s self-serving plans backfire and lead to destruction. While he wants ‘what’s best’ for Martine, we can’t forget that this is a white American putting himself into the voting position of deciding what is best for Lubanda & what is ‘best’ for Martine when his stake in the country’s future is non-existent; he’s just a man passing through while Martine’s family has owned the farm for over 50 years. The morally complex plot examines many issues and on a meta level, the novel questions the well-worn model for African aid which breeds a system of unhealthy dependence.

A Dancer in the Dust has an elegiac tone laced with regret and memory. The novel questions the risk we take when taking a moral stand, and yet compromise is also not without risk. In spite of the fact that Ray is obviously damaged and never recovered from the decisions he made in Lubanda, he’s hard to like. There’s something a bit slippery about Ray and his actions, and while the novel doesn’t overwork this aspect of the plot, it’s there beneath the surface. The plot is occasionally heavy on metaphors & similes which weigh the novel down unnecessarily–the slow style conveys the moral heft of Ray’s decisions, and the metaphor/simile embellishments make the narrative voice sound pompous rather than sincere–although this may be the author’s intention. Ray, a morally rubbery man has managed to live with his actions and feels guilty about his choices while somehow skirting the essential core of desiring Martine so much, he was willing to destroy her.

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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.

Review copy 

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Filed under Emond Paul, Fiction