A Woman of Thirty by Balzac

Balzac’s flawed novel, A Woman of Thirty, is essentially a character study of a woman named Julie who makes incorrect choices, ruins her life and the consequences of those choices to her children. The plot starts off very well but then loses its focus, finally wandering into dodgy soap territory laced with coincidence. The story title implies that we will see Julie as a woman of thirty, and it’s true, we do see Julie as an unhappy thirty-year-old, but the story spans over thirty years and continues until 1844 when Julie is about 50. Balzac draws a portrait of a miserable marriage–a marriage of unequal sensibilities. Julie is an intelligent, sensitive woman paired with a man of mediocre talents which are masked by his rank and wealth. The observations Balzac makes on this subject were worth a post of their own, and while A Woman of Thirty is flawed, it has moments of sheer Balzac brilliance.

The story opens in 1813, April, on “a morning which gave promise of one those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavement underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” This perfect weather is a glorious backdrop for the spectacle about to take place at the Tuileries–a “magnificent review” of Napoleon’s forces just before he sets out on  “upon the disastrous campaign” which ended in Napoleon’s defeat. Balzac specifically tells us which battles will be won and which battles will be lost, but all this is in the future as crowds, pumped up with patriotism, gather to watch the colourful “military manoeuvres.”

In the crowd is a beautiful young girl named Julie who’s excitedly dragging her father along to watch the spectacle. It’s clear that she’s there to see someone very specific–Colonel Victor D’Aiglemont. Julie cannot hide her emotions, and her father, guessing that his daughter is in love, warns her not to marry D’Aiglemont. Julie argues, and her father predicts only misery if Julie insists on marrying this man:

Girls are apt to imagine noble and enchanting and totally imaginary figures in their own minds; they have fanciful extravagant ideas about men, and sentiment, and life; and then they innocently endow somebody or other with all the perfections of their day-dreams and put their trust in him. They fall in love with this imaginary creature in the man of their choice; and then, when it is too late to escape from their fate, behold their first idol, the illusion made fair with their fancies, turns to an odious skeleton. Julie, I would rather you fall in love with an old man than with the colonel. Ah! If you could but see things from the standpoint of ten years hence, you would admit that my old experience was right. I know what Victor is, that gaiety of his is simply animal spirits–the gaiety of the barracks. He has no ability, and he is a spendthrift. He is one of those men whom Heaven created to eat and digest four meals a day, to sleep, to fall in love with the first woman that comes to hand, and to fight. He does not understand life. His kind heart, for he has a kind heart, will perhaps lead him to give his purse to a sufferer or a comrade; but he is careless, he has not the delicacy of heart which makes us slaves to a woman’s happiness, he is ignorant, he is selfish. There are plenty of buts–

After this initial scene, each of the subsequent periodic glimpses into Julie’s life reveal the consequences of the choices she made in the previous section. The opening sequence shows Napoleon’s armies gathering, the final glories of the Napoleonic Empire just as it’s about to fall. Interestingly, Balzac parallels this by placing Julie on the brink of her life–about to make a disastrous choice in falling for Victor. Fast forward a year. Julie’s father is dead, Julie is married to Victor, and she’s already thoroughly miserable….

The marriage between Victor and Julie stumbles along; she’s bitterly unhappy and grows pale and ill, and he, complaining to his friends about his delicate wife, consoles himself with other women.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is Balzac’s frank approach to marital sex. At one point Julie, left by Victor with an elderly aunt, writes a letter to a friend warning her of the miseries of marriage, and the old Marquise reads the letter. In the letter Julie warns her friend, Louisa, that after “a few days of marriage, [and] you will be what I am already–ugly, wretched, and old.” A major complaint is sex with an oblique reference to “the last outburst of delicious merriment” right before Victor gets into the marital bed for the first time. After reading Julie’s letter to Louisa, Victor’s aunt, the worldly, elderly Marquise tells Julie:

“If a dish at table is not to our taste, there is no occasion to disgust others, with it, child.”

The Marquise grasps that when it comes to sex with Victor, Julie finds “it impossible to share his pleasures.” At one point, after winning back Victor’s attentions, Julie manages to convince him that sex is no longer part of their relationship. Victor and Julie grow apart; he has affairs and he tells his friends that they would act as he does is they “had a pretty wife so fragile that for the past two years you might not so much as kiss her hand for fear of damaging her.”  We hear Victor’s side of the matter in a speech with an interesting analogy as he confides to a friend:

Do not you encumber yourself with one of those fragile ornaments, only fit to put in a glass case, so brittle and so costly that you are always obliged to be careful of them. They tell me that you are afraid of snow or wet for that fine horse of yours; how often do you ride him? That is just my own case. It is true that my wife gives me no ground for jealousy, but my marriage is purely ornamental business; if you think that I am a married man, you are grossly mistaken. So there is some excuse for my unfaithfulness.

A Woman of Thirty is a study in character. We know that Victor is weak and not particularly intelligent. There’s no substance underneath that flashy uniform. At first it’s fairly easy to blame all of Julie’s woes on her husband-after all she was warned about Victor by her father. But then Balzac raises the fascinating issue of sexual incompatibility. There’s a hint that Victor’s just a tad too brutish for Julie. Julie and Victor’s incompatibility is underscored by her love for two other men; in the case of one man, this is not the sort of love that includes passion and sex. It’s agape love–self-sacrifice, devotion and worship. Julie’s passion for the second man brings dire consequences to her family. Some female characters in Balzac pour all their passion into religion, but that’s an option that fails for Julie. She tries to find consolation in religion but cannot.

Balzac’s novel isn’t a general statement against marriage (Julie’s friend Louisa does marry in spite of her friend’s advice and is very happy), but it is a cautionary tale about the misery of marriage between two people of varying sensibilities. Julie possibly could have been happy if she’d married a different sort of man. Interestingly Victor seems to grow a little better with age while Julie’s disappointments warp her relationship with her daughter and lead to tragedy.

The plot goes on for far too long and the woman of thirty becomes a bitterly, unhappy woman of fifty who struggles with lifelong disappointments and depression. The plot turns soapy at the end with an implausible coincidence involving pirates.

The idea behind the novel is excellent–Balzac creates a series of snapshots of a woman’s unhappy life, and due to the timing of those snapshots the reader sees the direct cause and effect connection. Balzac’s attack on unhappy marriage and sexual incompatibility must have caused tongues to wag in the salons of Paris. Julie complains that her husband “seeks me too often,” and Balzac poses the question that perhaps Julie’s “abhorrence of passion,” is a result of her “girlish first love” latching on to the first object of her adoration before she knew “the forbidden but frenzied bliss for which some women will renounce all the laws of prudence and the principles of conduct upon which society is based.” Of course, Julie does get to taste that “forbidden but frenzied bliss” only to pay for those moments of madness dearly later.

There are many marvelous passages here even though the plot falls off the deep end by the book’s conclusion, and here’s Julie speaking her mind to a Curé on the subject of marriage–specifically a loveless marriage in which she compares sex between husband and wife to sex between a prostitute and her customers:

You pour scorn on the miserable creatures who sell themselves for a few coins to any passer-by, though want and hunger absolve the brief union; while another union, horrible for quite other reasons, is tolerated, nay encouraged, by society, and a young and innocent girl is married to a man whom she has only met occasionally during the previous three months. She is sold for her whole lifetime. It is true that the price is high! If you allow her no compensation for her sorrows, you might at least respect her, but no, the most virtuous of women cannot escape calumny. This is our fate in its double aspect. Open prostitution and shame; secret prostitution and unhappiness. As for the poor, portionless girls, they may die or go mad, without a soul to pity them. Beauty and virtue are marketable in the bazaar where souls and bodies are bought and sold–in the den of selfishness which you call society.

It’s a wonderful speech, and through Julie’s voice we can hear Balzac loud and clear. But in this impassioned speech Julie seems to forget that her marriage to Victor was not arranged–in fact she insisted upon it against her father’s wishes. She seems to be absolving herself of any personal responsibility now that she faces a life sentences for a decision she made as an inexperienced young girl. In spite of the book’s flaws (it should have ended with Julie at thirty), it’s interesting for its revolutionary view of the misery of married life and its frank approach to married sex.

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The Way You Die Tonight by Robert J. Randisi

Any book on the history of organized crime in America needs at least a chapter devoted to Las Vegas. It’s an incredible place–not that I’d want to live there as I’m not thrilled by desert living, and neither am I attracted to living in its artificiality. I’ve been there, of course, and it’s quite an experience–a decadent Disneyland for adults–what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, Sin City,  and all that. The Vegas setting of Robert Randisi’s novel The Way You Die Tonight sounded attractive…

The Way you die tonightThe Way You Die Tonight is an entry in the Rat Pack Series, and while this is the first Rat Pack novel I’ve read, it didn’t seem necessary to have read the previous titles.

It’s 1964, and the protagonist of the tale is Eddie Gianelli (Eddie G.), a pit boss at the Las Vegas Sands hotel. He’s a fixer of sorts, so his boss, hotel owner Jerry Entratter, asks Eddie G to host Edward G. Robinson who’s coming to Vegas to research his upcoming role in The Cincinnati Kid.  It’s a request straight from Frank Sinatra, and Eddie G., who admires Edward G. Robinson, is only too happy to comply.  In addition to showing Edward G. Robinson Vegas and high stakes poker games, Eddie G. is approached for information by a very eccentric, and well-guarded Howard Hughes who’s in town to buy some casinos.

“Vegas is your town,” Hughes said. “I need somebody who knows this town in and out. That’s you.”
“Is that what you’ve been told?”

“It’s what I know from all the information I’ve gathered,” Hughes said

But when Jerry’s secretary, Helen Simms is murdered (suicide according to the cops), Eddie G. starts investigating on his own with help from Vegas PI Danny Bardini and pal, Jerry Epstein (all three hail from Brooklyn). Gradually the portrait of Helen Simms, known to be a quiet, modest woman, is replaced, and instead Helen seems to have been a woman who led a secret life.

The murder mystery, along with the characters of Jerry, Danny and Eddie G,  for this reader, are the most interesting aspects of the book, but the crime jostles for space with Eddie G’s job hosting Robinson. Any crime novel which features a series character spends time on the crime and time on the protagonist’s personal life; it’s a delicate balance. While interesting information and history about Vegas is folded subtly and carefully into the story, for this reader, the references to real life people–Frank Sinatra, Edward G. Robinson etc, big stars who dropped into the frame with their own scenes, began to feel like over-kill name-dropping and overwhelmed the rest of the tale. Vegas and its casinos present a rich backdrop for crime and murder; the fictionalization of real icons from the period seemed too much, but then their presence is the point of the series. The Rat Pack Series is very popular with a solid fan base, so I appear to be a minority opinion.

Review copy

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Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd

Towards the end of Three Brothers, the latest novel from British author Peter Ackroyd, a main characters, Daniel, one of the three brothers in the title, writes a book about London. One of the book’s themes “concerned the patterns of associations that linked the people of the city,” and that theme also dominates Three Brothers–a novel about connections and estrangement.

The three very different brothers of the title are born in post-WWII Camden and all share the same birthday but are born one year apart. It’s a bizarre coincidence, just the first in a novel of many coincidences and eerie connections. The boys, Harry, Daniel, and Sam are the product of Philip, a failed writer turned night watchman who married a young woman named Sally. Early in the boys’ childhood, Sally disappears, and it’s assumed–although never discussed–that she’s run off. Later in the novel, that mystery is solved.

Three brothersLiving in a depressing household without a mother, the boys grow apart rather than bond together. Harry, the seemingly resilient, popular, confident oldest boy, dumps school as soon as possible, and begins his meteoric newspaper career as a lowly messenger boy. His life choices are driven by ambition. The middle son, bookish Daniel, is studious, and introspective; his  ambition takes a slightly different form. He studies, passes the 11 plus, sails to grammar school and university. Abandoning his humble council house origins, and eventually becoming a successful academic, he cannot embrace his own social and sexual identity.

The youngest brother, Sam is the best human being of the bunch: kind, generous, and yet he’s solitary, has difficulty with social interactions and experiences strange visions. The latter is so much a part of Sam’s life that we don’t immediately know the divisions between reality and fantasy. Yet in spite of Sam’s handicaps, while the novel traces the very different lives of these three brothers, and the choices that shape their sad and lonely lives, it’s Sam’s ability to reach out and forgive that takes this tale in an expanded direction. His choices place him squarely in several mysteries: what happened to his mother, for example and also he becomes involved in the murder of a connective character.

It’s impossible not to consider Dickens with the introduction of one of the characters, the anachronistically named Jackdaw, an “emaciated” thief/rent-boy/fence, who “operated south of the river in Southwark and Bermondsey. He had a reputation for viciousness,” and has been known to beat and/or “slash” his enemies. London then, be it the London of Dickens or the London of Ackroyd  (Ackroyd’s books include a biography of Dickens and a biography of London), remains the same immutable force–a city of vast corruption, poverty, cannibalizing ambition, and many dirty secrets filed away in the offices of the rich and powerful. Ackroyd’s allusion to Dickens is loud and clear in this lecture given by Daniel, traumatized by the sordid viciousness of the literary world who always finds solace in literature:

“What we have to explain, in Bleak House, is the imagery of the prison.” The first supervision had begun on time.
“It is perfectly obvious that, in most of Dickens’s novels, the city itself becomes a form of penitentiary in which all of the characters are effectively manacled to the wall. If it is not a cell, it is a labyrinth in which few people find their way. They are lost souls.”

“But what then,” the young man in spectacles asked him, “do we make on the continuing use of coincidence?”

“That is the condition of living in the city, is it not? The most heterogeneous elements collide. Because, you see, everything is connected to everything else.”

Three Brothers can be viewed as an argument to Dickens’s timelessness and craft. Just as Dickens’s novels include many lost boys: Oliver Twist, Pip, and David Copperfield who all struggle with identity and establishing a place in society, Ackroyd offers us three young men: Harry, Daniel, and Sam–all largely clueless about the invisible forces in the lives as they struggle, flounder and face moral compromise. This is a world of connections, so there’s a direct line from the newspaper office to the slum landlord to the government, and of course, while this is not exactly startling, this intricate web of power is always there impacting the lives of the three brothers in ways they initially do not realize.

There’s a pervading sadness to this tale. The three brothers all launch into vastly different lives, and Harry and Daniel are, in terms of all worldly measurement successful, yet happiness eludes them–perhaps because happiness was never included in their plans. Harry, who trades integrity for success, is lauded by his insufferable crude, coarse employer Sir Martin Flaxman who tells a crowd at a party: “Most [reporters] are arse-lickers. Tame Poodles pretending to be guard dogs. But not Harry. He knows what he is. He likes it.” The irony to that statement is that Harry rises to the top simply because he obeys orders and doesn’t stir the murky waters of the shady corrupt London power-brokers.

Similarly Daniel, who enjoys an academic and publishing career, confides to a friend: “I feel” he said, “that I’m on the sidelines of everything. There’s something really great going on somewhere, but I have nothing to do with it.” Harry and Daniel with their fabricated pasts never quite manage to connect to their lives–their identities are suits of clothes donned for the duration. Sam, who is another Dickens “lost soul” just like his two brothers however, is different. I never quite bought his visions or the eerie connective moments between the three estranged brothers, but it’s Sam’s open generous, ambitionless heart that eventually leads the reader to the novel’s secrets.

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Duffy by Dan Kavanagh (Julian Barnes)

“That was one of the points about corruption: you never thought about the side-effects at the time.”

Duffy, the first novel in a British PI series from author Dan Kavanagh caught my attention mainly because Kavanagh is the pen name for none other than Julian Barnes, and when you consider how serious his recent novel is, you realise that an author’s writing life consists of very specific phases. I’ve been a fan of Barnes for many years–loved Flaubert’s Parrot and Staring at the Sun, so Julian Barnes writing a crime series?… I’m in. The series was published back in the 80s, and that probably explains why the tone reminded me so much of Before She Met Me, a Barnes novel published back in 1982.

duffyDuffy begins very strongly with a bizarre home invasion. Mrs McKechnie, a middle-class woman who would seem to have no enemies whatsoever is tied up and cut by two men. It’s a very professional job (except for what happens to the cat), and the incident seems to be a message for Brian McKechnie, a London businessman who sells party items at his drab little London office. Under the threat of additional violence, McKechnie is then systematically squeezed for cash; it seems to be a case of blackmail as the perps know that McKechnie’s “mistress [who] doubled as his secretary,” but if it’s simple blackmail then why the home invasion and the violence towards McKechnie’s innocent–albeit dull–wife? The local Guildford police are mystified by the case and consider the incident the “work of a maniac, pair of maniacs,” while the London police obviously don’t give a toss.  Enter PI Duffy, a bisexual ex-copper set up on vice charges and drummed out of the force in disgrace.

Life for Duffy has been going downhill since he left the force. He’s hobbled together a PI firm that mostly dabbles in petty jobs, and while he manages to pay the rent, his relationship with his girlfriend, Carol, never recovered. When he’s contacted by McKechnie to investigate the identity of the man behind the pressure, Duffy steps back to Soho on to his old turf– hookers, peep shows, porno films, and porn mag shops, and once Duffy starts digging he realizes that his unresolved past is connected to the McKechnie case.

In spite of its subject matter, Duffy has a light, ironic and amusing tone. This is partly Kavanagh’s style but it’s also the colorful characters who step across Duffy’s path. Everyone in the sex biz is a professional here, and that includes an aging workhorse hooker, and a motley bunch of peep show girls, and there’s even a gang boss whose taste for decorating could be amusing if he weren’t so vicious. Duffy once worked vice, but now he’s just another customer cruising through the tacky sex shops of Soho where sex isn’t glamorous or even exciting–it’s just damn hard work.   If you’re the type who’s offended by the Blue World, then this is not a book for you–if however, you have no problem with Duffy attending, and sharing details of peep shows and moronic porn films, then you may enjoy this off-beat PI tale:

He glanced at the rack of Big Tit mags, whose publishers had always seemed to work harder at the titles of their mags. D-Cup was still going strong, he noted, and so was 42-Plus. Bazooms was there too, making tits sound like ballistic missiles, and a new one called Milkmaids.

At one point, Duffy sits in on a porn film, and his description of the thin, ridiculous plot is really very funny, but best of all, for this reader is Duffy’s explanations for just how a copper becomes corrupt:

Still, every year around the Golden Mile brought different temptations. He knew how it happened: you didn’t take the free booze even if everyone else did; you didn’t take the first girl you got offered; you turned down the smokes and the snort; and then something quite trivial happened, like you asked for a couple of days to pay at the bookie’s. Quite suddenly, the place had got you. It wasn’t necessarily that there was a particular gang always on the look-out to bend coppers (though sometimes there was); it was somehow the place that got you. It was one square mile of pressure, and everyone had a weak point.

Duffy, a man with a fetish for neatness, makes an interesting series character. He knows how to BS the punters who want all the bells and whistles of PI work, but nevertheless he takes his job very seriously. The novel argues that working vice, stepping in a world in which every imaginable desire is for sale, is a corrupting environment which will stain any copper who lingers there long enough.

Review copy

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Lady Anna by Anthony Trollope

Time to pull another Trollope novel randomly from the shelf. This time it was Lady Anna, and on the back cover of my Penguin edition there’s a snippet: “Trollope pronounced Lady Anna (1874) ‘The best novel I ever wrote.’ ” And after finishing it, I cannot understand that statement at all–what about his beloved Barchester Towers (1857) or my personal favourite to date The Claverings (1867)? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Lady Anna, and it certainly had its merits, but at just over 500 pages, Trollope stretches out a dilemma until it’s thinner than two-week old chewing gum.

Lady AnnaLady Anna revolves on a legal case, certainly not an unfamiliar backdrop for Victorian novels, but here instead of fusty old legalities, there’s more than a touch of scandal and a heavy dollop of debauchery. The case involves a woman known as Josephine Murray who married Earl Lovel, and from the small parish church the 24-year-old bride was taken to Lovel Grange, an “ill-omened looking place.”  Trollope tells us that she did not love her much-older husband and that she married for ambition; “she wanted to be the wife of a lord.”  Thus he sets the stage for us to have some, but not too much, sympathy for this character.

Unfortunately Josephine Murray made a very bad choice. While the Earl is an extremely wealthy man, he’s also rumoured to be quite mad. That’s as good a term as any for the Earl’s strange, antisocial behaviour

He had so lived as to teach himself that those men who devote themselves to their wives, as a wife devotes herself to her husband, are the poor lubberly clods of creation, who had lacked the power to reach the only purpose of living which would make life worth having. Women had been to him a prey, as the fox is a prey to the huntsman and the salmon to the angler. But he had acquired great skill in his sport, and could pursue his game with all the craft which experience will give. He could look at a woman as though he saw all heaven in her eyes, and could listen to her as though the music of the spheres was to be heard in her voice. Then he would whisper words which, to many women, were as the music of the spheres, and he would persevere, abandoning all other pleasures, devoting himself to the one wickedness with a perseverance which almost made success certain.

So the wicked Earl is a seducer of women, but this time, with Josephine, his best efforts fail, and he “could be successful on no other terms than those which enabled her to walk out of the church with him as Countess Lovel.”  With a lecher for a husband, you’d expect Josephine to be unhappy, but her misery goes far deeper. Six months after the marriage, the Earl announced that he committed bigamy when he married Josephine as he had a wife still living (who has since died) in Italy. He refuses to remarry Josephine and tells her that he’s back off to Italy and that she can chum along as his mistress. The Earl, now supposedly a widower, departs for Italy … alone.

Josephine, with debts mounting, lives in precarious circumstances and the only person who offers to help her is a humble tailor named Thwaite. He takes Josephine and her daughter, Anna into his home, devoting his time and money towards Josephine’s restoration as the Countess of Lovel. It’s acknowledged that the Earl went through a marriage ceremony with Josephine, but the big unknown is whether or not the Earl is lying when he belatedly revealed himself to be a bigamist. There’s some evidence that points to the fact that the woman was already dead when the Earl married Josephine, but the Earl, who’s buggered off to Italy, argues otherwise and proof, one way or another is sketchy. It doesn’t help matters that some Italian woman, alive and well, claims to be the Earl’s first wife, but she may be the sister of the deceased first Countess, simply after money.  

Josephine now has a dilemma: should she choose to pursue prosecution and win the case against the Earl for bigamy, she will, in reality, publicly acknowledge that she was the man’s mistress and that her daughter is illegitimate. Both Thwaite and Josephine expect the case to fail, but it’s the necessary first step in proving her likely-legitimate claim to the earl’s title and fortune.  The Earl (in absentia) is acquitted of bigamy and then the case is slowly fought to establish Josephine’s claim.  Decades pass, and the death of the Earl throws the issue of inheritance back to the fore. Suddenly it’s Josephine’s claim to the estate vs the claim of the new young handsome Earl ….

Lady Anna reminded me of Is He Popenjoy?–another novel about illegitimacy and a mysterious marriage that may or may not have taken place in Italy. The characters in Lady Anna were not as satisfying however, and our hero, Daniel Thwaite, the son of the noble tailor, and Anna, Josephine’s daughter are not particularly interesting characters. Daniel, a capable serious young man, seems a little on the self-righteous side while Anna is entirely overshadowed by her mother, Josephine–a far more interesting, damaged, character.

Josephine is a woman obsessed. She married a blackguard for money and position and she’s spent her life to its pursuit–all in the name of her daughter, but this devotion becomes questionable as the novel wears on and we see that Josephine loves her daughter in as much as Anna can fulfill all the latent longing for titles and social position–even though these things have proven to be useless, empty ambitions. Josephine nurses her grudges against those who refused to help her when she was abandoned by her husband, and while that’s certainly understandable, she also, in a manner which shows her true nature, turns her back on the Thwaites. It’s one thing to remember your enemies, but it’s another thing to forget your friends

While there’s romance here, one of the underlying theme is legal vs. moral justice. Josephine seeks legal justice against her husband and yet when she finally gains that, she’s not too interested in moral justice–she ascribes her own desire for money and position to Daniel Thwaite when he seeks to marry Anna, but he’s challenged by the new Earl. Who will win Anna’s hand?

Lady Anna drags on past its due date, and events could have been wound up much sooner, but even so this is a Trollope novel, and he always has some wonderful observations to make about human nature. Here’s Daniel a radical who longs for the eradication of nobility;

Measuring himself by his own standard, regarding that man to be most manly who could be most useful in the world, he did think himself to be infinitely superior to the Earl. He was the working bee, whereas the Earl was the drone. And he was one who used to the best of his abilities the mental faculties which had been given to him; whereas the Earl,–so he believed,–was himself hardly conscious of having had mental faculties bestowed upon him. The Earl was, to his thinking, as were all Earls, an excrescence upon society, which had been produced by the evil habits and tendencies of mankind; a thing to be got rid of before any near approach could be made to that social perfection of which he fully believed.   

In Lady Anna, Trollope creates some subversive situations in his observations of class distinctions. Daniel believes that nobility is an antiquated fetish of the society in which he lives, and we see, through Trollope’s characters, that Daniel is right. Josephine is twisted by her dreams of regaining the long-elusive title, and through her daughter, she plots, along with the two opposing legal teams, to reestablish the status quo of titled society.

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Chance by Kem Nunn

The essential feature of a shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux) is a delusion that develops in an otherwise healthy individual who is involved in a close relationship with another person (sometimes termed the “inducer” or “the primary case”) who already has a psychotic disorder with prominent delusions and who, in general, is the dominant in the relationship and is thus able, over time to gradually impose the delusional system on the more passive and initially healthy individual.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an interest in fiction involving therapists–add that to noir and you’ve immediately got my attention, so when I read about Kem Nunn’s new book, Chance, I thought I’d probably like it. I was wrong, I didn’t like it; I loved it.

chanceEldon Chance is a middle-aged San-Francisco based forensic neuropsychiatrist, whose life, until just recently was going extremely well. Married for over 20 years to “aspiring photographer,” Diane, and the father of a teenage daughter, Nicole, his life seemed enviable. But Diane’s affair with “a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior,” has led to divorce proceedings. Their pricey home is up for sale, Nicole will no longer be able to attend her expensive private school, and Chance has moved into a tiny apartment, so tiny, it can’t house his expensive antique French furniture set which looks ridiculous jammed into its new surroundings. Things aren’t quite bad enough apparently … Chance receives a notice from the IRS that he owes over 200,000 in back taxes and fines.

Chance considers selling his fancy French furniture to a nearby antique shop he frequents. Problem is that because it lacks the brass metalwork, it’s not considered complete and he can only get 50-60 thousand for it. If the furniture had its original metalwork, however, the set would fetch around twice that according to antique shop owner Carl. Carl, however, employs a giant of man, an incredible craftsman named D (whose bald head sports a huge tattoo of a black widow spider), and according to Carl, D can replace the metalwork to Chance’s furniture so cleverly that no one will be able to tell the difference. With the metalwork intact, the furniture can be sold for top dollar.

Normally a very cautious person, Chance, pressured by necessity and now unmoored from the supports of his previously structured life, begins to make a series of bad decisions–one of those decisions being, of course, to sell the furniture with the newly attached metalwork crafted by D, and while that is fraudulent, Chance’s mistakes go further than that. We know he’s going to head for disaster from the way he thinks about the female patients who come his way. Bear in mind that he’s not dealing with mentally healthy women when he finds himself noting their attractiveness, their sexuality and possible availability. One of his patients is a substitute teacher named Jaclyn Blackstone who appears to suffer from a dissociative identity disorder. While Jaclyn is estranged from her violent, jealous husband, Oakland homicide detective, Raymond Blackstone, she claims that a second personality, “Jackie Black,” engages in rough sex with Blackstone. Dr. Chance finds himself attracted to this patient, but which one tweaks his interest: Jaclyn or Jackie?

Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life. Involvement with the elusive Jaclyn combined with the threat of physical danger sends Chance to D, a disciple of Nietzsche, initially for advice, and then for assistance as Chance becomes increasingly drawn into the dark secrets of Jaclyn’s world. Unlike Chance, D doesn’t live inside textbooks and knows that sometimes you have to be prepared to back up your position with violence.  As D tells Chance, “there are no victims just volunteers.” D, who has a thing for exotic weaponry, sees where Chance is heading and warns him:

“Ever heard of The Frozen Lake?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Then you haven’t heard of it. It’s the thing you want so badly you’ll go to the center of a frozen lake to reach it.”

“Where the ice is the thinnest.”

“But you won’t think about that. Everyone else will, just not you.”

With D as a guide to the netherworld of violent encounters, physical confrontation and surveillance, Chance follows Jaclyn down the “rabbit hole,” and one of the big questions is: who can he trust? Is D, with his penchant for violence, a fantasist? And what about Jaclyn? Who is she really? What happened to her last therapist? Is she, as Chance’s fellow therapist suggests, just “finding one man to save her from another?”  Chance deals with various mental issues all day long–but in the past there’s been a nice clinical line between him and the patients he evaluates as part of the report process for insurance companies and court cases. His life has been admirable, clean, ordered and now it’s in chaos, spinning out of control, and D advises Chance to change his role:

People talk about self defense. Self-defense is bullshit. I’m defending, I’m losing. I want the other guy defending while I attack. Doesn’t make any difference how many people I’m fighting. I want them all defending because that means I’m dictating the action. I’m the feeder. As long as I’m the feeder, I win. I don’t care if it’s a dozen. Right now, this cop is the feeder. You’re the receiver. You need to turn that around.

Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care; I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its psychological complexities, its setting, its characters (D Rocks!) and the entire way that the book exemplifies the noir genre. Kem Nunn is termed an author of “Surf Noir,” but Chance, a very cinematic novel, is set in San Francisco–a city, with unconventionality practically a by-law, that is a natural setting for noir. Chance has spent over twenty years building his life and his reputation, and now his life is in disintegration, falling around him like a house of cards. He’s tempted by money; he’s lured by sex–add corrupt cops, Romanian gangsters and a run down massage parlor in Oakland, and suddenly he’s in so deep there may not be a way out….

Chance imagined himself no stranger to the machinations by which people went about establishing the architecture of their own imprisonment, the citadels from whose basement windows one might on occasion hear their cries.

Review copy.

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She’s Leaving Home by William Shaw

How are you doing with that women’s libber of yours, Paddy?” asked Jones. “Wouldn’t mind seeing her burning her bra.”

William Shaw’s title She’s Leaving Home references a Beatles song, and it’s an appropriate choice given the subject matter and the times in which this excellent crime novel is set. It’s 1968, London, and the naked body of a teenage girl is found stuffed under a mattress right next to some flats and around the corner from EMI Studios, located on Abbey Road. A couple of details about the placement of the body don’t add up, and troubled CID DS Paddy Breen is assigned to the case. Paddy hails from Ireland but now works in D Division where he’s a distrusted, disliked outsider. Bailey, who ineffectually heads the station, is also disliked and has no control over the Division coppers who make fun of him behind his back. When the novel opens a murky incident which involves Breen and the very much-liked Sergeant Prosser has taken place. The incident, a robbery, only underscores the contempt aimed at Paddy, and he’s warned by a friend to get out of Murder and D Division and get into drugs where all the growth and excitement will be:

We’re on the tip of the iceberg. Come aboard, Paddy. Ship’s about to sail. Murder is just the same old same old. And I’m on vice. That’s even worse. Vice is done for. This is the permissive society. When there’s people starkers on stage up at the Shaftesbury Theatre singing about the age of the Hairy-Arse, who needs to pay for it anymore? Did you go? No? I did. God, there’s some ugly women in that. I felt like shouting, ‘For God’s sake out your clothes back on.’ In a couple of years, we’ll be like Sweden, I tell you. The point is, nobody even has to pay for it these days. These young girls, nowadays, they’ll fuck anybody. Nobby Pilcher’s got it right. Growth industry. I’m serious, Paddy. You need to get out of D Div.

While Breen investigates the murder of the teenager, he is accompanied by Temporary Detective Helen Tozer, originally from Devon, who wants to work murder. Women PCs are “only on admin and social work. If a crime involved a kid, you’d ask one on them in. Apart from that they never came into a CID office.” Tozer, who has personal reasons for wanting to work in murder, must face an avalanche of attitudes from her fellow police officers.  Repeatedly ordered to make the tea for the male officers, it’s also assumed she’s promiscuous when she identifies a stain as sperm on a dress found in the bins near the victim. Her suggestions are treated as a joke and the implications are that she’s either good for fresh cups of tea or as a potential sex partner. Fortunately, she’s thick-skinned enough to let the insults slide off her back. While Breen expects that the male officers will taunt Tozer, he’s unprepared for the venom directed at Tozer by one of the female secretaries.

she's leaving homeTozer and Breen make a great team, and a great deal of the novel’s interest can be found in the way Breen learns to bend to Tozer’s suggestions as they investigate the opaque world of crazed Beatles fans–the masses of young girls who camp outside the homes of their idols and sleep outside of the recording studios hoping for a glimpse of the Beatles as they arrive. While Breen represents the fossilized world of Authority, Tozer can relate to Beatlemania.

One of the refreshing aspects of the novel is the total lack of 60s nostalgia, so forget the up-beat score of Pirate Radio. In Shaw’s world, the 60s is an unpleasant place–racism and sexism are unchecked and even applauded. We see a world in flux, so while young men with long hair walk around in flowered shirts and flared trousers, and greasers and their girls snog publicly, the older generation tut and complain and rain judgments down about the new permissive society where anything goes. There’s an ugliness to this world found in the small-minded callousness of many of the characters Breen and Tozer question in the course of the investigation. The judgmental and primly unpleasant Miss Shankley, for example, who lives in the flats where the body was found, assumes that the naked girl was a prostitute, while to members of D Division, she’s just another “naked bird.” But even the smaller details coat the story with the minutia of life in the 60s–from coin-operated electric meters to  pregnant women smoking as a matter of course.

West London was full of color. Each year the colors got louder. Girls in green leather miniskirts, boys in paisley shirts and white loafers. New boutiques selling orange plastic chairs from Denmark. Brash billboards with sexy girls in blue bikinis fighting the inch war. A glimpse of a front room in a Georgian house where patterned wallpaper had been overpainted in yellow and a huge red paper lampshade hung from the ceiling. Pale blue Triumphs and bright red minis parked in the streets.

Around Clerkenwell the color faded. The old monochromes of post-war London returned. Still flat-capped and gray. East London continued its business.

Breen and Tozer make a terrific team, and I was much more interested in them, I’ll admit, than the solution to the crime.  He’s lonely and attracted to this young woman who’s a bit out of his league, and although the premise isn’t overworked, it’s clear that Tozer is the new kind of woman–a woman who wants to be taken seriously, and a woman who wants a career–not a family in this age when “women officers aren’t allowed to drive cars.” The plot is also a commentary on the shifting face of crime in Britain with celebrity drug-busts and young officers, thrilled by a break from tedious routine, excited to participate in a car chase or a murder. Author William Shaw, a journalist, has written other books which he terms “narrative non-fiction.”  She’s Leaving Home is also published as the title A Song From Dead Lips and is the first of three planned books set in London 1968/69 and featuring DS Breen and PC Tozer. I’m in for the duration, and for anyone scouting for material out there, this book would make a great television series.

review copy

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The Devil I know by Claire Kilroy

“Money kills the imagination. It makes us want the same thing.”

Those of us who’ve had front row seats to the recent real estate bubble grasp that we’ve lived through fantastic times that will make the history books; the big question is: how will that history will be told? Articles about the real estate bubble in North America often present this period as a time of insanity–as if some sort of virus swept through the land, taking the form of national madness as household after household, suddenly under water, fell to re-fi (leveraging your equity), ‘creative financing,  or the ‘real estate as investment’ bug. Actually that attitude annoys me because it avoids the obvious truth regarding responsibility–that people were active participants and that segments of the financial world largely avoided accountability.

The devil I knowBecause of my attitude towards the real estate bubble, I loved parts of Claire Kilroy’s novel, The Devil I Know, but at the same time due to its Hoffmanesque undertone, it buys into the myth of the bubble. Although adding macabre, other worldly elements may be as good a way as any other of explaining the insanity of the real estate bubble, and to Kilroy’s credit, her unique approach to the subject certainly works here.

The emphasis in The Devil I Know is in Ireland, on the powers behind the bubble and not on the average homeowner, and we know, of course, the final outcome of those heady days of financial excess. The book opens with Tristram Amory St. Lawrence, the thirteenth Earl of Howth testifying in a 2016 court case regarding the Celtic Tiger and his role in the disastrous real estate bubble which took place in the mid 1990s until the collapse in 2008. With Tristram directing his apologia towards Fergus (Justice O’Reilly) and fielding the occasional question, the story builds over the course of a few days as Tristram, a recovering alcoholic, recalls how, in 2006, his plane, en route to Florida, was unexpectedly diverted to Dublin. He stayed away from his home for “unspeakably personal reasons,” and as soon as he lands it becomes clear why he didn’t want to return.

Within a short period of time, Tristram, who’s been thought dead by everyone who knew him (“that was another Tristram St Lawrence,”) is being pestered by low-rent contractor Desmond Hickey, the coarse bully of Tristram’s miserable school days. Years may have passed, but little has changed; Desmond is still a bullying Neanderthal, an “indigenous short-arse,” who insists that Tristram, upper-class and educated, is gay, and that “he’s scared to bend over” around Tristram. Desmond, however, may be just a small-time contractor, but he’s a man with vision, and more importantly, a man with large appetites and ambition. After learning that Tristram inherited Hilltop, a gorgeous neglected eight acre estate from his mother, and that Tristram has access to financing through his mysterious benefactor/acquaintance/sponsor, M. Deauville, Desmond insists that Tristram get financing as the newly appointed director of Castle Holdings. Castle Holdings is a “shell company. It bought nothing, sold nothing manufactured nothing, did nothing … yet it returned a profit of 66 million that first year.”  But “who better to direct a shell company than a shell of a human being?” And Ireland, is, after all, a “low-taxation jurisdiction with benevolent regulation policies.” And so the madness begins….

Desmond’s first plan is to build on land zoned for industrial use. Re-zoning is no problem, and Minister Lawless, a gray, grimy little man is only too happy to reconsider zoning when presented with packet of cash. Desmond borrows the money to buy the land with its price tag of 10 million. Within six weeks, the land is worth sixty million: “a profit of over one million a day, ” and here’s Desmond in one of his portakabins as he pours over his ridiculous plans:

Displayed on a board like a wedding cake was the scale model of a modern urban residential and commercial development typical of and appropriate to, say, a downtown waterside location in an East Coast US city: eight towers of glass clustered in a crystalline formation.

The plans include a hotel, a leisure centre, a crèche, an underground car park, and apartments, and here’s Desmond Hickey inspecting the architect’s  “computer-generated shots”  with his “chip-shop fingerprints.”

Along a glittering limestone avenue with Ireland’s Eye in the background a man walked a bichon frise.

“Who’s this prick?” said Hickey. “He looks bent.”

Morgan leaned in to consider the photo.

“With apartment developments in wealthy areas, our firm find it’s advantageous to include representation of at least one member of the gay community. It’s a sector of the population with a high disposable income.”

“Keep him so,” Hickey decreed, “but no leezers.” He passed me the offending image. It was a man in a pair of calf-length shorts and a polo shirt. The man looked neither gay nor straight, he just looked preposterous. They all looked preposterous. Every last one of them was dressed for a Mediterranean summer. Sunglasses and shorts and sandals. This development promised another climate.

Desmond, a crude, opportunistic bully, is the perfect man for these excessive times. His marketing strategy for his grotty little apartments is brilliant and shows his understanding of the darker side of human nature. Is he a product of the real-estate madness or did his kind help fuel the boom? You have to love that word ‘boom’ because you know there’s going to be a big explosion somewhere in the not-too-distant future, and of course even as things spiral out of control in Tristram’s world with crazier and crazier real estate transactions taking place–flipping a hotel in London and “shifting a shopping mall in Dubai,” momentum gathers in the sinister, incautious power brokers of the Golden Circle–the men with ‘the terrible hunger in them, the insatiable drive to acquire,” until … well the collapse.

Most of the book’s humour (and there’s a great deal of it here,) in this very entertaining book comes from Desmond and not our narrator Tristram–two men of vast contrasts with the implied idea that Desmond is the ‘new’ man who needs the use of the gentry to open doors that once were closed to him while Tristram is a passive tool.  One of the very best scenes which epitomizes the insatiable hunger of Desmond and his cohorts takes place at Desmond’s ranch where gluttony, savagery and excess is the mantra for the day.

Hickey had built a mock-colonial ranch on the side of the East Mountain. He had cultivated the gorse and heather into lawn. A row of floodlit palm trees delineated the end of nature’s dominion over the moors and the beginning of the reign of the developer.

While for this reader the other world elements detracted from the novel, it’s still fairly easy to see why the author opted for this approach. I’ve listened to many people over the last few years complaining how they re-fi’d their modest homes to carry triple the original debt and then complain as the perceived value sinks beneath the horizon. One man told me with disgusted disbelief in his voice that “the banks are trying to tell me that I owe $450,000 when the house next door sold for $110,000. Now that’s nerve.” I did not point out to him that he’d re-fi’d several times and taken out over $300,000 in new mortgages. Where did that money go? No one switched mortgages on this fellow. He signed the papers and took the dough. Anyway the god-whatever-being-you-worship model meshes with the idea that the devil makes us do bad things which rather allows us to step from personal responsibility and lean on temptation/wickedness.  For this reader, the bubble was all about stepping away from personal responsibility & putting off the day of reckoning: the banks that agreed to fishy loans, the lenders who fudged income, the financial wizards who advised people to re-fi and “invest,” and the experts who now say that there was no way to predict the collapse.

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Eddie’s World by Charlie Stella

What is this, be kind to a fuck-up week?”

The protagonist of Charlie Stella’s wonderfully entertaining novel, Eddie’s World is a man who lives on the border between the straight life and a life of crime, and he “resisted impulses to drift too far one way or another.” He works occasionally as a data operator, but that’s just a job that checks the box ‘respectable citizen’ if the cops or the IRS come sniffing around. Eddie’s main source of income is loan-sharking and what he collects is enough to live on. He’s a wannabe–not a made man, but a man with connections. Eddie’s second wife Diane, a senior marketing executive makes a lot more money than her husband, and when the novel opens, their marriage is in trouble. She wants a baby, but having another child is the last thing Eddie wants–he already failed at fatherhood with a son from his first marriage; he doesn’t want to repeat that mistake. So while Eddie juggles the criminal world and the straight world, he also tries to find a balance between marriage, his obligations to Diane and his need for independence.

“Hey, we only knew each other a couple months when we got married,” Eddie said. “We both thought it was the right thing to do, you know. Like it was magic or something, I don’t know. We got along. I liked her flakiness. I know she was intrigued with me, with us, what we do. Brother, did that rub off fast. Now she was wants a kid. Her eyes get wet every time she sees one. Scares the shit out of me.”

“I know the feeling,” Tommy said. “My old lady sees a kid, her eyes get all fucking big, and I want to catch a flight across the country. They just don’t get it, some broads.”

Discontented and bored, and possibly trying to get a reaction from Eddie, Diane, using the screen name BeigeThong has turned to internet chat rooms and virtual sex to spice up her life. At the same time, Eddie, according to Diane and her therapist, is in the throes of a midlife crisis.

Eddie's worldWhile Eddie’s personal life is going down the toilet, he’s planning a heist with his friend Tommy to steal $15,000 cash in a simple smash and grab job. He’s received a tip from an alcoholic named Sarah, “one of life’s losers,” who wants revenge on her slimeball boss for his extracurricular demands, and so she’s given Eddie the tip that there will be $15,000 sitting in a desk, ripe for the picking one weekend. Eddie doesn’t need the money, but he needs the thrill, “a spark of life.” It will be a three-way split and Tommy who’s heavily in debt thanks to gambling losses, badly needs a score…

The problem is Sarah has terrible taste in men, and when she picks up freshly released ex-con Singleton, suddenly there’s just not action to go around. Eddie finds himself set up for the fall.

Author Charlie Stella makes wonderful use of dialogue. It’s realistic, sharp, witty, and occasionally crude. Here’s Sharpetti, “longtime captain of the Vignieri family” longing for the good old days:

Used to be you had to be Sicilian. Then both of your parents had to be Italian. Then just the father. Pretty soon, things keep going the way they have, we’ll be making anybody ate a slice of pizza.

Part of the novel’s humour comes from these mob men trying to live in a PC world where men are supposed to be more sensitive and receptive to the needs of the women in their lives. So you have 62-year-old Sharpetti, who has a vicious side, complaining about his much younger girlfriend who now runs a gym “the business she always dreamed of.” Now that it’s ‘her’ business, she doesn’t want to keep her end of the bargain, and she complains about fulfilling the sex part of their agreement and also tells Sharpetti, who’s watched by the FBI, to stay away from ‘her’ gym.

Sharpetti sipped some orange juice, coughed up some phlegm and yawned loud. “Her business,” he said. “I take her useless ass off a strip stage and put her in here, in her fucking name, and all she does is show up in tight clothes, and work out, and now it’s her business. She ever wakes up and just tells me out right, she don’t wanna suck my dick, I think I’ll tell her, Oh is that what you’re doing? I couldn’t tell.”

While there is a lot of humour here, there’s also some hard-boiled action, and because it follows the humour, the swift violence is shocking and reminds us that while these people kid each other and make jokes about their lives and their women, they’re ready to kill in order to save their skins or to protect their families. Also under scrutiny here is Eddie Senta’s decision to straddle both worlds–the straight and the criminal life. During the course of the novel, Eddie finds himself in deeper than he anticipated when he planned this minor job, and he is forced to call in favours from Sharpetti. Eddie has managed to balance his life so far–never going too deep into crime, but he’s also not harnessed by a 40 hour week job. The fallout from this crime may change all of that forever in a world in which connections become liabilities.  If you are a fan of Donald Westlake (his humourous crime novels) or Elmore Leonard, then chances are that you’ll like the novels of Charlie Stella.

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Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson

“Janie. I’m, warning yeh, I’m about tae blow.”

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is an unwieldy title that is at least memorable in this bittersweet, funny and compelling story of poverty, single motherhood, and a series of bad choices in men. Get beyond a title that does the book no favours and a bumpy first few pages, and you’ll find yourself in a wonderfully, witty, sharp debut novel written by Kerry Hudson.

Tony HoganThe book begins in the 80s, a little awkwardly, with the birth of Janie, our spunky narrator relating the profanity which accompanied her birth–the result of a brief union with Iris who’d “been tae London and got herself preggers,” and some unnamed American, and while Janie’s birth is celebrated by the Aberdeen Ryan family, the hard realities soon hit. A fight with Iris’s bingo-addicted mother sends Iris onto the streets, and into the Grafton Hilton (“as the guests liked to call it,”) a woman’s shelter full of other bruised and rejected women, and then it’s off to council housing and the gritty slum of Monarch Avenue, a place that Iris initially resists as it’s a bad place for a “bairn.” According to Iris, “I might as well start shooting her up on smack now since that’s what’ll happen,” but Iris doesn’t exactly have a choice. But that’s one of the interesting aspects of the book, when Iris has options, she always chooses badly. But while Monarch Avenue strikes fear into the hearts of those sent to live there, Janie’s reaction, viewed from her shiny new pram, a gift from Iris’s brother, smack addict Uncle Frankie, is of glorious sensation.

On the way to buy the moving-in essentials–tea, milk, bread, fags, Jif and a half of vodka–my eyes soaked in our new neighbourhood. Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.

Iris notes that the house, at the end of the street offers an “easy escape,” and in a way Iris’s life is defined by that term–a series of escapes–moonlit flits from slums and grotty bed-sits, endless fresh starts and broken promises from a series of disappointing men. Janie notes that she “had a lot of uncles but Uncle Frankie was the one who came every week, bought presents and wanted to play with me and not just Ma. The other uncles picked me up for about three minutes and then put me aside like a fag end, not taking their eyes off Ma, or the bedroom door over her shoulder.” One of these men is Tony Hogan, the “Aberdonian King, or at least Duke of thugs and drugs,” a spiteful runt with a reputation for explosive violence who wears “streaky” underpants. It’s a relationship with catastrophic consequences:

Tony smothered the life that me and Ma had built, a furry mould growing over a sweating slab of cheese.

Although this is Janie’s story, the novel bursts with a colorful cast of secondary characters in this story of a childhood spent growing up amongst heroin addicts, glue sniffers, and alcoholics. While Janie doesn’t exactly have it easy her friends Davey and Leanne  whose “parents liked a drink,” envy Janie’s comparatively exotic diet which includes the occasional “Fray Bentos pie and peas or Findus Crispy Pancakes.” Leanne’s ma’s world centres on booze and whatever is left over goes to meals such as chips and beans, or chips and egg.

But Leanne’s ma was organized too and on Mondays we would often bump into her in the booze aisle at Safeway with four big sacks of frozen chips  thawing in her trolley. There was always a mouth-watering, fatty smell in the air at Leanne’s and at the beginning of the week there would be red sauce too.

This is a world of flush Mondays with the “long impatient queue at the post office to cash the benefits book before going to Safeway.”

For the first few days we had tinned spaghetti, fish fingers and pink wafers, but by Sunday the cupboards were bare and we ate a lot of toast and porridge and talked about what we’d buy the next day in the shiny aisles at Safeway. Over toast with a scrape of marge Ma explained she was just getting used to it and she’d find a way to ‘make the grub last’.

If this all sounds depressing, it isn’t. This is partly due to Janie’s love for her mother–even as she steers them towards disaster, but part of the novel’s optimism comes from Iris’s seemingly endless spunk, the way adversity slides off her back and a sort of naiveté born from desperation and misguided hope when it comes to judging men. Some of the humour comes from our narrator’s limited knowledge of the adult world:

Frankie always came over on Thursdays. He had to come once a week to collect the little bags of white powder that Ma measured from a bigger bag on scales with numbers like Frankie’s digital watch. Ma did the measuring on Saturday mornings and the little spoons and jumping red numbers always stole my attention, even from Fraggle Rock.

“Can I have a go?” My eyes were fixed on the shiny spoons, the soft white powder.

“No, Janie, how many times do I have tae say? Watch the telly.”

“Just tell me what it is though.”

Ma gave me a look and then sighed. “It’s special flour. An’ I have tae measure wee bags so that people’s cakes come out just right. Now watch the telly. If I can’t concentrate the cakes’ll be shite and then we’ll not have chocolate biscuits or cola this week an’ yer uncle Frankie won’t come over.”

Always on the fringes of society, Iris never rises above extreme poverty–sometimes she floats and sometimes, for  a brief period, she sinks only to return to the surface in another slum location, and over the years, her fierce tenacity is worn down by degrading disappointment recognized by Janie in one beautifully poignant moment. Author Kerry Hudson paints Janie’s colourful world with bold strokes, and while there’s a moment when Janie discovers a world within books, this is not overworn or clichéd.  Given the subject matter, it would have been so easy for this novel to slip off into sentiment, bitterness or loathing, but instead the author shows incredible talent in creating characters whose private lives are mostly sealed from those of us who have some essence of security, and while the characters are treated with empathy, their inability to change, extreme social disadvantages, and zest for self-sabotage is also evident.  In spite of adversity, or perhaps because of it, there’s an incredible ‘us-against-the-world’ bond between Janie and Iris and we see this in one incident when Iris is called to task for Janie’s swearing.

We left the nursery in silence, Ma smoking a roll-up, looking like she hadn’t slept in a week or maybe like she had slept for a whole week. When the nursery was just a grubby finger smudge behind us Ma looked down at me and said in her poshed-up telephone voice: “Will you speak to Janie about swearing? Fuckin’ busybody!”

I laughed and swung our linked hands.

“Aye, fuckin’ busybody.”

Pleas of laughter escaped us and spiraled up into the hot, blue Scottish sky. We laughed all the way home

The book, essentially a coming-of-age story, follows Janie’s nomadic life until she is 16. Janie initially, of course, doesn’t have any choices, so she follows her mother from seedy bedsit to notorious gritty slum, sometimes escaping with the just bare essentials –whatever she can grab–as Iris never settles down but moves from one tarnished opportunity, usually sparked by either a man’s promises or a man’s violence, to another. Towards the end of the novel, which flounders just a tiny bit, a teenage Janie ends up in Great Yarmouth, and it’s here that she’s able, finally, to make some decisions of her own. The big question, of course, is will history repeat itself or has Janie learned from the mistakes of her mother? This is a remarkable book reminiscent of the early works of Roddy Doyle, and it’s going to end up in my best-of-year list.

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Filed under Fiction, Hudson Kerry