Tag Archives: British fiction

The Voices by F.R. Tallis

“Places have atmospheres, certainly, and I suppose that powerful, emotionally charged events might leave some kind of impression–a kind of memory. But as for the dead coming back to meddle with the affairs of the living? I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”

In 2013, I read and enjoyed The Sleep Room, so when I saw that British author F.R.Tallis had written a new novel, I knew I had to get my hands on it. But first a story….

About twenty years ago, a relocation seemed imminent. As it turned out, the move never happened, but the search for a new home led to a bizarre experience I’ve never forgotten. With only weeks, as I thought at the time, to find a rental, pack up and move, I drove to this small, rural area in order to check out a few houses. I saw a handful–most were disappointing with a range of problems, and then, the very last house on the list seemed promising. The rent was fair, and unlike the other houses, this one, on the outside at least, seemed to be in a good state of repair. I met the real estate agent in front of the house which was located on a remote side road. We went inside, and there was the usual bland living room and kitchen. Then I passed into the hallway, and something happened….

A chill and a heavy feeling of dread passed over me as I turned into the first bedroom on the right; I felt as though I was about to see something horrifying, but, of course, the room was empty. As I stood in the doorway, I knew that something terrible had happened in this room. I quickly passed through the rest of the house, went into the back garden where I experienced the same feeling, and then returned to the living room. There the real estate agent, with a stack of rental apps in his hand, said, “before we go any further, I have to tell you that a murder took place here…” Let me ask you: would you move into this house?

If you reject my experience, then The Voices will probably have no appeal, but if you accept my story, then F.R.Tallis’s macabre tale of things that go bump in the night is for you.

The voicesThe Voices takes place in London in the 70s as a married couple, Christopher Norton and his pregnant wife, Laura, meet an estate agent at a Victorian house located near Hampstead Heath. The house appears to have been uninhabited for some time, and in spite of substantial need for repair, the Nortons fall for the house, buy it and move in. The house may be a long-term project in terms of repair, but it seems perfect, and one of its selling points is a large room on the top floor which Christopher, a composer, can use as a studio. It’s on this first day, that Laura, standing and gazing into the overgrown garden sees something. This is the moment when the couple should have RUN, but no, instead they buy the house, move in and Laura gives birth to Faye.

Over time, Christopher and Laura begin to grow apart. Christopher’s career stalls, and he sees another friend, a man who opted for a less commercial career, receiving the sort of recognition he craves. Christopher writes and creates film soundtracks, and while he was once in Hollywood, now the jobs coming his way are scarce and for minor films. In fact, at one point, he’s even passed over for Star Wars. In a funk, Christopher discovers some peculiarities on recordings he’s made inside his home studio. At first he thinks there’s an equipment problem or that the voices he hears are radio interferences, but as these options are ruled out, he becomes convinced that the voices on his tapes are paranormal activity. After reading the book Breakthrough: An Electronic Communication with the Dead by Konstantin Raudive, Christopher is convinced that the voices will be an integral part of a unique project that will make his career. He delves into the history of the house and descends into obsession as he attempts to capture the voices of the dead on tape.

The engineer shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

‘What do you mean, nothing?’

‘I couldn’t find anything wrong.’

‘But the voices…’

‘Yeah,’ said Kaminsky. ‘The voices.’ He lit a cigarette and nodded silently to himself. ‘I’ve been listening to them, and if you think about it…’ He hesitated and seemed uncertain as to whether to proceed or not.

‘Yes.’

Kaminsky continued. ‘They don’t sound anything like radio broadcasts, do they? She died last night; I’m a stranger here; Come, Tommy. Fate. In French, German, English. I mean, what sort of stations are we picking up here?’ It was true. The voices didn’t appear in an ongoing stream of interference, and it was difficult to imagine them in the context of an ordinary radio programme. ‘And why no music?’ Kaminsky added, foreshadowing Christopher’s own thoughts. ‘No records, no jingles, nothing.’

‘What are you suggesting?’ Christopher asked.

The engineer studied the smoke rising from his cigarette.’I don’t think these voices are radio transmissions.’

Meanwhile, Laura, a former top model, suffering perhaps from postpartum depression, experiences horrible nightmares. Growing apart from Christopher, she joins a feminist book group, and begins to reject her past life. As Christopher and Laura become estranged from each other, there’s a big question: is this just a normal turn of events or is the atmosphere of the house itself eroding their psyches?

She had only intended to stop reading for a few seconds to rest her eyes, but she found herself thinking about the past. It was happening more and more–memories would detach themselves from some deep, murky place of concealment and rise in her awareness. An image of an Italian couturier formed in her mind. She had thought about him a lot since being reminded of his existence by her old see-through blouse (which she had now given to Oxfam). Once again, it all came flooding back. The hotel, the black leather furniture and the floating forms in the lava lamp. She had absorbed enough pop psychology from magazine articles to know that the insistent return of these memories was symptomatic. It meant something.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away. With Christopher and Laura’s estrangement, combined with his feelings of anguish at a lost career, we’re initially not sure how much here is psychological vs paranormal. Over time the difference becomes clear, and author F. R. Tallis, a clinical psychologist, carefully and relentlessly builds dread as Christopher’s obsession grows and Laura begins to feel that there’s a presence in the house. There were moments when I wondered at the lethargy of this married couple, but then that’s explained by their twin paths: Christopher, happy to delve into the house’s dark past, and Laura, who has a tiny sliver of intuition, but she’s too deep in her own memories trying to get to some central truth to take action. Much is left to the imagination, and this just adds to the terror. There are some loose ends with the secondary characters, Sue in particular, and the storyline involving the house’s last owner is frustrating elusive, but overall this was a gripping, dark tale.

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My Biggest Lie by Luke Brown

“It is a sort of fun being a dickhead, that’s why there’s so many of us.”

My Biggest Lie, a humorous debut novel from British author Luke Brown is a tale of self-destruction, self-promotion, and the collision of both set against the unbridled hedonistic excesses of the publishing world. Thirty-year-old Liam Wilson was well on his way towards a good career–he lived with Sarah, the girlfriend he claims to love, moved from an indie publisher in Birmingham to a major publishing house is London, and was mentored by rockstar publishing director for fiction, the “flamboyant” James Cockburn.

my biggest lieWith Cockburn out of commission and in hospital under strange circumstances, Liam is entrusted with minding author Craig Bennett whose book Talking to Pedro won the Booker prize. Sarah has just broken up with Liam, and feeling lost and sorry for himself, all of Liam’s self-destructive urges emerge. Set on the task to babysit Bennett and make sure he doesn’t have access to drugs, Liam, as Bennett’s minder engages in a long-drug-fueled evening which ends with Bennett dead and Liam agreeing to “resign.” Now the scourge of the publishing industry, Liam heads to Buenos Aires, ostensibly to write that novel he’s always been talking about.

My Biggest Lie is a look at the life of that familiar character–the Affable Dickhead. That’s my term to describe Liam whose morally reprehensible behaviour is slightly ameliorated by his tarnished charm.  He’s not someone you’d want in your life–although I suspect we all know a Liam, and while as a friend his behaviour is intolerable, he’s great fun to read about. He’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but he’s definitely a dodgy one. He doesn’t initially tell us the whole story of exactly what he did with either his girlfriend or with Craig Bennett. He makes us wait as he parcels out details, hoping to win us over with that overworked charm of the bullshit artist. Once on the top of his world, with a bright future, he blew it all in a series of self-destructive moves, and now he hopes he can win it all back: the girlfriend, the career, and perhaps even the self-respect. Liam is an entertaining narrator–definitely obnoxious, but with just enough self-disgust to make his train wreck of a life well-worth following.

I’d arrived in London from a small press in Birmingham with a reputation of frugality, integrity and luck. Everyone loves a plucky indie. It made people at the conglomerates trying to poach our successful authors feel good about themselves knowing that we existed, that there was room for us. I was embraced at book parties. Have you met my mate Liam? People thought that I was a nice guy. I cared about writers. Well I always had a lot of compassion but outside of work it mostly overflowed in the wrong directions, to the people who least needed it. To the people who exhibited moral failings, by which I mean the people with the option to. The carnal people, the libertines, the charmers. The lookers, the liars, the reckless. The success went to my head. That’s the point of success. I was drawn to the promiscuous and the criminal, like my mentor and the other JC, and who knew London publishing would be such a fine place to find these two qualities?

The novel started off very strongly but wobbled a bit when Liam arrives in Buenos Aires. Liam doesn’t know what to do with himself, and the plot seems to reflect Liam’s uncertainty. Left to his own limited devices leads to some self-examination, and while Liam admits some ugly truths about himself, he’s not exactly a reformed character.

Becoming a vainglorious prick has never been fundamental to creating literary art. No, I did that because it was fun, because I was morally exhausted and it was easy to pretend my behaviour was separate from my essence. But if the man careening around town in my clothes wasn’t me, then why did I feel so bad, and so proud, about the way he talked to women.

Stuck in a youth hostel with only Bleak House to read, Liam wallows in self-pity and admits his failings, but he’s soon back to his obnoxious ways when he resorts to stalking his ex-girlfriend via Facebook, and even contacts her friend Lizzie, whose macho boyfriend, Arturo, triggers bisexual fantasies in Liam’s already confused brain. While trying to jumpstart his novel, and attempting to arrive at some resolution about his involvement in the death of Craig Bennett, Liam decides to contact the two most significant people in Bennett’s life: Amy Casares and Alejandro Montenegro.

The book is at its funniest when describing the mud-slinging antics of the publishing world–writers who are “needy little vultures,” who chart “line graphs of their Amazon rankings.” The novel sagged in spots, and the endless drug fueled odysseys across London and Buenos Aires felt a bit anachronistic. At one point there’s even a mention of Jay McInerney (a sure sign we’re in Excess territory), and I wondered for a moment if we were in the 80s, but no, it’s post 9-11, present times. Who knew that people in the publishing industry were such party animals? One of the book’s most interesting and subtle aspects is that Liam doesn’t seem to get that when you’re a Booker prize winner or high in the food chain in the publishing industry, self-destruction is a form of celebrity-style self-promotion, but when you’re lower in the food chain, then being drunk at a book fair only makes you a liability.  The same rules just don’t apply.

Sociopaths. Laptop-dogs. Wolfes. Woolfs. carvers. Lushes. Lishs. Gougers. Hacks. Mice. Lice. Writers, they were the worst, the most awful, we pitied them but loathed them more; because if it wasn’t for them, the job really would be a pleasure.

 I liked this novel in spite of its faults; I don’t think it’s easy to write something funny, but Luke Brown managed it first time out of the gate.

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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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Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

For some reason, people seem to think I’m joking when I mention that crime fiction teaches you life skills, and although the novel Before We Met is more psychological tension than crime, all sorts of crimes take place in this page-turner which should appeal to fans of Nicci French. Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met is being compared to Gillian Flynn’s big hit Gone Girl–a book I had mixed feelings about. Before We Met is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve read in a while, and quite honestly, there were times when I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. So, if you’re in the mood for a distracting read–something that will take your mind off of something unpleasant, then this is the book for you.

before we metThis is the story of a young British woman named Hannah who’s been happily married to Mark for almost eight months following a brief courtship and marriage in New York. Thinking she could easily find work, she left her job as a successful ad executive and relocated to London with Mark when he closed his company’s  New York office due to downsizing. She’s been in London now for 5 months and enjoys a cushy lifestyle in Mark’s beautifully restored, pricey Victorian mansion. While the marriage is very happy, idyllic even, Hannah cannot find work. But no matter… Mark, whose remodeled home is worth a cool two million, makes plenty of money and is in the process of selling his company and pocketing a mint. When the novel opens, Mark is supposed to return from a business trip to America and Hannah drives to the airport to pick him up.

From this moment on, Hannah’s life is in meltdown, and the chaos begins with small details until ultimately she’s facing a tsunami of deceit.  Mark doesn’t show at the airport, he doesn’t call, and her anxiety turns into suspicion when both Mark’s business partner and his personal assistant let slip that they thought that Hannah and Mark were on a romantic weekend in Rome.  Hannah does what any rational person would do in this situation…. she begins snooping.

She had the feeling that there was something at the corner of her eye, just out of focus, something that didn’t make sense. It was like watching a film and knowing there was something in the plot that didn’t quite add up but not being able to put a finger on it.

The novel goes through Hannah’s memories back to the time she met Mark in Long Island through mutual friends, and the fact that they are both British working in New York may have been part of the attraction. Mark certainly seemed to make a point of seeking Hannah out, and to Hannah, he seemed wonderfully attentive when it came to learning all the details of her life. She should have shut up and asked a few questions of her own.  

There’s a very nice twist to this novel in the details of Hannah’s past. As a child, she caught her mother going through her father’s pockets looking for clues to his extra-marital affairs, and since her parents’ marriage subsequently broke up (something she’s never quite forgiven her mother for), Hannah has always said that she would never be that person. And we all know that when we start a sentence with “I’ll never…” well, like the Titanic which sailed with insufficient lifeboats, we’re tempting fate.  Hannah sees her mother as a woman whose insecurity precipitated the collapse of her marriage, so in response Hannah tends to want to give Mark the benefit of the doubt. Another nice twist here is that Hannah had past problems with men and was perfectly happy with one night stands that came with no commitment. Taken to task by her caring brother Tom, she felt proud of herself that she was turning a new leaf when she flung herself into a relationship with Mark, applauding herself for her ability to change direction and finally commit to an institution she’s leery of.

Those character details go a long way to explaining exactly how Hannah, an intelligent, educated career woman finds herself in the terrible predicament of wondering just who she married and how she ended up being totally dependent. She’s torn by a desire to know the truth, but at the same time she doesn’t quite trust her own judgment. Is she overreacting to the inconsistencies in Mark’s past or is there a simple explanation?

I’m not going to give away more of the plot because that would spoil the fun for the next reader. This is an intensely paced plot in which the tension just keeps building. There are a few plot holes that were never addressed, and the ending was a bit over-the top; I hate those Hollywood endings. Those minor complaints aside, I read this in two sittings and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Wings by Stuart Evers

Anyone who’s ever had a tattoo knows that there are many reasons behind the decision. Love or the marking of life change are just a couple of catalysts for a trip to the tattoo shop; grief and the desire to carry a permanent memorial with us are others. In Wings, a story from the new collection, Your Father Sends His Love, from British author Stuart Evers, Maria steps outside of her life and into a tattoo shop on her dead sister, Gwen’s 40th birthday. She wants a tattoo–a pair of wings as a memorial; the sisters had planned to get tattoos together when they turned forty, so in a way, Maria is keeping a promise to the dead.

‘My sister  died,’ she says as he points out a pair of wings that cover the entirety of a man’s back. ‘It’s her birthday today.’

‘A tattoo is a good way to remember someone,’ he says. ‘The earliest of all tattoos were for remembrance, you know?’

Tattoo virgins often imagine the experience as they gather up courage, and the imagined experience is ultimately different from reality:

It is nothing like she imagined. There are over sixty different pairs of wings in the portfolio and the tattooist is all-too helpful picking out a design. Many come with a little background, a summary of how long they take to ink, whether he feels it is a good design for her. It reminds her of looking at carpet swatches and kitchen counter tops, salesmen pitching the longevity, the luxury of their products. Like those men, the tattooist repeats that at the end of the day the choice is hers.

While Wings just grants us a brief glimpse into the lives of its characters, we clearly see the impact of grief on one sister whose life must go on even as the life of another has faded. The scant information that we are given allows us to fill in the blanks as we see Maria coping with grief and an emotional absence from her own life. Poignant and deeply melancholic, the story opens a window into Maria’s understandable grief, but is there something more going on here? This is a life that should be considered successful, but there’s been a detour, a freezing of time.

In the mirror, the wings look as though they have always been there. She thinks of Gwen, unillustrated, and begins what she understands is a kind of not crying, a sort of anti-crying, a physical process undertaken by those who have grieved enough and need no longer to grieve. She sits down on the edge of the bed and puts her head in her hands and imagines her sister laughing. The intensity of it spangles, makes constellations inside her limbs and torso. The wings beat and she can see her sister standing in the mirror, staring at her, eyes fixed and dilated.

I’m a believer in discovering new authors through short stories. If I like their style, their themes and their characters, then I’ll dig deeper.  I liked Wings enough to buy the author’s novel, If This is Home. I’ll be reading it soon…so watch this space….

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A View from the Tower by Charles Lambert

“No one’s immune, he said, as though the spores of violence were in the air and could settle on anyone.”

With The View from the Tower, Charles Lambert has written an intelligent, page-turner set in Rome–part mystery, part dissection of marriage and friendship, but underlying the story of a life in crisis, the novel examines revolutionary ethics and questions the moral justification of the use of violence. The book’s title, The View from the Tower, is literal and refers to a scene towards the end of the book, but it’s a phrase that also refers to the argument for revolutionary violence and how individuals swayed by the idea of ‘the greater good,’ place themselves on a higher moral ground, above the crowd and there, in isolation decide on that irrevocable step to take human life.

The view from the towerAs with Charles Lambert’s novel, Any Human Face, The View From the Tower is a page-turner, and the story begins powerfully with a long-married couple, now in their 50s saying a casual goodbye as they part for the day, and with neither of them aware that this is the “last morning of their marriage.” British ex-pat Helen and high-powered government official, Frederico, leave their flat and part with plans for a dinner that night–an event, of course, that will never take place:

So she and Frederico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.

There’s a poignancy here–the illusion of permanence, the fragility of our mortality and a sense of impending loss–a loss that Helen has yet to endure as we read about an evening that exists only in the imagination:

This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.

This cleverly constructed introduction sets the scene for the idea that everything we hold dear, everything we assume will happen, all our expectations, can be wiped out in a single moment. Along with that idea, the story describes the spaces Helen and Frederico share, and the way in which their lives separate. These two elements: loss and  the knowledge we think we have of the people in our lives are two of the major themes of the novel.

Within a few minutes, Frederico and his bodyguard are dead–the apparent victims of political assassination, at the very moment that Helen is keeping an assignation with her long-time lover, and Fredrico’s best friend, aging rockstar revolutionary, Giacomo….

Author Charles Lambert takes some terrific risks with his characters by making them all flawed and, at times, unpleasant and unlikable. Frederico, Helen, and Giacomo are not perfect people–and certainly their relationships with one another are complex and intertwined with some sort of latent competitiveness lurking between the 2 men who see themselves reflected through the prism of politics. The novel goes back and forth in time, exploring these relationships–from Rome in 2004, back to Turin in the 70s and Giacomo and Frederico’s involvement in the war against the State.

What’s so interesting about the novel is the way the three characters appear to need each other; when Helen first meets Frederico in the 70s, she hears all these stories about Giacomo, his best friend, and it’s clear that Frederico has no small amount of admiration for Giacomo,–a man he sees as the ‘real thing,’ not just a theorist. If Giacomo appears to be the one who physically embodies the nomadic life of the untamed revolutionary, then Frederico is the intellectual arm of the revolution, and where does that leave Helen? How about smack in the middle? Even before meeting Giacomo, Helen feels that she will instinctively dislike him:

You’ll love him, Frederic said whenever he mentioned him. I know you will. Everybody does. Helen examined the small creased strips of photographs and other photographs of him Frederico showed her, always surrounded by people, and wondered if she would like him as much as Frederico expected her to. She didn’t like doing what everyone else did, or feeling what they felt. Besides, there was something over-masculine and swaggering about him she didn’t take to. Always standing in the centre, the largest smile, the others more often looking at him than at the camera, to see what he wanted, from them. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, she decided, whatever that might be.

As the main female protagonist of the novel, Helen goes through various stages of grief when her husband is murdered: denial, shock, anger and acceptance, but whereas in a simpler novel, the character of Helen would be a vehicle for our sympathy, here she’s difficult to like. As the days pass after Frederico’s death, she turns to Giacomo for support, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frederico, who seemed distracted and troubled weeks before his death, was keeping some very big secrets from his wife. As she uncovers layers of lies, her anger and feelings of betrayal, while very real, fail to garner much sympathy due to the fact that her relationship with Frederico has been tainted by duplicity for decades. In a lesser novel, this could be a plot flaw, but here the result is a pervasive sadness that these three people who profess to feel more for each other than anyone else on the planet, lived lives of tangled deceit and half-truths which all come spilling out only after Frederico’s death.

Underneath this drama involving murder, betrayal and infidelity, The View from the Tower tackles the question of revolutionary violence. Part of this comes through from the 70s backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro–an event that Helen notes mainly as white noise, but an event, as it turns out, that may involve Frederico and Giacomo. Several decades later, Giacomo has morphed from the dashing, charismatic radical and is now a middle-aged man who has turned author, tending to the heaviness of his sedentary lifestyle. He makes the lecture circuit on the merit of his past exploits, and his current rockstar status is thanks to his past which includes a jail sentence. Now he’s wealthy, jets around the world and has an anorexic, high-maintenance Parisian trophy wife. These days, Giacomo is about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara T-shirt. The fact that he arrives in Rome on the very day of Frederico’s murder is enough for those investigating the assassination to be suspicious of his involvement. Meanwhile, Frederico’s death suddenly becomes a matter of State, and Helen finds herself fighting over his corpse with her mother-in-law. The real fight, of course, goes much deeper than this.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters in this tale of tangled loyalties twisted with bitter betrayals,  I wanted to see what happened to them as Helen and a friend dig around looking for answers to Frederic’s murder. I should interject that I really liked the adulterous twist that removed Helen from the devastated widow figure. This throws a wrench in her role as a tragic wife, and since I don’t like books that milk my emotions, ‘nice’ people who do bad things always add to the interest of any story.

Politics is a dirty game, and here we see those layers at all levels: world, state and personal. Just who comes out as a winner in this well-written, engaging story isn’t who you’d expect. While the very-human drama plays out against the underbelly of Rome’s political structure, ultimately, the biggest question is: who has the moral right to decide to end of the life of another in order to secure political goals?  

Review copy & purchased copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

 A Long Way From Verona, Jane Gardam’s superb first novel, was originally published in 1971, and here’s Gardam at the beginning of her career exhibiting the energy, love of life, and strong narrative voice characteristic of her writing. The engaging heroine of this tale is the unusual, confident, independent, curious and intelligent Jessica Vye; it’s a 13-year old Jessica who narrates the tale, and while I usually pass on novels with adolescent or child narrators, Jane Gardam skillfully avoids all the tired clichés. Instead Jessica Vye’s voice is fresh, witty and bursting with life as she records her rich inner life and observes the adult world around her. There’s the underlying sense that while Jessica will grow to become a remarkable woman, we’d like her to stay like this: unique and unspoiled.

a long way to veronaIt’s WWII, and Gardam fans already know just how well this author has mined this era with her other novels. For the most part, the war is in the background like distant thunder–but it shapes Jessica’s life and a couple of traumatic incidents lead to a quiet maturity. This is how the book begins:

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets to the point.

That somewhat awkward opening illustrates perfectly Jessica’s personality, and we very soon discover that Jessica wants to be a writer, and while some of this wonderful novel concerns Jessica’s aspirations, the plot follows Jessica in her school life, with her friends and family, and her first tentative romance.  Although WWII is in the background, it clearly impacts Jessica’s life and alters how she sees the world, and Jessica has experiences unique to the time: Air-raids, rationing, and city refugees seeking safety in the country. While sad things occur when the war breaks through into Jessica’s childhood, there’s a delicate, gentle humour here–mostly through Jessica’s voice and the gaps between what she sees and records and her precocious understanding.

One of the most dramatic changes to Jessica’s childhood slips into the narrative without much explanation. Gardam captures the reality of childhood when the adults make decisions behind closed doors with the children witnessing the result. Jessica’s father was a schoolmaster, but the family moves to another part of England, “the vilest part of it” according to Jessica’s mother following the father’s decision “to stop being a schoolmaster and to become a curate.” Jessica, as our narrator, is not privy to the discussions, and presumably the arguments that took place before the Vye family pulled up roots and left behind their lovely home and took a definite step down to a harsher life in Cleveland Sands. How easy it is, for us, the reader to recall similar incidents which occurred in childhood, and then years later when we dredge up memories, we then realize that we saw only the front drama, and somehow missed all that took place backstage between the adults. We can imagine the scenes that took place between her parents, but here’s Jessica recording the final scene at their old home, giving us clues about the family dynamics:

We were in the station taxi and mother was crying and Rowley, my brother, was crying too–he was still extremely young and it was about all he ever did–and my father was talking to the taxi man about whether there was going to be a war or not and trying not to look back at the house which still had all our curtains hanging in the windows,  and the garden seats on the lawn, and even the swing in the pear tree because the house belonged to the school and most of the things had to be left for the next schoolmaster and his family.

Later Jessica notes that while her mother was “marvelous at being a schoolmaster’s wife,” she’s not coping well with being the wife of a curate. Jessica’s mother is now “a bit red in the face … and her clothes are vile.” She’s also angry a lot, unable to cope with the work load and all the church functions. Again, there must be pressures behind the scenes, but these escape Jessica and will no doubt return for her consideration in her adulthood. This puts us, the readers, into a peculiar position as we grasp a few things that Jessica cannot.

Jessica attends the High School at Cleveland Spa and notes that while “people often start by liking me very much,” any initial popularity “faded away.”  Trying to buy popularity with toffees fails, and after some thinking, Jessica realizes that there are several reasons why she’s not popular, and these reasons include her outspokenness. Jessica also falls foul of most of the schoolmistresses who find her honesty, confidence and opinions pert and far too forward. Jessica’s character disallows conformity, and since school is all about conforming to the rules, Jessica falls foul of her teachers upon many occasions. But just as Jessica is at the point of despair  and alienation, she encounters a few adults who challenge conformity, accept her and make an impression on this very special girl. At one point, given a homework assignment of an essay titled “the Best Day of the Summer Holiday,” (and can’t we all remember that one) Jessica writes 47 pages and is asked “what was the meaning of this?’  Jessica’s enthusiasm and oddness is construed as rebellion. On that day,  after receiving no less than three order marks, Jessica makes a significant ally in Miss Philemon, an elderly schoolmistress who finds Jessica refreshing. Gardam captures so perfectly that moment when the adolescent realizes that our misery is overstated, the relative freedom of adulthood is not that far off, and the tyranny of conformity is only as strong as we allow it to be.

One of the most interesting things about Jessica is that while she’s sensitive to punishment and opinion, she’s also impervious to it as seen when she’s finally sent to the headmistress who asks her “to try to behave like a gentlewoman.”

I was silent and then I said, “I’m terribly sorry but I’m afraid I can’t.”

“And why not?”

“Well I’m not one. I’m not a gentlewoman.”

“Oh?”

“I will try to be good, I really will. As a matter of fact I do, I think that’s another reason I’m so unpopular, but you really have to be in our house, it’s part of father’s job. but I can’t be a gentlewoman because father doesn’t believe in it. He’s a member of the Labour Party.”

She said, “I see,” and looked at her fingernails. “Well, never mind. Shall we leave it at that then, that you will try to be good. That is really what I meant. You know it all comes down to goodness in the end, as you will see if you read about Our lord. Now I wonder if you have anything to say?”

I thought for ages and said that I should like to ask please the meaning of ‘decorum’ because it was a word I didn’t know, and for the first time she nearly hit the ceiling. ‘Dignity,’ she thundered, ‘dignity, child, dignity,’ louder, I think, than she had meant …

We accompany the irrepressible Jessica through all aspects of her daily life: her interactions with her peers, her teachers, and her family. We also see Jessica ordering in a café during the deprivations of WWII and then, in probably my favourite sequence in the book, she is made to attend a weekend house party at the home of the Rural Dean & his family, the Fanshawe-Smithes; it’s here Jessica is exposed to snobbery and hypocrisy, and forges a significant relationship which leads to a viewing of the slums at Teesside. While this is a story of Jessica’s childhood, there’s a great deal here to evoke personal memories of wonder, alienation, and the unfairness of being a child in an adult world.

I had just reached the part when Jude’s eldest son had hanged both his little brothers and hitched them up on the back of the bedroom door like dressing gowns when a hand came down on to the book from out of the shadows beyond the reading lamp, and it was Mrs. Baxter. ‘Jessica!’ she said, ‘I’d no idea you were still here. The buzzer went ten minutes ago. Whatever are you reading? It must be very exciting.’ She picked Jude up and held it near her spectacles for a moment, twisting the lamp upwards so that she could see. She gave the most frightful sort of yelp after a minute and nearly dropped it. ‘Jess, dear!’ she cried. ‘Whatever on earth! What is this terrible book?’ I said it was an English Classic. ‘It must be removed from the library,’ she said. ‘It’s a most horrible book. What would your father say? Oh, Jessica, you mustn’t read such a horrible book!’

I said it was by Thomas Hardy.

‘I don’t care if it is by William Shakespeare, you are NOT to read it. I will speak to the librarian to have it taken off the shelves.’ And I think she must have done, because it’s certainly not there now.

While Jessica is a remarkable narrator, witty, observant, frank, and with a voice that’s a joy to read, it’s often the responses of those who underestimate her tenacity that bring the warmest, most amusing moments. During this significant time in Jessica’s life, she is exposed to people, incidents and even books (Thomas Hardy) that various individuals wish to protect her from, yet these are all elements that add to Jessica’s maturation in various ways. Experience–the good and the bad–Gardam seems to say, must be savoured and endured. Delightful and refreshing, A Long Way From Verona makes my best of 2013 list.

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Noose by Bill James

“Quite often narrow squeaks are what shape our days, aren’t they?”

I’ve been meaning to read author Bill James for a while now, so his latest novel, Noose arrived at the right time. In spite of the cover, this is not a crime novel, and instead while a noose  is mentioned in the tale, for the most part, the noose is figurative. It’s a sense of moral obligation on the part of the protagonist, Ian Charteris, who when the novel opens, is a reporter.

NooseIt’s 1956. The novel opens with Ian receiving a call at home from the Mirror news desk to cover a story, the suicide attempt of a young up and coming actress named Daphne West who was found in a gas-filled room. The “customary PR gab” insists this was an accident, but there are some ugly rumours about Daphne’s involvement with “big-deal theatre producer” Milton Skeeth. According to the Mirror, Ian is the perfect man for the job:

That’s one of your flairs, isn’t it–getting folk to confide, blub on your shoulder, reveal all? You sport that kind of sympa face and chummy voice. You could become an agony aunt when age sets in and your career starts to run down. I want to hear the flagging of her gas-strangled heartbeat in your stuff, Ian.

But there are indications that Ian is already involved in this story in some way, and this could partly be explained by Ian’s suspicion that Daphne is his father’s illegitimate child and therefore his half sister.

Noose is a clever, very neatly organized novel, and the story’s trajectory begins to appear following Ian’s somewhat unethical presence at Daphne’s hospital bedside. From this point, the story’s arc extends back more than 20 years to Ian’s childhood with his “amphibious” dad–a very strange fellow. Noose explores the seminal incidents of Ian’s childhood which take him on a very specific path to adulthood, a murder which Ian witnesses, a hanging, and a woman saved from drowning. Seemingly disconnected events weave a safety net of privilege around Ian’s future, even as we see that Ian cannot escape his past, and it all begins with Ian’s father saving a young woman from drowning after she falls from a paddle ship. This story of heroism is a mainstay of Ian’s childhood, and it’s rolled out like an old familiar carpet every so often. Ian is trained to provide his father (who even snaps his fingers as though he can’t remember a crucial detail), with prompts, and of course Ian has the story memorized.

‘But back on that special day, you dived in from the port deck rail, determined to make a rescue.’

‘Had to.’

‘The woman’s coat and other wet clothes tugged her down.’

‘The sea there. Murky. Hard to spot anyone at depth.’

Ian’s father’s proudly owns a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the day he saved the young woman from drowning, and he’s jealously protective of his heroic action. Even though Ian’s just a child, he recognizes that his father has to be the centre of attention, and this makes for an awkward moment when Ian and his father attend a memorial service. Here’s Emily Bass, the reckless young woman saved by Ian’s father:

She said: ‘Often I speak to my husband and my friends of the undaunted captain who flung himself into the dark, dark sea in a valiant though doomed effort to save me, while also mentioning your father, Ian, naturally. It’s really fairly unusual to have a distinguished man die for you, isn’t it? Off came his cap with gold braid on it, I believe. Oh, such an occasion then, and such an occasion now.’

‘I got you out, you know,’ Mr Charteris remarked again. ‘Many a newspaper cutting I have at home describing this, haven’t I , Ian?’

‘Many,’ Ian said.

There were a couple of moments when I wondered why the novel began with an attempted suicide and then went back into Ian’s childhood, but the author keeps tight control over the story, all loose ends are neatly addressed, and we come to see that Emily plays a very significant role in Ian’s later life. Take L.P Hartley’s quote, “the past is a foreign country,” and that simply has no relevance to Ian’s adulthood. He may think he’s a man with Free Will but every step of his life is shaped by his past–specifically his father’s past–sometimes he’s aware of that and sometimes he just suspects it.  A sense of moral obligation, of “debt,” is the noose that motivates Ian. According to Ian, it’s his “nicer side,” and he has to do a “bit of reciprocity.” While most of this sense of obligation stems from his father’s past, Ian also feels guilty for his role, as a child, in sending a man to the gallows, and later, he has cause to feel guilty about a fellow RAF officer.

Noose reminded me more than once of an Evelyn Waugh novel–perhaps the Sword of Honour had something to do with it, and that certainly brought Waugh’s name to mind, but no, it’s more the quirky characters–the Bells who own a chip shop, the woman at the hanging who knows all the relevant details and advocates the cat-o’-nine-tails first, and there’s one marvelous, extremely funny scene in which Ian, conscripted for his National Service engages in mock battle with a rival for the Sword of Honour, Bain. Ian senses that Bain is inherently the better candidate for the Sword of Honour, yet does the best man (whatever that means) win or does fate in the shape of his father’s past intervene yet again? Spanning a couple of decades of British history, this is a novel in which Ian seems to be one of the few normal people, and he’s surrounded by eccentrics in an off-kilter world. Noose argues that we pay for the sins of our parents, for it’s in Ian’s adulthood, that he finally understands some of the more mysterious incidents in his childhood.

Here’s Ian’s father angry when newspaper reporters show up to talk to his son:

“I knew it, I knew it,’ Mr Charteris said. He punched the hall dado rail with his fist three times quickly. Ian’s mother hated fist work against walls or furniture. She considered it showing too much excitement, like foreigners, especially in hot countries where people got so steamed they forgot control. She went to the spot on the dado rail and brushed it with her hand, as though to give it comfort or make sure her husband hadn’t contaminated it by getting his skin broken in the blow and leaving blood.

“First down the police station in the middle of the night , and now this,” Mr Charteris said. “They want to know everything and spread it. Don’t tell me they won’t spread it. Why are they called “reporters” if they’re not going to spread it? They’re going to spread it to people who buy the Echo.”

“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.

“Oh, yes, spread it,” his father replied.

I really didn’t expect this novel to be gently humorous and I was pleasantly surprised. There’ll be more James in my future.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, James Bill

All to Play For by Heather Peace

“We should be emulating the U.S. Look at the quality of their shows.”

If you feel that there’s a lot of crap on television these days, then All to Play For by Heather Peace, an insider’s look at the politics inside the BBC during the 1990s, is the novel for you. While BBC television is admired the world over and held up as the standard to aim for, this novel shows the death of the Old World Order of the BBC and the rise of aggressive new management aimed at cutting costs in a battle between Art vs Commerce.

All to play forThe book begins in 1985 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a time “when art and commerce were the left and right of clashing ideologies.” A group of people are arrested, and as it turns out these 6 people become major characters in the drama that plays out at the BBC. While the story focuses on the careers of these characters, the plot includes many other figures in television, some that become successful and some that do not.

  • Feminist Maggie whose frank opinions win secret admiration but no friends at the BBC
  • Jonathan, good-looking, with the background that puts him on a BBC career track that should take him to management
  • Jill, full of ideas, a writer who can think on her feet, but who is naïve and taken advantage of
  • Nik, the son of a disgraced policeman who reinvents himself as a coke-sniffing, bisexual executive of Magenta Television Productions
  • Chris Briggs, the newly appointed Controller of BB2 “being groomed” for Director General and “possibly” the House of Lords
  • Rhiannon, the Welsh narrator
  • Andrea, a black woman, former secretary for the BBC who joins the production company Sisters in Synch & whose article argues that “The BBC risks remaining stuck in its past, hobbled by the imperialist culture which originally gave birth to it.”
  • Selina, Chris’s PA, blonde, impeccable, whose mediocrity is masked by her icy efficiency
  • Basil Richardson & Stewart Walker BBC drama producers and bastions of the Old Order World

From the debacle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the story jumps forward to the “dawn of the nineties.” With the Thatcher government on its way out, privatization the word of the era, and the license fee under threat, Chris Briggs takes the helm of BB2 with the goal to please shareholders by making significant budget cuts. Told primarily from the viewpoint of the drama department, the novel, which alternates from Rhiannon’s first person to third person narration, shows how Briggs takes over the nervous staff at BBC2 and begins to make his imprint. Chris doesn’t understand creativity–he’s more interested in “a scientific basis for choosing programmes. … based on American systems,” and he’s ambitious enough to not be concerned about a body count of fired employees. In the background, New Labour (or “New Tory” as one character calls the party) rises seemly in parallel with the new market forces at the BBC.

One of our main characters, Maggie joins the BBC, initially with a 3 month contract, as a trainee script editor. Given the task of reading unsolicited scripts, Maggie soon learns that she works in shark infested waters, and that all the scripts, regardless of quality are uniformly rejected in this insider’s “Olympian” club. Maggie discovers that “because of the public service remit,” the BBC is required to read these scripts which are referred to as the “slush pile.”

Evidently she hadn’t been employed because they valued her opinions; they merely wanted her to stand at the gates of the BBC with a metaphorical riot shield, turning away the thousands who mistakenly believed that the “Auntie”  affectionately referred to by Terry Wogan was a kind, friendly organisation with writers’ best interests at heart and a sympathetic interest in their work.

And this is one of the best aspects of the book. The author shows that while BBC produces quality programming–albeit expensive programming–it’s programming of a certain ilk. There’s one marvellous scene which takes place during the Drama Discussion Group. Maggie, who’s enthusiastic about The EastEnders, and considers it one of the best things on television, picks up the vibe that the programme is held “in low esteem” by the Drama department. The meeting is basically run by insiders for insiders engaged in a circle jerk of praise. The BBC is a place where skill and intelligence are not enough– you need the “social expertise to navigate the arcane traditions,” and it’s essential to know “the ropes, the rules, the manners, the language, and most importantly, the right people.”  Criticism is  not welcome, and attitudes towards programmes reinforce patronizing snobbery and sexism. During the Drama Discussion Group, Maggie complains about a programme set in Bradford, Maggie’s “home ground.” No one is particularly interested to know if the programme presented an accurate picture or how people in Bradford felt about it. Maggie’s comment about the programme results in a cutting rejoinder:

“Unfortunately neither the ratings nor the audience appreciation figures are broken down by regions as small as that. Of course, we do know that inner city viewers are inclined to select ITV or BBC1 as a matter of choice, so given that Death went out on a Saturday night, I rather doubt whether we succeeded in diverting very many council estate inhabitants from more urgent affairs down the pub.”

From establishing that the BBC needs modernization in its processes and attitudes, the author shows the seismic changes that occur are not all positive.

The irony was that the poor old Beeb desperately needed reform and modernization in its working practices, no-one could deny that–but what we got was closer to Napalm.”

With a rising body count of the now unemployed, nepotism continues to reign–just with a different crowd at the helm. The BBC remains a closed shop especially for anything that smells even remotely ‘controversial’ (Peter Watkins, here’s thinking of you). Meanwhile, Nik Mason, “a self-made man [who] possessed no old school tie,” rises to the top of the food chain by his sheer ruthlessness. The gates of the BBC open to Nik and he becomes one of the Olympians not because of class, or accent but because he has the same vision & values: emulating the model of American television with cost the bottom line. Nik is just as ambitious as many of the other characters in the novel, but in his case he’s not picky about who he treads on to get ahead. Nik, who reinvents himself and fabricates lies about his past, believes that his “public persona was the only one that counted. It dictated everything about your life. It was the real you, because it was the one other people related to. The inner you could be safely ignored, kept private.” But in Nik’s case the public and private persona don’t seem that different. He’s arguably the most interesting character in the novel as he moves up into the highest echelons of the television world.

he laughed when he compared himself to the ‘old school’ staff in the BBC’s own Light Entertainment Department, whose power decreased in proportion to the rise of ‘Johnny Come Lately’ independents like himself. Young BBC producers were even denied royalties on their own work nowadays. They developed shows for a pittance and argued for them until they were hoarse, whilst a guy like him strolled in behind their backs, secured the gig, and strolled out again dripping gold. He loved it. All those public school chins hanging open. He never showed it of course–that would be vulgar–but alone in his loft apartment he smirked into his mirror.

There’s some insider’s information here–for example, at one point a character mentions that the number of programmes in development are 14:1–a reference of course, to the lavish expenditure during better days. While I struggled at times with understanding some of the political requirements behind the BBC agenda, I loved the scenes which depicted the creative process, and the times at which we see an idea or even a few words develop into a story treatment, a screenplay and then the finished product.  The scenes with Chris ordering up what he’d like to see on BB2, even as he demolishes idea after idea, are brilliant and catch the helplessness & depression of the BBC Drama department as their world slips through their fingers. In one scene, Chris states, “I want you to bring me a better, cheaper idea,” while in another, when an idea for a Welsh programme is pitched, he asks a room of speechless, intimidated employees: “Is Wales interesting right now?” As the book continues, we see the Drama department eviscerated due to cost cutting even as many people seem unable to adjust to the New World Order. It’s clear that the writers upon whom this system depends are often the ones given the shaft–either with their ideas sold at a give-away price, royalties that are non-existent and little or no payment for shelved or rejected work. Fans of film and television should find this unusual novel and its insider’s view fascinating, and if you’ve wondered why BBC’s costume dramas are rare, or if you cringe at the following statement, you should enjoy this book:

If we’re not careful we’ll lose everything worth watching, all the new, experimental shows, our television will be exactly the same as in the US: unwatchable rubbish, wall-to-wall mindless nonsense sponsored by corrupt Bible-Bashers, with a five-minute advertising break every five minutes.

This is the only novel I could find written by this author, and I hope she writes another.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Peace Heather

A is for Angelica by Iain Broome

Engaging, unusual, and strangely funny (as you will see from the quotes), are all terms which describe British author Iain Broome’s impressive debut, A is for Angelica. Written in alphabetized chapters (such as Valentine, Vicious Circle, and Zero Tolerance), this frame story centres on Gordon Kingdom, a now unemployed middle-aged man who is the full-time caretaker of both his incontinent elderly dog, Springer Spaniel, Kipling, and his wife, Georgina. 18 months earlier, Georgina had a stroke, and thanks to Gordon’s obsessive care, she was recovering, but now she’s been hit with another stroke and a crisis looms.  Then Gordon’s attention shifts to Angelica, a free-spirited, outspoken woman who moves into number 23, Cressington Vale.

a is for angelicaIf you take a look at the cover, you’ll get a sense of the book. All those identical little houses lined up perfectly with nothing out-of-place, and that’s how Gordon, former coordinator of the Neighborhood Watch committee would like his street, Cressington Vale, to be, and while the cover not only reflects the structures of a neighbourhood, with its bird’s-eye view it also reflects Gordon’s spying. He keeps notes on his neighbours which then form files, and these alphabetized files are hidden up in the spare room and taken out and added to at appropriate moments. As a leftover from his old Neighbour Watch days, Gordon still keeps a file called “Suspicious Behaviour,” mostly about neighbours and the more bizarre inexplicable things Gordon sees them doing–”incidences” as he calls them:

It started the day I caught the vicar’s wife masturbating with the blinds open, her full-length mirror tipped at an unfortunate angle. In truth, he’s not really a vicar and she’s not really his wife. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s his bit on the side. I thought about slipping a note discreetly under the door to stop it happening again, but I decided against it. Besides, she should have known better. She’s older than me. After that, I found myself sitting by the window for hours on end, surveying the street. Letting the world drift past. Taking my mind off things.

Is there something wrong with Gordon? Probably. But since I’m not a therapist, I’m not going to try to put a label on this engaging character. We know that at one point, Gordon was gainfully employed, but now as Georgina’s full-time caretaker, he’s grown obsessed with the details of his ever shrinking world. Advised by the family doctor to keep notes on Georgina’s progress, Gordon has written an entire manual, but his obsession has spilled over onto the neighbours, and perhaps because he no longer has much a life of his own, he spies on the lives of others, on the opposite side of the street, “where the action is.” Gordon explains that his notes (and by extension his spying) have given him “structure, purpose and something to do.”

Narrated in a very simple fashion by Gordon, this novel’s strength is not found in beautiful, elaborate sentences but by Gordon’s delightful voice and refreshing world view, and the way the novel’s clever structure follows Gordon’s very literal, detail-oriented mind.  Through Gordon’s eyes, Cressington Vale comes alive with its various characters, including Don Donald, a man who lives alone since his wife ran off in 1984, the overworked NH Doctor Morris, a “suspected paedophile,” beleaguered by false charges and under siege from the demands of a large, brand new practice, and Judy, the clueless, well-meaning vicar. Gordon’s obsession appears to shift from Georgina and spying on the neighbours in general when Angelica moves into the neighbourhood. Suddenly Angelica with her painted fingernails and odd coloured gloves becomes far more interesting than everyone else combined. However, while Gordon is able to keep Don at a safe distance when it comes to Georgina’s care, it’s not so easy to dissuade Angelica from getting involved. She’s very direct, and doesn’t have much time for people who dissemble. 

Gordon’s narration goes back and forth in time, so we see Gordon and Georgina’s wedding, the newlywed Gordon and Georgina first moving into their new home armed with bright hopes for the future, and Gordon conducting a Neighbourhood Watch meeting he’ll never forget. While Gordon’s life is marred by tragedy and regret, this is by no means a depressing read, and the humour is to be found in Gordon’s unintentionally funny view and explanations replete with Gordon’s signature attention to detail:

Reverend Benjamin Christopher Gregory moved to Thailand eighteen months ago. He was marrying a young couple when he broke down in tears and had to be escorted from the altar. He came back minutes later, walked up to the best man and head-butted him square between the eyes. Soon after, someone sprayed graffiti across the side of his house and a picture appeared in the local newspaper of him sat on his doorstep, smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey from the bottle. He had bright red paint behind him, giant letters on a white pebbledash wall. It read ‘arsehole’. One word. No hypen.

Both medicine and religion fail Gordon in different ways, and while Gordon’s visits to the doctor could potentially be depressing in Gordon’s inability to ask for help, instead these scenes are replete with gentle humour:

Doctor Morris has a notice board stuck to the wall behind his desk. I stare at it while he pokes and prods me. It’s covered in leaflets and information booklets. A mixture of colours and slogans. Do this. Eat that. say no. Don’t be caught without one. 0% interest free credit. Buy one, get one free. There are six anti-smoking posters. They make me want a cigarette and I don’t even smoke.

Author Iain Broome shows, with both gentle humour and poignancy, a great deal of generosity and compassion towards his characters. Broome’s Gordon is both unique (which makes him interesting to read about), but also flawed. He’s focused so squarely and minutely on Georgina’s care that he’s lost all sense of balance. Caretakers share, by proxy, the diseases and illnesses endured by the ones they love, so while Georgina suffers from another stroke, her husband Gordon absorbs the fall-out: isolation, depression, and the heavy, relentless burden of 24/7 care.

Her life taken. My life too. Our life together. If I think about it long enough I start to get resentful. I start to blame Georgina. She could have done something differently. Spent less time at work. Spent more time with me. Even now, watching her sleeping, her eyes closed, her face devoid of colour, it’s hard to understand.

While the narrative appears to focus on Gordon’s observations, along with risk factors associated with various acts and recommendations, it’s the space in-between these details that leave intriguing gaps for the reader to interpret. Although the novel spins on its plot for a brief moment concerning the Angelica development, I loved this wonderfully fresh, engaging first novel which tells the tale of an average life of quiet desperation. Iain Broome is a very talented young man, and readers out there…  this is your chance to get on at the ground floor.

Review copy

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