Tag Archives: London

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.

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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.

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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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Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

“Families dont finish. You run away but they catch you up. Families are ghosts. Presences.”

James Kelman’s, Mo Said She Was Quirky (and it’s a great title, btw) begins with a young croupier named Helen, riding home in a taxi after working the night shift. As the taxi approaches  the traffic light, Helen notices two homeless men about to cross the road. A quiet drama takes place–part of it in Helen’s mind, and completely unnoticed by her two workmates, as Helen speculates whether the men will make it across the road before the lights change. There’s tension in the air. Helen and the taxi driver both feel it as this  is a moment when the incident could explode into something ugly. The homeless men move on and moment passes.

The incident is significant for Helen. While watching the homeless men, she initially, through interior dialogue, notes the awkwardness of riding in a taxi “with poor people seeing her, as though she was rich, she wasn’t.” But then as she watches the two men, one of them seems familiar, and in a split second, she is convinced that this is her brother, Brian. While the other two women giggle about the condition of the two homeless men and the desire to take their picture, Helen sinks into the knowledge that her brother–she last saw him twelve years ago– now lives on the London streets. The meaningless, cruel chatter of the two workmates fades into background noise as Helen grapples silently with the brief vision of the homeless men.

Mo said she was quirkyThe novel follow’s Helen’s life for the next 24 hours. She returns home and begins searching through old family photos as if she will find answers to unsolved questions. We learn that Helen, originally from Glasgow, now lives with her restaurant worker boyfriend Anglo-Pakistani Mo and her six-year-old daughter. To Helen, Mo is “like normality,” against some pathological family relationships, including Helen’s mother’s general “lack of interest.” Mo and Helen met in Glasgow but moved to London partly to escape her violent, bullying ex. While to Helen, Mo is a sanctuary, there are problems here too.

The rest of the novel is approximately 24 hours in Helen’s life told through interior monologue with a stream of consciousness narrative. I am not fond of stream of consciousness. Although I recognize its possibilities and its cleverness, it’s a narrative form that can be hard on the reader. In the case of Mo Said She Was Quirky, the stream of consciousness narrative isn’t particularly hard to follow.

Just being alive was a gamble. You opened a door and what was behind? You never knew. Everybody took risks. Helen too, she had done. Never again. Never. never never. Oh my god the thought, the very thought! The one she went with made her shiver. Even thinking about him. It was true. Who made her feel like that? Nobody. Oh how he looked at her, he just had to, even away over, he would be standing away over and she would be dealing and perhaps somebody asking for a card and she happened to see him, just glancing across. Then he was gone; she looked and she didnt see him. She couldnt stop thinking about him, he just arrived and she saw him and then he was away and she couldnt think of anything else. That was so against the rules. You could act ordinary in the job but when it came to men it took away and it took away your concentration, oh no, then their hands were in the till and you were out of a job.

Helen is a very ordinary person, and by this I mean she is a single mother, overworked and underpaid, living in poverty in a flat not much bigger than a large dog kennelit’s so small that Helen’s daughter, Sophie sleeps in a modified cupboard.

There’s a brief affair in the past with the mysterious married Mr Adams which served as a lever to spring Helen from her miserable marriage:

Knowing Mr Adams let her see about her ex what she didn’t want in life. Him! It didnt affect their relationship because that was already finished. Only she hadnt told him. She knew and he didnt. How many times lying there beside him in the dark and he was awake, and she could have said it to him, she could have. And she knew he was awake. Oh she knew alright because when he swallowed. People dont swallow, not if they are asleep. He was wondering if she was awake. She hardly breathed. She wouldnt have, not for him, never. Her mind could go any place. She was able to lie there and think it, whatever it was, whatever she wanted to think, and he was powerless because he could not stop her brains. He would if he could but he couldnt. Except if he nudged her. Horrible.

Stream of consciousness allows access to an unfettered flow of thoughts without inhibition or social constraints. It’s a narrative that is especially rewarding in its unleashing of a rich, inner life. However, in Helen’s case, her inner life is fraught with concerns, worries, bad memories and anxieties. It’s not very exciting, and it becomes almost claustrophobic and wearing at some points. Yet at the same time, there’s an undeniable pull to the sincerity of Helen’s thought processes. Helen emerges as a very real character, the sort of woman you might pass on the street and not notice, and yet Kelman’s tickertape narrative reveals her isolation and the extraordinarily difficult inner life of an average working, single mother.

On a final note, all apostrophes for contractions appear to be absent. At first, I thought that this was an issue with my kindle version, but the print copy is the same. It’s a tic I found annoying.

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Everything and More by Geoff Nicholson

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson project, and this time it’s Everything and More–a Nicholson novel I loved for its originality and sheer compressed scope–you’ll see what I mean later. The novel, with a few minor exceptions, is set inside Haden Brothers, a vast, seemingly endless London department store (“including 12 different eateries,“) designed as a replica of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel & built in the 1930s by “maverick visionary” Edward Zander, the architect who mysteriously disappeared once the project was completed.

However, Zander’s building has few of the rhythms, repetitions or classical form of its supposed model. Rather it suggests a series of multiple codings, elements of Russian Constructivism, Italian Renaissance and stuccoed Baroque. It is decked, as though at random, with crenellated parapets, pantile roofs, ogee arches, steel balconies, oriel windows and flying buttresses. Carved into the fabric of the building are angels, putti and mythological beasts. There are gargoyles, caryatids, mosaics, expanses of Moorish tiling and some magnificent stained glass. Zander had envisioned a menagerie on the ninth floor and wanted the whole building to be painted blood red, but he was talked out of these schemes.

 This story is the perfect vehicle for Nicholson’s frequent themes of collection and obsession, for after all, doesn’t shopping encompass both of these neurotic pastimes? And what better place for the compulsive shopper to hang out than Haden Brothers–the 400 department emporium that boasts that it sells “everything and more,” where shopping is an experience rather than a mundane activity.

everything and moreEnter two eager job seekers: Vita Carlisle and would-be artist Charlie Mayhew. Charlie applies for a job because he’s an unwelcome guest sleeping on the sofa of the only friend who’s still talking to him. Vita has a boarding school & university background along with an impressive resume, and while her determination to work at Haden Brothers seems a little odd, her professionalism and apparent fanaticism about the workings of the sprawling shopping metropolis really can’t be faulted or penetrated. Vita could obviously do a lot better than Haden Brothers, but she insists that she’s in love with the place and working there is her dream. Both Charlie and Vita are employed on the spot by Derek Snell, who’s officially head of personnel and unofficially, the pimp for the reclusive owner of Haden Brothers, Arnold, the last of the line. Arnold lives in the penthouse suite, accessible by a private lift, on the very top of the Haden Brothers building, and he hasn’t stepped into the outside world for years. Derek Snell, a rather sleazy character, has an eye for the sort of women his boss prefers, and since he is, in essence, the pimp for the king of Haden Brothers, he has a position of some power:

Derek Snell was no fashion victim, or at least he had been victimized in about 1975 and had never entirely recovered. He wore a brown Viyella suit with wide lapels and deep turn-ups, a chunky knitted wool tie, a shirt with a flapping collar and a pattern of tiny veteran car motifs. He was a toothy, slim-chinned man, about forty-five with a lot of gingery hair that curled round his head like a tarnished halo.

Vita becomes part of the so-called Flying Squad–a sort of troubleshooter, and here she is in the toy department with “raw, lean, adrenalin-driven, toy buyer,” Carl:

On Vita’s first day in the department he took her aside and told her, ‘We sell a lot of merchandise here on the basis that we’re educating the little fucks, stimulating their imaginations, fostering hand-eye coordination, that kind of crap. The truth is, what we’re struggling to do here is sedate and socialize a generation of would-be Adolf Hitlers.’

Vita looked at him uncertainly but still managed a smile.

‘The thing to remember is this,’ Laughton continued, ‘all children are thugs, fascists and megalomaniacs. There was a time when they wanted scaled-down versions of the real world; toy animals, toy soldiers, dolls, building blocks to make miniature cities. Then they pulled the eyes out of the animals, tore the dolls limb from limb, massacred the soldiers, razed the cities.

‘These days, they play with computer games, and they can play at destroying whole life forms, whole planets and galaxies. They take to it like ducks to water. It all comes perfectly naturally to them. And they genuinely believe that when they grow up they’ll be able to do all this stuff for real. But when they do grow up they discover, with one or two important exceptions, that they don’t get to blow things up at all, and that really hurts them. It’s a discovery nobody ever quite recovers from. I know I haven’t.

‘That’s why toys are so attractive to adults, why they carry so much nostalgia with them, because they remind us of a time when we were power-mad, conscienceless dictators.’

While Vita moves from department to department as part of the elite Flying Squad, poor Charlie becomes a furniture porter. The subliminal messages piped out over the sound system geared to make shoppers and employees alike behave don’t seem to work on the porters who take the example of their subversive leader, Anton, and spend most of their time devising elaborate ways of not working. This means hiding when there’s work to be done, spending hours quibbling over payroll deductions in the accounting office and engaging in “extravagant pilfering.” What’s so interesting is that Vita is involved in the day-to-day activities of ensuring that Haden Brothers runs smoothly, while Charlie becomes snared in the subversive shadow life of Haden Brothers, the bomb threats, the mysterious graffiti that appears periodically on the shop’s windows, the hidden, fully operating miniature railway, and the secret passages down deep in the basement. Only the Head of Security, Ray Chalmers seems to recognize that there are elements undermining the efficient day-to-day operations of the huge department store, and since everyone connected with Haden Brothers seems to lose all sense of proportion, Chalmers declares war on the subversives:

I’m not trying to say that it’s like Vietnam out there, but in a sense it is. It’s a jungle. The enemy’s hard to spot. The terrain is difficult and we don’t always get the backing we need. There are goons. There are traitors and double agents. There are men from our side who’ve abandoned discipline and gone native. At least in Nam they were allowed to use defoliant, napalm, cluster bombing. I wish we could do that at Haden  Brothers. That would shake the buggers up, flush them out so they could be punished with loads of prejudice.

The newest furniture porter seems like a suspicious character to Chalmers. After all, what’s his first name?

Initially Charlie isn’t thrilled with his job, but over time he becomes entranced with the fabulous exotic extravagance of the building as he begins to note “strange faces and African masks carved into the woodwork, wrought iron archways with swastikas and pentagrams, staircase finials that looked like simple spheres but turned out to be intricately carved globes of the world.”

While on the surface, Haden Brothers is a monument to shopping and materialism, there’s a lot of peculiar goings on, and Charlie begins to be aware of just what some of those peculiarities are even as the unfathomable Vita becomes increasingly involved in the surface management.  One of my favourite scenes takes place when a customer lodges a complaint and is summarily whisked off to a seductive paradise hidden away in the secret corners of Haden Brothers. And here, in exotic hypnotic luxury, the half-dazed customer, is grilled:

He wanted to be cooperative  but he was too entranced by the room in which he now found himself. The carp pool was undoubtedly the most imposing and unexpected feature, but then he had not been expecting the Persian tapestries either, not the ornamental fountain, not the parakeets on their perches, not the bejeweled mirrors and tables and fireplace, not the ornately carved golden couches on to one of which he was now being guided. It was impossible to sit on these with any degree of formality and he found himself lying back, reclining like some Roman hero.

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Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Last year when I posted a list of The Best of 2011, Gummie from Whispering Gums mentioned that she hoped I’d have an Australian category included in the Best of 2012. This seemed a good idea, so I’ve made a point to read a few Aussie books this year. While Tirra Lirra by the River is still the best Australian novel I’ve read this year, a serious challenge to that title appeared as I read and laughed at Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. I’ve read a couple of Jolley’s novels, and I considered them ok–nothing more, nothing less. Before Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, but that all changed with this extremely funny, subversive novel that’s really a novel within a novel for Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a marvellous example of metafiction.

So here’s the premise:

Miss Dorothy Peabody is a lonely middle-aged spinster who works an office job in London and scurries home every night to take care of her demanding, bedridden mother who has the uncanny ability to know whether or not the downstairs furniture has been dusted. Nothing much ever happens in Miss Peabody’s dreary life, and a daring act for Miss Peabody is to get into the lift and squeeze between the males with “Je Reviens of Worth Paris dabbed on her wrists and behind her ears.” Miss Peabody has a secret yen for romance, and as a people watcher she notes the lurid office affair between the married Mr Bains and Miss Truscott, embellishing the affair with her imagination. There’s only one bright element to Miss Peabody’s life, and that is her amazing correspondence with the Australian  novelist, Diana Hopewell.

After reading Diana’s novel, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody writes a fan letter, and to her astonishment, Diana replies. Soon a lively correspondence begins between the two women. Miss Peabody sends details of her life, work and her dreams, and Diana writes about her horses and her beautiful ranch in Australia. Diana is also writing a new novel, and she includes the latest installments for Miss Peabody, and through the correspondence, Miss Peabody is drawn into Diana’s story of Pine Heights, an exclusive boarding school for girls….

In Diana’s installments, she introduces the world Pine Heights–a boarding school which is managed on a tight budget by the idiosyncratic headmistress, stout, middle-aged Miss Thorne (picture an Aussie Miss Fritton from St Trinian’s). Miss Thorne, also known as Prickles, is a strange blend of conformity and radicalism. A proponent of an annual school bra-burning ceremony, she has little time for men and every year she enjoys an annual holiday in Europe with her current companion, the nervous, clingy Miss Edgely, and Miss Thorne’s long-term friend Miss Snowdon, a matron of Queen’s Hospital.

Both Miss Snowdon and Miss Thorne have the same kind of figure; a portliness brought on by years of responsibility, plenty of money, comfortable accommodation and good meals. Both women have the education, the background and the capabilities required for their positions. neither of them care too deeply for other human beings and they are not dangerously touched or moved by the human predicament.

Miss Edgely shares some of the qualities but, by contrast, is small. She has no taste and far less money.

Miss Peabody receives, via her correspondence with Diana, installments of the novel, so the delightfully funny Miss Peabody’s Inheritance goes back and forth between Miss Peabody’s personal life (which grows increasingly out of control) and Miss Thorne’s fictional trip to Europe.  In these installments, Miss Thorne, Miss Snowdon and Miss Edgeley make their annual Mecca to “the wine houses at Grinzing,” but this time, Miss Thorne elects to take schoolgirl Gwendaline (Gwenda) Manners along. Gwenda’s widower father recently re-married a young Brazilian woman, and after bouncing a cheque for Gwenda’s tuition and board, he more or less disappeared. Miss Thorne argues that a trip to Europe is just what Gwenda needs and that it will give her “a little finishing,” but is Miss Thorne really motivated by altruism or lust? Miss Edgely “all but smashed the place up” in a jealous rage at Gwenda’s inclusion in their annual holiday, and as the trip continues via installments to Miss Peabody, a disaster unfolds with unexpected consequences.

Over the course of the holiday, we see how the formidable Miss Thorne organises her relationships so that she’s always in charge, always has the upper hand and always gets what she wants. Poor boring Miss Edgely:

Somewhere between Vienna and Paris Miss Edgely gets left behind in a station lavatory, the novelist’s letter starts straight in without any enquiries or remarks of a personal nature.

“D’you think I’ve got time?” Miss Edgely asks.

“Oh, rather! Edge of course you have, but don’t be all day.” Miss Thorne notices that the guards are slamming the doors of the Express. All around them are the noises of departure. She knows Miss Edgeley has not really time. Whistles blow and flags wave.

As Miss Peabody continues to receive letters from Diana which include fragments of the adventures of Miss Thorne, she begins to live for the arrival of the next letter, and as she burrows deep in the lives of Diana’s fictional characters, Miss Peabody begins to lose her grip on reality.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies.

All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

Miss Peabody’s correspondence with Diana serves to broaden her horizons and it also brings several titillating issues to the fore. For example, partly inspired by Miss Snowdon’s paper, The Forgotten Placenta, Miss Thorne hopes to organise a lecture at the school for the edification of the “gels” as she calls them: Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where. This makes rather shocking reading for the very sheltered Miss Peabody, and the correspondence between Diana and Miss Peabody ultimately has startling results.

Often with novels that have a clear division (in this case the division is between the life of Miss Peabody and the letters from Diana), there is a range of quality, and one strain becomes stronger than another. Not so with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. In fact the two strands come together and mesh extraordinarily well. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Review copy

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NW by Zadie Smith

If I had to describe Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW, I’d say ‘brilliant but difficult.’ That’s a compliment, but at the same time I can see why many readers would drop out along the way. This is a novel set in a distinct geographical area of London, the NW (Northwest) of the title, but specifically focusing on Willesden–an area with a vast social history:

A great hill straddles NW, rising in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden, Brondesbury, Cricklewood. It is no stranger to the world of letters. The Woman in White walks up one side to meet the highwayman Jack Sheppard on the other. Sometimes Dickens himself comes this far west and north for a pint or to bury someone. Look, there on the library carpet between Science Fiction and Local History: a knotted condom filled with sperm. Once this was all farm and field with country villas nodding at each other along the ridge of this hill. Train stations have replaced them, at half-mile intervals.

That passage gives the essence of the author’s style–a vibrant cacophony of voices and colliding lives in this exploration of class and race through friends and their relationships. At the heart of the story are two women–friends from childhood. Keisha has moved on from her beginnings and transformed into Natalie while her friend Leah appears to be locked in the past–stuck on the spot, left wondering about the validity of her choices while the rest of the world whirls by. Has Natalie matured, and this is the novel’s great question, or is maturity just another way of describing an upwardly mobile, affluent life?

The novel begins with Leah, a young white woman of Irish background, who lives with Michel, a French hairdresser of African descent, opening the door to the apparently distressed Shar. Leah’s neighbourhood is questionable, and even opening the door and letting this young woman in–someone who attended the same underachieving school, is an act of bravery, and even a sort of social defiance as it later turns out. The intruder is Shar, and she wants money, she claims, to go and visit her ill mother in the hospital. As in often true in good Samaritan acts, the decision to help Shar is based in Leah’s perception of herself, and this is our introduction to Leah.

This seemingly small incident has a ripple effect with serious ramifications for Leah. For Leah, time has stood still since she finished “three years of useless study” which culminated in the collection of a degree in Philosophy which has no practical application and does not translate to her employment as “the only white girl on the Fund Distribution Team.” Leah seems disconnected with her life, as if she washed up, shipwrecked in this place, in a relationship with no idea exactly how she arrived there.

Meanwhile Leah’s childhood friend, Natalie aka Keisha, “the girl that done good,” now a married barrister, invites Leah and Michel to dinner parties at their posh home, and it’s here amongst the other guests, that Leah and Michel stick out rather uncomfortably. Not that Michel seems to notice.

Nothing in Leah’s childhood prepared her for the frequency with which she now attends dinner parties, most often at Natalie’s house, where she and Michel are invited to provide something like local colour. Neither of them know what to say to barristers and bankers, to the occasional judge. Natalie cannot believe that they are shy. Each time she blames some error of placement but each time the awkwardness remains. They are shy, whether Natalie believes it or not. They have no gift for anecdote. They look down at their plates and cut their food with great care, letting Natalie tell their stories for them, nodding to confirm points of fact, names, times, places. Offered to the table for general dissection these anecdotes take on their own life, separate, impressive.

I can’t review the book without touching on the author’s style, and at this point I’ll add that I am not a fan of experimental writing. Don’t hand me a book that has pages without punctuation and even stream of consciousness is pushing it. These techniques may be fun for the author, but they annoy me.  Nonetheless, with these prejudices in mind, some of Zadie Smith’s stylistic decisions worked excellently, and she’s a genius for dialogue. Here for example, is a passage from one of Natalie’s swanky dinner parties. You can almost hear the dishes and cutlery, the mastication of the teeth, and the banal comments made to the person on the right by her upwardly mobile, and smug guests, safe in the cocoon of their ever-growing affluence.

Many of the parents are immigrants–from Jamaica, from Ireland, from India, from China–and they can’t understand why they have not yet been invited to live with their children, as is the custom, in their countries. Technology is offered as a substitute for that impossible request. Stairlifts. Pacemakers. Hip replacements. Dialysis machines. But nothing satisfies them. They worked hard so that we children might live like this. They “literally” will not be happy until they’ve moved in our houses. They can never move in our houses. Pass the heirloom tomato salad. The thing about Islam. Let me tell you about Islam. The thing about the trouble with Islam. What do you think, Samhita, yeah what do you think, Samhita, what’s your take on this?  Samhita, the copyright lawyer. Pass the tuna. Solutions are passed across the table, strategies. Private wards. Private cinemas. Christmas abroad. A restaurant with only five tables in it. Security systems. Fences. The carnage of a 4×4 that lets you sit alone above traffic. There is a perfect isolation out there somewhere, you can get it, although it doesn’t come cheap.

Other stylistic maneuvers did not work so well for this reader. The lack of inverted commas, at least for the first part of the book caused me to wonder, more than once, who was saying what, or even if these statements were thoughts rather than speech. While the first section of the novel concerns Leah, the second section moves ahead with Felix, a recovering drug addict who think he’s putting his past behind him and moving forward in a new relationship with the dynamic Grace. At first there was a sense of frustration that Leah was more or less left behind while Felix’s story developed. This section, however, was so good, I quickly forgot my grumbling and submerged myself into Felix’s story as he buys a dilapidated sports car from upper class Tom, the sort of person we might find sitting around the table at one of Natalie’s soirées.  

One of the novel’s very best scenes takes place between Felix and Annie, his former fellow addict and sometime sex partner. It’s in this scene that the entire notion of ‘getting ahead’ and ‘moving on’ is dragged out into the open and trammelled on by the very confident and self-possessed Annie. Note the appearance of inverted commas:

“You listening? Next level. People can spend their whole lives just dwelling. I could spend my whole life dwelling on some of the shit that’s happened to me. I done that. Now it’s time for the next level. I’m moving up in the game. And I’m ready for it.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve grasped the metaphor, you don’t have to keep repeating it.”

Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose.

“Life’s not a video game, Felix–there aren’t a certain number of points that send you up to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is that everyone dies at the end. Game over.”  

It’s these sorts of vibrantly alive scenes that, for this reader, made up for the rest of the novel’s difficult moments. After finishing the book, I found myself returning and chewing over Annie’s arguments. She’s arguably one of the most fucked up people in the book, and yet she’s intelligent, coherent, perfectly comfortable in her own skin, and living in poverty. She is mentally in the sort of place that Leah can’t seem to reach. Leah is being propelled ahead by the current, but she’s not altogether copacetic with ‘moving up,’ and Leah, who is “faithful in her allegiance” to her roots certainly doesn’t want to be the sort of person that Natalie has become. There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent to the lives of these Londoners, and the novel questions society’s notions of “the next level.” Acquiring affluence is arguably a questionable goal, and yet that is the quest for the characters here who appear to succeed in a sink or swim society while other lost characters, Nathan Bogle is just one example, are wrecked and washed up by crack. I found myself wondering what would happen in Zadie Smith’s NW if we mixed up the characters a bit and invited Annie to Natalie’s table? Would Annie and Leah be friends? Would Felix admire Michel? How would someone like Natalie cope with someone as potentially myth-puncturing as Annie? These are all rhetorical questions, of course, because that’s the whole point of ‘moving on.’ You drop those people who no longer fit in.

A writer of Zadie Smith’s standing can get away with a lot of idiosyncratic moves that would trash a newer, humbler writer. The Big Questions here, and each reader will decide independently, are whether 1) the novel works and 2) whether Zadie Smith is aware of the unevenness and inconsistencies of the novel. For this reader, it’s a resounding yes to both questions.

Thanks to John Self at Asylum for recently interviewing Zadie Smith and reviewing the book.

Review copy.

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The St .Zita Society by Ruth Rendell

Picking up a Ruth Rendell novel feels as though I am returning to an old friend. I know, more or less, what to expect, and I am delighted to be in this author’s company. Ruth Rendell seems to excel in creating fictional spaces, uniquely malignant cauldrons in which the fouler aspects of human behaviour breed and simmer before exploding into crime. In the novel Portobello, I had a niggling concern about snobbery through the delineation of the poor vs the rich characters with criminal behaviour landing solidly on the former, but Rendell has irrevocably swept that aside in The St. Zita Society, a psychological crime novel in which the servants and various hangers-on of the rich rub elbows with their employers in the upscale houses of Hexam Place. It’s in this unhealthy environment that violent death makes its appearance.  

The St. Zita Society (named after the patron saint of “domestic servants“) is formed by June Caldwell, the companion of the autocratic, petulant, self-invented woman who calls herself Her Serene Highness, the Princess Susan Hapsburg. The two women have lived together for sixty years, and June is HSH’s servant, companion, dog-walker, secretary and the recipient of all of her employer’s moods and temper tantrums. It’s very likely that this is the reason that June, now 78-years-old forms the society which holds its meetings at the local pub. Eligible for membership are the servants who work in the swanky addresses of Hexam Place, and June’s intention is that the St. Zita Society will give the servants some sort of clout, but in reality, the society is June’s attempt to make her own life more tolerable.

The servants include: cleaner Zinnia who splits her time at several homes, Dex the “criminally insane” and now certified cured, gardener-for-hire who believes that the voice in his cell phone gives him orders, Thea who rents a Hexam Place flat and is misused and underappreciated by her landlords, Henry, the chauffeur of Lord and Lady Studley, whose after hours duties include secretly servicing the very attractive and neglected Lady Dudley, Monserrat, the unpleasant au pair to the troubled Still family, Rabia, the Still’s Muslim nanny, and Jimmy the driver to Dr. Jefferson.

While June is intent on addressing “human rights,” there are other items on the St. Zita agenda–including dog feces left by those passing through the neighbourhood. Of course, since the servants are the ones cleaning up the dog poo, they are the ones who want the council to ‘do something.’ Meanwhile the homeowners are oblivious. This tiny subject of disgruntlement is the epitome of the division between the worlds of the wealthy and those they employ to make their lives run smoother. It’s an unhealthy relationship, even at the best of times, and we see some servants taking advantage of their employer’s good nature (Jimmy), and others taking advantage of their employer’s lack of interest (Monserrat). Of course, others are worked beyond reason, and June seems to be the most put-upon partly due to her age, her lack of choices and her tyrannical employer.

Monserrat comes from the same sort of privileged background as her employer, and she deeply resents her position as a servant for people she simultaneously envies and despises.  She’s facilitating her employer, Lucy Still’s affair and accepts ‘tips’ to keep her mouth shut about it.

Monserrat knew all about it. She made it her business to know who was having an affair with whom, who was skiving off, and who was borrowing a Beemer or a Jaguar when such a loan was strictly forbidden. She had never blackmailed anyone, but she liked to keep the possibility of a modified sort of blackmail in reserve. The only friend she had in Hexam Place was Thea, and the only member of the St. Zita Society who possessed a car of their own was herself, keeping her rather old VW in a garage in the mews that belonged to number seven.

It’s no coincidence that Thea is Monserrat’s only friend as Monserrat does not considers herself a servant and has little in common with the other employees of Hexam Place. Monserrat doesn’t slot easily into the servant-master dynamic; her father went to school with Lucy Still’s father and at one time, they were both wealthy men. Monserrat’s father lost all his money in “some banking scandal,” and Monserrat is given the job as the Still’s au pair as a favour to a friend. Monserrat is opportunistic and resentful and can’t help but notice that her employer, Lucy Still, has a relatively cushy life full of designer shopping, jogging, and an affair.  Thea isn’t a servant, but she is a doormat and she’s treated badly by her landlords. While she struggles against this role, she seems unable to alter it. Interestingly, these two characters, Thea and Monserrat, are connected by fate.

The St. Zita Society covers just a few months of the lives of those who live in Hexam Place–from Autumn to Spring. Marriages melt down, adultery runs rampant, and with a slow-building menace brewing, murder is the inevitable result.

Rendell argues that we know little about what goes on the house next door, and the book is a strong statement regarding the inherently unhealthy relationship between employer/master and servant. It’s a relationship that breeds familiarity, abuses and resentments on all sides. Some of the book’s scenes highlight the inherent fragility and hypocrisy of the relationships between the characters. A few visits from June’s famous soap opera nephew, Rad Sothern, sets Her Serene Highness reeling, and yet while HSH treats Rad coquettishly, like some ardent suitor, the Princess never shifts an inch in the treatment of Rad’s aunt, June, so some awkward evenings are spent with an unpleasant hierarchy between the three characters.

Ruth Rendell  is no stranger to the theme of the complex and difficult relationships between servants and those who employ them. A Judgement in Stone, considered one of this author’s finest psychological crime novels explores the twisted relationship between the affluent Cloverdale family and their psychotic housekeeper Eunice Parchment.

Review copy

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