Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

“In my profession, true relaxation is a necessity. I see and hear things all day long. Things you need to get off your mind at night. The fungal growths. The bleeding warts. The folds of skin between which things have gotten much, much too warm. The three-hundred pound woman you have to examine in a place you hoped you’d never have to go again.”

The Dinner by Herman Koch made my best-of-2012 list, and when I turned the last page of the book, I was very disappointed to discover that there were no other books available in English by the author, so you can understand my delight when I heard about Summer House With Swimming Pool.  Plus a big bonus on this book, it includes the added attraction of one of my reading obsessions: a holiday setting.

Summer House with swimming poolSummer House with Swimming Pool is narrated by doctor Marc Schlosser and the book begins with a deliciously nasty, claustrophobic, self-obsessed first-person narration which recalls Bernhard, or a sicko version of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. The not-so-good doctor, a general practitioner is obviously a seriously disturbed man, and that makes him an unreliable narrator.

Many of us have probably had doctors who’ve seemed unbalanced, but Schlosser is dangerous because, on the surface, he seems to be so stable. This is a man who loathes his patients, who grimaces at their ailments which he believes are mostly imagined, and yet his carefully developed professional mask has helped Schlosser built a large practice of loyal patients mainly from the “creative professions.” Schlosser paces his patients twenty minutes apart, “his selling point” as a doctor, but he barely bothers to listen to the litany of health issues, and confides that in his practice, “the key is not to worry too much about medical standards.”  While he knows that people line up on a waiting list to become patients, believing that he “makes time for each individual case,” Schlosser brags that “patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention.” He has a well-honed script to deter anyone from seeking a specialist, and a manner in which he encourages patients to keep coming to him while feeling good about their bad, unhealthy addictive habits. Repulsed by his patients’ bodies, he has fantasies of death during examinations:

Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and the infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there until it starts to bleed … Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly … No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park. The car in front has a green dragon’s head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red, infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted to their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It’s cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean waits.

One of the very best scenes in the book, and one that made me laugh out-loud concerns how Schlosser terrorizes patients prior to a rectal exam while appearing to reassure them as he slowly and methodically preps. Of course, any doctor with an attitude like this is a disaster waiting to happen, so it doesn’t come as any great surprise to discover that something has gone terribly wrong with one of Schlosser’s patients. A famous actor, Ralph Meier, is now dead, and Schlosser is accused of malpractice.

Meier, a larger than life, bon vivant, obnoxious womanizer, first came to Schlosser’s practice 18 months before because he had heard through the grapevine that the doctor “was fairly accommodating with prescriptions.” This, incidentally, is another way that Schlosser has built his practice.  A series of events brings Schlosser and his wife, Caroline into Ralph’s social sphere. When Ralph is introduced to Caroline, he doesn’t disguise his lust:

As he examined the back of Caroline’s body from head to foot, a film slid down over his eyes. In nature films, you see that sometimes with birds of prey,. A raptor that has located, from somewhere far up high in the air, or from a tree branch, a mouse or some other tasty morsel. That was how Ralph Meier was regarding my wife’s body: as if it were something edible, something that made his mouth water. Now there was also some movement around his moth. The lips parted. his jaws churned, I even thought I heard the grinding of teeth–and he breathed a sigh. Ralph Meier was seeing something delicious. His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites.

The most remarkable thing perhaps was that he did all this without the slightest embarrassment. As though I weren’t even there.

Ralph and his wife Judith invite Schlosser, his wife Caroline and their two daughters (aged 11 & 13) to join them near the Mediterranean coast at a rented summer house. Caroline wants to decline, and yet strangely enough, Schlosser manipulates a visit which ends in complete disaster…

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a bit of a disturbing curiosity. It begins with an unreliable narrator, a nasty toxic, twisted doctor who indulges in violent fantasies involving his patients (and humanity in general), who references the teachings of a former university professor who was “later drummed out of the university” for his controversial studies, and isn’t completely honest about his motivations. These motivations become clear over time, and yet I still didn’t quite trust his version of events.  While the book was initially very funny, in a sick psycho sort of way, the plot spins in the doldrums for a while before it takes an unexpected, very serious turn, and the two parts of the novel don’t quite mesh smoothly. 

I enjoyed Summer House with Swimming Pool, but I prefer The Dinner–a novel with nastiness that built relentlessly to the end. Both books examine the parent-child role–specifically the issues of protection and innocence. In Summer House with Swimming Pool, the male adults at the rented home, who include a visiting American film director with a taste for nubile young girls, engage in a summer of irresponsible, lustful juvenile behaviour which naturally ends badly. The motivations of all the characters are under scrutiny here, and while revenge may seem to be the dominant directive, troubling questions remain regarding Schlosser’s actions. We all tend to believe what we want to believe and accept the version of events that we like best, and perhaps this is what happened with Schlosser.  Unfortunately for the book, the Marc Schlosser we are left with at the end appears to have run out of steam and nastiness and this, in spite of the fact that Schlosser has finally had to confront the validity of his demented mentor’s misogynic ravings, doesn’t quite gel with the character revealed at the beginning. That said, I just read that Herman Koch has a third book soon to be published in English, and you bet I’ll be reading it.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garnett. Review copy.

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Decompression by Julie Zeh

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for the unreliable narrator, so throw in a holiday setting, and it was guaranteed that I’d be interested in Julie Zeh’s book, Decompression a torrid tale of a love triangle told in alternating views by two sides of that twisted relationship.

Years before, Sven slipped the leash of a legal career in Germany and now, looking at his 40th birthday, he’s a resident of Lanzarote and runs a tourist business which allows him to combine his love for diving with independence. He’s lived on Lanzarote now for 14 years. He’s in charge of the diving side of things while Antje runs the actual business. That means she cleans the guest accommodations, cooks the meals, maintains the website, and manages all the finances. Note that I didn’t say that Antje is Sven’s girlfriend or S.O, and there’s a reason for that. While Sven and Antje live together and have sex, she occupies an undefined space in Sven’s life. She probably thinks she’s his girlfriend, but Sven sees the relationship more as a convenient business arrangement. And if you’re thinking that I don’t like Sven, you’re right.

decompressionThe book opens with Sven picking up two tourists from the airport. Usually he books several guests for the same period, but this is a special arrangement. This time Sven is exclusively under contract for the next two weeks to only two guests: writer, Theo and soap opera actress Jolanthe, also called Jola. Theo, who, at 42, is 12 years older than Jola, has one book to his credit, and Jola, who intends to bust out of television into film, is there to learn all about scuba diving hoping that she will land a major film role in a biopic about Charlotte Hass. Jola, the daughter of one of the world’s greatest film directors, sees the role as her “last chance” to leave television roles behind, so the diving lessons are of primary importance.

In very little time, Sven, who lives in the beachside cottage right next to his guests’ quarters, establishes that Theo and Jola have a twisted sick relationship which, as it turns out, includes violence as an erotic component. Sven is attracted to Jola, and the feeling appears to be mutual. While there’s a definite attraction between Sven and Jola (with both of them fantasizing about a future together), Theo, the odd man out in this sex-triangle, conveniently seems to step aside to allow Sven access to Jola.

The story unfolds through two dueling narratives. There’s Sven’s version, and then there’s Jola’s version of events. While these competing narratives agree on the basics: date, location, and weather, on everything else, all agreement ends. According to Sven, Jola teases and plays dangerous games, creating some very awkward and embarrassing situations since, as a client, she’s theoretically off limits. But listen to Jola, and she’ll tell you that Sven can’t keep his hands to himself. In this increasingly dangerous and risky situation, who do we believe?

Part of the sick joy of reading a story told by the unreliable narrator is the feeling that we, as readers, recognize the way truth slowly peels away from the narrative. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both excellent examples of the unreliable narrator and give the reader the experience of being in the minds of total nutjobs who do terrible things while justifying all their actions quite merrily. Decompression is more a he said/she said scenario, and yes, while that gives us possibly two unreliable narrators, one of them may be telling the truth. Or at least a partial truth.

While the novel’s premise is intriguing, one of the problems is that Sven, Jola and even Theo are all unlikable characters–not that there’s a problem with unlikable characters as I enjoy reading about people I would not tolerate in my life. But Sven, who’s got this hot babe throwing herself at him under the nose of Theo, alone at night, begins masturbating to episodes of Jola’s soap role in Up and Down, and yet by day, according to his narrative, he’s prudishly pushing her away telling her that she’s off-limits. He’s drawn to Jola but simultaneously gets very bad vibes about the situation. He isn’t honest with himself, so is he honest with us? His confessional narrative which includes a wisp of victimhood could make him a reliable narrator–a man drawn into the very sick relationship between Theo and Jola, or this could make Sven somewhat unreliable too.  He’s certainly struggling to stay focused on his better self, and that struggle remains until a very dramatic but foreseeable scene which occurs towards the end of the book.

Jola’s diary, which forms her part of the book’s narrative, reads like the confessions of a spoiled teenage girl flexing her sexuality for the first time rather than the devious, seasoned mind of a femme fatale, and this is part of the novel’s weakness. While the two narratives verge and diverge, neither of them are strong enough or appealing enough to carry the plot. Sven had his problems before this famous couple arrive and play havoc with his island paradise. He can’t commit to his long-suffering girlfriend and seems embarrassed to admit that there’s anything between them other than business. When it comes to sport for Theo and Jola, he’s ripe for the picking, and he never quite gets the rules of the game. As a morally compromised character drawn into a relationship in which he’s out-of-his-depth, his questionable narrative doesn’t quite work. For this reader, Theo remains the most interesting side of this sick triangle, and yet we only see Theo opaquely through other people’s eyes. Ultimately, the novel’s best scenes describe the landscape or the underwater moments between Sven and his troublesome clients.

The Spaniards had long since given up tinkering around on their half-finished houses; instead they would sit on their driftwood fenced roof terraces while the salty wind gnawed the plaster off their walls. Wooden cable spools served as tables, stacked construction pallets as benches. Lahora was a terminus. A place where everything came to a halt. Furnished with objects that would have landed on the rubbish pile long ago if they were anywhere else. The ends of the earth.

 Review copy. Translated from German by John Cullen

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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Consequences by Philippe Djian

“Evil’s out of hand in this country.”

Earlier this year, Emma pointed me in the direction of Philippe Djian’s novel, Consequences. It’s a great title as the main character, Marc, a middle-aged professor whose failed literary career has led him to teach creative writing, has reached his 50s in a life full of bad choices that is still, miraculously, consequence-free. But this is all about to change, and it changes rapidly within the first few pages. After an evening of drinking, Marc drives one of his young students back to his “lair” for “one full night of fun.” The next day, the girl, whose name he can’t remember, is dead. Marc doesn’t hesitate; he disposes of her body in a deep crevice on a hillside in the nearby woods.

consequencesStrange reaction … but then everything about Marc is a little strange. Not that the casual observer would necessarily pick up the warning signs right away. After all, Marc is a professor, middle-aged, and lives with his sister, Marianne. The fact that he lives with his sister is a little worrying, and then again they are awfully close. On the surface, Marc seems a ‘normal’ libidinous middle-aged professor who compensates for life’s disappointments by engaging in meaningless sexual encounters with students.

Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession–for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her–from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam–but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.

Richard Oslo, the department head, a real cretin in Marc’s opinion, isn’t the least attractive to women, so Marc congratulates himself that he may not have gained the directorship, but at least he can seduce any woman he wants. To Marc, this “reestablishes the balance.” Marc congratulates himself on a narrow escape from some messy consequences with the dead girl and starts lining up his next affair with a student who “was making use of lower and lower necklines as the year advanced.” There’s no shortage of eager young female students, it seems, but all of Marc’s erotic machinations fly out the window when he meets Myriam, the gorgeous red-headed step-mother of the missing girl. Marc, who normally steers clear of mothers, has never had sex with a woman older than 26. He’s powerfully attracted to Myriam, and since her husband is somewhere in Afghanistan, she’s alone.  Marc is warned to stay away from Myriam by Richard Olso, who sees a PR nightmare ahead, but Marc is already hooked into the chase:

Certainly a department head had a more comfortable salary, and the power that came along with it, especially in these uncertain times, had to be very enjoyable. Yet attracting women, turning the heads of widows, students, housewives, and holding on to that gift, appealing to these fucking women before you even opened your mouth, without putting the slightest effort into it–well, he said to himself, now that was something that gave pause for thought.

He wouldn’t have traded places with Richard, There was no sense thinking about it for hours. Ten or so years ago, his life had changed. It made a 180-degree turn the day he realized how something that seemed so complicated was really so easy. Things took on a different cast. And what a relief that had been! What a profound rebirth, in fact.

From there to thinking he wasn’t against extending his hunting grounds to mothers, to the parents of students and the like, was a step he took easily.

One very clever device utilized by Djian is the collision of consequences. Initially Marc, who ironically is teaching a course of “John Gardner and moral literature,” escapes all the consequences of his actions–his casual affairs, and the way he treats his female students. As the days pass, the author gradually reveals glimpses of Marc and Marianne’s childhood, so that we see how these middle-aged siblings live, daily, with the consequences of their childhood. Memories of the past and actions of the present are interwoven until the consequences of both collide.

At 195 pages, this is a slim, deeply unsettling novel, and one that is very easy to underestimate. Initially when Marc doesn’t question why the girl died and he decides, casually, to toss her body into the crevice, the plot seems implausible or at least sketchy. As the book unfolds, events as they are explained or presented to us by Marc become increasingly questionable. I’m used to an unreliable narrator in the first person. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both superb example of just how far authors can go (and have fun) with narratives told by unreliable narrators. Philippe Djian takes the riskier road less travelled and for this novel, using the third person, he tells the story through Marc’s eyes.  It’s all so very cleverly done, and yet because this is a third person narration, Djian initially risks alienating the reader with a story that appears to have implausible actions committed by the main character. All the red flags would have popped up sooner with a first person narration, but the third person narrative places an additional murkiness to events in this dark tale of crime, twisted relationships, and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s actions and experiences. The cover, reflecting the narrative in multiple ways, is a perfect choice for the novel. 

Translated by Bruce Benderson.

This is the second Djian novel I’ve read, and I’d rate Consequences above Unforgivable. So thanks Emma for another great recommendation.

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Constance by Patrick McGrath

To say that I looked forward to reading Constance, Patrick McGrath’s latest novel would be putting it mildly. His novel Dr. Haggard’s Disease makes my favourite books list, so I approached Constance with some high expectations. McGrath’s father was the superintendent of Broadmoor Hospital, and I don’t think I’m making a leap when I say that you can see this influence in his work.  I’m specifically thinking of Asylum and Spider which were both made into excellent films in case anyone is interested. Since Patrick McGrath uses the unreliable narrator in his novels, I expected more of the same creepy insanity. Was I disappointed? Well yes and no.

SO … imagine that you are a middle-aged professor, an expert on Romantic poetry with a couple of failed marriages under your belt. You don’t think you’ll ever love again at your age and with your soured attitude towards love and relationships. And then, one night, while attending a  book party, you spot a beautiful young woman alone and out of place in the room full of people. You go and talk to her, take her from the party and go to a restaurant to talk. The young woman, whose name is Constance, is obviously damaged goods. Brittle and … yes … on the mentally fragile side. She hates her father (long story) but also has a daddy fixation. Not a good combination. And to top it off, you become the father figure in her life. How unhealthy and potentially hazardous is that?

ConstanceAnd here’s how the novel begins:

My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went  before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling querulous voice so unshakeable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.

Constance is married to her new “daddy,” and things, hardly surprisingly, are not going well. While I understand why one partner in a relationship may seek a new parent, I’ve always found the other partner facilitating that role cringeworthy. Perhaps it can work if both people in the relationship accept the parent-child dynamic but how can it be healthy and isn’t it guaranteed to be fraught with problems and tension? Naturally, it follows that this parent-child relationship is going down the toilet. Sidney is, of course, old enough to be Constance’s father (that’s why she’s attracted to him) and so according to Constance, he likes to lecture his girl-bride and ‘teach’ her how to think. Shades of Pygmalion here so often found in relationships between much older men and young women: she offers youth and he offers experience, stability and financial security.

Told in dual narratives from Constance and Sidney, narratives that are possibly unreliable from their very defensiveness, we learn how these two people met. We already know that Constance has a daddy-complex, and while Sidney seems happy enough, at least initially to accept that role, he’s attracted to Constance’s damaged self. Sidney, a lover of Romantic poetry, is working on a  book called The Conservative Heart and is at an all-time low when he first spots Constance at the book party that changed the direction of his life. Attracted by her “air of angry untouchability,” he approaches her. On Constance’s part, she sees Sidney in a far from flattering light. We’re told he’s tall and “heavy,

It was a warm evening. I was in my light seersucker and apparently there were beads of sweat on my forehead. The effect she said later, was that of an obscure consular official going quietly mad in a far-flung outpost of empire.

Constance’s daddy complex is more than matched by Sidney’s doomed Romanticism:

I asked her about her childhood, and she told me she’d grown up with her sister, Iris, in a falling-down house in the Hudson Valley complete with a framed verandah and a tower. It had been in her family for generations, she said, but when I asked her how many generations she was vague. Oh, two at least, she said. Daddy grew up there. It stood high on a fissured bluff, and on the south side of the property a steep wooded slope descended to a wetland meadow by the railroad tracks and the river. This was the view she’d had from her bedroom window, she said, the sweep of the mighty Hudson far below her, with the Catskills in the distance. It was called Ravenswood.

It was all too good to be true. The old house with its tower on a bluff above the river, and this beautiful girl, clearly in flight from who knows what horrors she’d suffered there, it was a Romantic cliché, the whole thing. But for that I liked it all the more.

While Constance ostensibly seeks a new father figure who is everything her real father isn’t, Sidney soon, in common with Constance’s father, becomes the villain–the villain to be rebelled against. And while Sidney was initially attracted to Constance as a damsel-in-distress, that old cliché becomes wearisome when he realises that he is now the source of her distress. Sidney discovers that being the caretaker of a mentally damaged, fragile person is both draining and thankless, so when Constance’s sister, Iris, moves to New York and finds an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown,” Sidney is pleased.  Sidney rather approves of Iris who intends to become a doctor like her father, and this really doesn’t help the child-parent dynamic between Constance and Sidney as this effectively recreates the toxic competition between the two sisters for attention. Sidney’s approval of the freshly relocated Iris,  “a messy beatnik floozy,” very effectively signals trouble for Constance’s marriage.

McGrath novels often include a lurid, pathological past, and there are hints of that from Constance, and those hints blow wide open into a lingering malignancy as the book progresses. All the past secrets, of course, reside at Ravenswood, a house that is slipping into decay–symbolic of course of the pathological secrets buried deep in the past. Why is Constance’s father (who reminds Sidney of the “pitchfork man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic”) so emotionally distant from his daughter? There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here in the very unhealthy atmosphere at the family home at Ravenswood. There’s a creepy dried, up, “sour,” housekeeper, Mildred Knapp, who takes over after the lonely death of Constance and Iris’s mother Harriet. What’s the dark secret involving Mildred’s husband, and why are certain topics strictly off limits at Ravenswood? The book has an underlying trademark McGrath creepiness, with its emphasis on death and decay. Buildings and people fall apart. While one character is slowly dying, New York’s Penn Station is being stripped and noisily demolished–both incidents depress Sidney who sees the pointless destruction of the station as evidence of the decay of civilization.

Constance is a problematic character in this beautifully written novel in which the characters never quite seem comfortable together as they drift through the story rather like disinterested dance partners. While Constance is the less-favoured daughter, there’s something of the spoiled brat about her damaged air, and for this reader, there were a couple of story threads which were never fully explored–one involving oily lounge lizard, pianist Eddie Castrol, thrown into the mix but underexploited for the plot.  Dr. Haggard’s Disease remains my favourite McGrath novel, and it’s a book that set an impossibly high standard to beat, and unfortunately Constance doesn’t come close. The madness and obsession found in Asylum, Spider and Dr Haggard’s Disease appear in Constance but in a much lighter dose. There were occasions when the novel seemed about to take the reader down the dark labyrinth of total insanity, but instead the story lands on neuroticism. Does Gothic not translate effectively to Manhattan in the 60s? Or is Gothic simply replaced by its more modern counterpart, Neuroticism?

But she had such a tricky psyche, all turned in on itself like a convoluted seashell, like a nautilus, and at times I caught her talking to herself as though in response to what she heard in that seashell. When I asked her who she was talking to she’d all at once startle and wouldn’t tell me. It was disquieting.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, McGrath, Patrick

Solo Pass by Ronald De Feo

“People continued to pass by, and I meant nothing to them, as they meant nothing to me. Who needed to court their approval? Why had such a need ever been important to me? And this particular group was especially pitiful. Here they were, just leisurely strolling about, gazing in windows, stopping in shops, hurrying off to drinks or a late lunch, while a thief and a madman traveled among them, by their side, almost shoulder to shoulder. And the fools didn’t even know it. They believed themselves to be perfectly safe.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for novels told by an unreliable narrator. I also have a perverse interest in any book set in an asylum, so add those two factors together and throw in a name I already know, Ronald De Feo, who delighted me in 2011 with his extremely unusual novel, Calling Mr. King  –the story of a hit man who finds an inner life. It’s a triple whammy. How could I lose?

solo passOtt, a man in his 30s, is our unreliable narrator. He once had a career as a New York editor, but his life began a downhill spiral when his wife Elizabeth left, and after a meltdown, he found himself being carted off to the mental health ward at Essex Hospital. Well, this is Ott’s version of events, and as the novel continues,  we discover, of course, that Ott’s view of life is inaccurate. His problems extend far beyond the breakdown of his marriage, and if anything, marriage was a failed attempt at normalcy and connection with another human being. But hey, things could be worse–there’s also a violent ward at Essex and Ott isn’t on it. He also isn’t being shipped off to Courtland, a hospital for more permanent cases, full of “frigging zombies talking to walls and chairs.” No, life is looking up for Ott; he’s on the brink of being given a solo pass to spend a few hours outside of the hospital by himself. A solo pass is a trial run of sorts, a taste of full release and theoretical freedom . Will Ott be able to handle it?

According to seasoned patient, Mandy, a young trust fund woman, there’s a knack to being released. She advises Ott to “just tell them what they want to hear.” ‘Them,’ of course refers to the doctors in the ward–the ones who make the decisions about medication and further treatment. She also advises Ott not to open his mouth to rant against his bête noir, that “uncouth bastard,” Prodski, Ott’s former therapist, and as it turns out, the man Ott blames for the breakdown of his marriage and his life. Mandy is an expert on solo passes–on her last one, she immediately found another former patient and had sex. These days we’d call Mandy a sex-addict, but back in the 60s she’d be on the nympho ward in Sam Fuller’s spectacular over-the-top film, The Naked Kiss (yes, one of my favourites).

Solo Pass takes us through Ott’s preparations for a few hours of ‘freedom’ in one afternoon. Of course, since we are privy to Ott’s innermost thoughts while his doctor is not, we get a sense of whether or not he’s ‘ready’ to fly solo, or whether this is a risky venture:

“Any of those strange feelings lately?” Dr. Petersen asked, referring to those feelings that used to creep up on me–at my job, at home with my ex-wife, just about anywhere and at any time. There I’d be by the window of my office staring out at the office buildings across the way or sunk down in my favourite easy chair at home studying Elizabeth reading on the sofa, and I’d suddenly feel that I didn’t belong, that I had been placed in someone else’s life, that everyone and everything around me was foreign, unfamiliar, wrong.

No, I told her. None at all. And I smiled again, this time to indicate that I now regarded those feelings as rather ridiculous, a product of an illness that was no longer with me. Why the very mention of them amused me more than anything else. I conveyed this amusement well. Yes, I believe I was very convincing.

Through Ott’s memory, glimpses of his married live with Elizabeth emerge along with scenes of his hostility at work:

And when I discovered that my immediate boss, Richard Lorch–a smug, officious nuisance–had an aversion to office plants, considered them bourgeois and decorative clichés, I brought in more. “What’s the point?” he had the nerve to ask one day when he caught me hanging up a new addition. Perhaps to annoy you, I answered in my head.

Apart from his relationship with Mandy, Ott also chats with other patients, including  Wally, a man addicted to cheesy TV programmes and Tommy, a man with a history of violent behaviour:

He held up a sheet of paper covered with what looked like graffiti–words, circles, cylinders in red and blue ink–quite a mess really, an aggressive, violent one at that, “My plan for attacking Iran,” he said, and went on to explain that the dozens of circles represented tanks, our tanks, thousands of them, and that they would form a line and sweep down into the country and destroy everything in their path. And then they would get air support from thousands of fighter jets–the cylinders–that would be firing on anything the tanks missed.

“Fuckin’ great, right?” he said when he finished detailing his battle dream,. “We’ll wipe out all those fucks. Right?”

One of the subtler aspects to the novel is the idea that certain bizarre behaviours are condoned by society while others are deemed unacceptable, and of course, the real question here is just who gets to decide which behaviours are ok while other behaviours are not. For example, Ott’s uncle insists on dressing smartly to visit graves. It’s a sign of respect, he argues, while Ott can’t see the point. However, when Ott calls his own answering machine and leaves himself a message this is considered most peculiar by Uncle Arthur. Bottom line, once you’re deemed ‘unstable’ good luck getting that label changed.

In this highly engaging novel, Ott presents his version of events, but we are still able to see cracks in the narrative, and eventually a well-formed picture of what really happened emerges.  Are Ott’s workmates “cool or just plain indifferent?” And why did the secretary resign “for personal reasons?” This is a story of a man who doesn’t fit in, and his attempts to do so have failed abysmally. Now with time out, therapy and the appropriate medication, what will happen during this test run–a solo pass for a few hours? The novel’s conclusion didn’t go in the direction I perversely urged, but that is, I think, my personal preference, and not the fault of the story. Ultimately, author De Feo shows that the weight of conformity and a desire to belong to a social group can be both a terrible burden, an overwhelming challenge, and oddly enough a liberating choice. Some of us just have to go farther to find a comfort zone.

Review copy

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”

I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw)  appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.”  Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.  

the dinnerThe story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society.  At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.

I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers,  I was laughing out loud:

“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,”  with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.

As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a  “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.”  Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts

I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.

The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks  and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

The Cocktail Waitress by James M Cain

“Not every man’s death is a crime.”

It’s the sort of scenario we readers dream of … a “lost” novel found and brought to publication, but that is exactly what happened with The Cocktail Waitress, the “Lost Final” novel by James M. Cain. Published by Hard Case Crime, the novel includes an afterword by Charles Ardai in which he describes how he found the novel and the role of Max Allan Collins in the hunt. Crime fans owe a huge debt to Charles and Max for their continued contributions to the crime genre.

The Cocktail Waitress is narrated by Joan Medford, a shapely young “corn-husk blonde,” widow, and we meet her on the day of her husband’s funeral which happens to be the same day she lands a job as a cocktail waitress. Joan needs this job badly as she has no money, her Hyattsville house in a suburb of Washington DC is on the brink of foreclosure, and the utilities have been disconnected. Joan’s marriage to Ron wasn’t happy, and their life together ended when a very drunk Ron drove the car at 2 in the morning and met his death in a fatal crash.  

Things look bleak for Joan. Her hostile, barren, accusatory sister-in-law, Ethel, has agreed to take Joan’s small son, Tad, until Joan gets on her feet, but Joan knows that Ethel considers her an unfit mother and that’s she’s looking for any excuse to keep Tad permanently. But when good things happen to Joan, they happen fast. Although she has no experience, thanks to police sergeant Young, she lands a job at the Garden of Roses. So what if she has to wear a skimpy outfit? So what if the male customers think that Joan sells something on the side? Joan makes it clear that she’s not for sale. Well at least she’s not for sale unless she gets that flashy diamond hardware, third finger, left hand.

It’s on the day of her husband’s funeral, the first day on her new job as a cocktail waitress, that Joan meets the two men who play significant roles in the next stage of her life: Tom, the studly driver from the undertakers (who insists that Joan “blew him a kiss,” as he left her at her doorstep after the funeral), and the very wealthy Earl K. White–an older man who suffers from a touchy case of angina….

Joan is a very interesting, strange character. We know little of her past, but some facts roll out as the story unfolds.  She’s estranged from her family, and we learn from Joan “my mother hated me and my father cut me off.” Joan has to fight to survive, and while she tells her story in a seemingly straight-forward fashion, can we believe her version of events?

Did I put an extra sway in my step as I walked away, to make my hips jog and my bottom twitch? I may have. I know I unbuttoned an extra button on my blouse before turning around, tray in hand.

“Joan, there is something I’m curious to ask you”

I rejoined him at his table, and swapped a full bowl of Fritos for the half-full bowl in front of him. It was no more than I’d done at any of the dozen other tables at the bar. But perhaps I bent slightly lower doing it than was absolutely necessary. “What’s that, Mr. White?”

Earl, please.”

“I’d feel too familiar.”

“Please.”

“Earl, then.”

“I…”

“What is it? What do you want to ask me?”

“I’m not usually tongue-tied, Joan, I just find myself somewhat distracted at the moment.”
I smiled and lowered my gaze, and said softly: “Pleasantly, I hope?”
“Most pleasantly.”

“But all the same, I don’t want to make it hard for us to have a conversation, Mr. –Earl.” I fastened up the lowest open button on my blouse. “Better?” 

That quote is a good example of the author’s style–no flashy prose style & everything seems fairly straightforward. The kicker to this novel is that there’s more than one way to read The Cocktail Waitress. You can read it straight, and believe every word that comes out of Joan’s somewhat prim and proper mouth, or you can start to question her as an unreliable narrator. If you take the first road, you’re going to read a meat-and-potatoes story, nothing fancy here. But, if you take the second facta non verba approach, then the novel’s power and intelligence hit you after you turn the last page, and slowly you’ll find yourself unravelling Joan’s narration with chilling results. There were a couple of times that Joan chose actions that seemed out of character but by the story’s conclusions, it all comes together in a sinister sort of way.

According to the afterword, Cain struggled with this novel for some time, and Charles Ardai, editor and founder of Hard Case Crime discusses finding the manuscript, its various drafts, and the way Cain experimented with various narrative voices. Cain took a chance writing The Cocktail Waitress through Joan’s voice, but its very boldness makes for a bigger payoff.

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What We Did On Our Holidays by Geoff Nicholson

Moving along with the third novel in my Year of Geoff Nicholson brings me to What We Did On Our Holidays, a dark, wickedly funny, and nastily subversive novel which follows the trials and tribulations of one man who drags his family off on a tent holiday. What We Did On Our Holidays was actually the first Nicholson novel I ever read, and while I recognised that I’d found a seriously different author, the book also made me a devoted fan.

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for books which depict people on their holidays. There are several reasons for this: Holidays are high stake events, but expectations don’t mesh with reality. Plus close confinement serves to highlight family fractures that perhaps have been deftly avoided or even unnoticed. You could definitely say that middle-aged Eric, our narrator, and the man who plans and organises the family hol, has no idea what he’s in for.

Eric’s 45th birthday is approaching. Wanting to “get off this rat race” for a while, and suffering from “an intense bout of middle-aged angst,” Eric overrules his family’s objections, and books two weeks in a caravan in the Skegness Tralee Carapark and Holiday Centre. Already by page 2, we know that there’s something wrong with Eric. His narrative presentations are somehow off. Here he sounds as though he swallowed the Holiday Centre advertising brochure:

It is a well-designed, attractively appointed, carefully screened, compact site, on level ground, with trees and bushes, sloping gently towards the sea on one side, with small but sylvan hills to the rear. It has outstanding panoramic views and is genuinely picturesque. There are extensive showering and toilet facilities, a site shop, a launderette, a children’s playground, and calor gas supply.

Perhaps Eric is just one of those boring, dull people who never show a spark of life or original thought. He suffers humiliating encounter after humiliating encounter with various characters in and around the holiday camp. Someone let the loonies out, and they’re all there to victimize poor Eric–there’s the psychotic policeman Hollerenshaw who’d like to fit Eric up for every crime that’s occurred in the area, a crooked car-dealer named Honest Iago, a gang of violent bikers, a disaffected shop clerk who’s ready to get violent for better pay, a stuttering bingo caller, and some sexually rapacious acrobatic dwarves. And what is going on with the Garcias in the caravan next door?

Eric may seem to be the meek recipient of constant abuse, but there’s a lot more to Eric than meets the eye. After all, any man whose Joan Crawford obsession is strong enough that he needs to take a coffee table book of his idol on holiday can’t be all bad, right? Perhaps still waters run deep.

I find it fairly hard to say just what Joan had that really hits the spot for me. Of course she was sexy and statuesque, but who wasn’t in those days? of course she had flashing eyes, a finely chiselled nose with flaring nostrils, and a warm, melting mouth. She was distinguished, determined, passionate, perhaps a little haughty. But she had something more than all of these. She had class. She was also something of an icon.

In later years it was revealed that Joan had appeared in blue movies before she got her big break. That didn’t exactly gild the lily but I never held it against her. It only made me feel a deep compassion for her; and it proved,. as if proof were necessary, that above all else Joan was a survivor.

But Eric is not just under assault from the strangers who cross his path–his family is also revolting (deliberate pun). His daughter Sally has turned into a religious maniac, and son Max decides that Skegness is a great place to go primitive. As for Eric’s wife, Kathleen, who packs up 4 suitcases of dirty laundry to take on holiday, she’s the originator of such vomit-worthy dishes as turnip and corned beef flambé, and she’s also a raving nymphomaniac who’s reading a book called Canine Orgasm. Eric calls it pornography, but Kathleen defends the book as erotica. Not that this insatiable woman needs any more ideas on the subject, mind you.

All of Eric’s sorry misadventures are recorded in diary entries. These entries amount to one humiliating encounter after another, but there are also a few lists such as Eric’s “pet hates” and his “political statement.” It’s through these very private lists and diatribes that we see that underneath Eric’s moronic exterior lurks some strange and equally moronic thinking:

Unions are a very good thing if they protect workers’ rights, but a bad thing if they become all militant and subversive.

I think people should be free to walk the streets without being molested by the police, and they should certainly be allowed to sleep in their own caravans, unless of course they’re criminals, in which case the police should go in fast and hard. It doesn’t pay to have a soft police-force. I think most police are doing a good job but there’s always one bad apple and unfortunately I seem to have met him. I’m no fan of capital punishment but how else can you make people see sense?

I think education’s to blame. Everybody’s entitled to an education, but sometimes it seems to me that all we’re doing is educating people to be unhappy with what they’ve got. They all think they’re so bloody clever. And if the State can’t provide a good education then it’s only fair to be able to send your kids to school so long as they don’t turn out a bunch of toffee-nosed snobs and poofs.

While the holiday was designed to bring Eric and his family closer, confinement in the tatty, smelly caravan has the opposite effect. Sally, Max and Kathleen all behave badly and go wild in their own ways. Here’s Eric remonstrating with Max about his behaviour:

“Don’t you see Dad, this is all a sham.”

He gesticulated wildly at me, at Kathleen and Sally, at the caravan, at the world beyond. He picked up his plate, scooped the food in his mouth, licked the plate clean and threw it over his shoulder.

“If rejecting civilisation means an end to good table manners, then it seems a sorry show to me,” I said.

Max roared again. He knocked over the table, snatched up a chair and smashed it against the caravan wall. He started to leave.

“Just where do you think you’re going, young man?”

After some more animal noises he said very distinctly, “I’m going native.”

“In Lincolnshire?” I demanded, incredulous, but it was too late to argue with him. He was already out of the door and disappearing on all fours.

I suppose this wasn’t exactly the effect I’d hoped my little chat would have, and if I had my time again I’d probably be more gentle with him, though frankly I’m still not sure exactly what I did wrong. Kathleen began talking to me again and accused me of being a bully and a home-wrecker, which I hotly denied. Nobody bullies Max these days. Basically I’m sure it will do Max the world of good to get away from the nest for a while, and, if nothing else, at least our little exchange has cleared the air.

These humiliating encounters which always have bad results for Eric typically end with this sort of peculiar non-response, so the last passage will give you a sense of the novel’s tone. This repetition is the novel’s weakness as a normal character wouldn’t take this, and after each anti-climatic encounter, I started to wonder if Eric was heavily medicated, but then again, we are seeing all this through Eric’s eyes, and just how reliable a narrator is he? Author Geoff Nicholson ties all the madness together in a very satisfying and transgressive manner, and by the novel’s conclusion as events spiral out of control, it’s clear that while Eric’s world is a strange, inhospitable place, perhaps Eric’s head is even a worse place to be. I could waffle on about how What We Did On Our Holidays is a subversive exploration of the moral bankruptcy of modern family life, and while that’s true, the book is also a good laugh for anyone who’s been stuck with their family for two miserable holiday-from-hell weeks.

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Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband. Just watch Dateline.”

Gone Girl, a mystery novel from author Gillian Flynn that explores the vicious depths of a toxic marriage, racks up as one of the most inventive, suspenseful mystery novels I’ve read in some time. This is the story of a disappearance of a beautiful, young married woman, Amy, who in her childhood was the subject/inspiration for an immensely popular series of children’s books called “Amazing Amy” written by her annoyingly doting psychologist parents. The books made Amy’s parents–Rand and Marybeth– extremely wealthy, and that wealth poured down to Amy in the form of a large trust fund that swelled to almost $800,000.

Rand and Marybeth always referred to the Amazing Amy series as a business, which on surface never failed to strike me as silly: They are children’s books, about a perfect little girl who’s pictured on every book cover, a cartoonish version of my own Amy. But of course they are (were) a business, big business. They were elementary-school staples for the better part of two decades, largely because of the quizzes at the end of every chapter.

Apart from making Amy rich, they also made her a celebrity. Now in adulthood, Amy’s life isn’t going so well. She married reporter Nick Dunne and their picture-perfect marriage came apart at the seams after they both lost their New York jobs. As Nick explains:

I had a job for eleven years and then I didn’t, it was that fast. All around the country, magazines began shuttering, succumbing to a sudden infection brought on by the busted economy. Writers (my kind of writers: aspiring novelists, ruminative thinkers, people whose brains don’t work quick enough to blog or link or tweet, basically, old stubborn blowhards) were through. We were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers: Our time was done.Three weeks after I got cut loose, Amy lost her job, such as it was.

With less than $100,000 of the trust fund left, Amy and Nick retreated to Missouri, back to North Carthage, his old home town. At the local college, he teaches journalism as an adjunct professor, and with the remnants of Amy’s money, Nick bought a bar which he operates with his twin sister, Go. While this move may have been necessary in their dire economic situation, it hasn’t improved things between Amy and Nick. She’s stuck as a haus frau in backwater Missouri ferrying Nick’s dying mother to chemo. Gradually Nick and Amy have drifted apart.

Gone Girl is split between two narrators: Amy and her husband of 5 years, Nick Dunne. For approximately the first half of the novel, Amy’s voice and her story is parceled out through diary entries which alternate with Nick’s version of events. This format shifts later, but that’s as much as I’m going to say. The novel begins on the day of Amy’s disappearance when Nick receives a phone call from a concerned neighbour that his front door is open and Amy’s beloved cat is outside. Nick rushes home to find signs of a struggle, and he soon finds himself accused of murdering his wife.  

Right from the start, we know that Nick isn’t telling the truth. There’s something not quite right about his reaction to Amy’s disappearance, and he almost immediately becomes the prime suspect. Amy, who specialized in creating quizzes for magazines, left behind an anniversary treasure hunt for Nick, and each clue reveals just how well she understands her husband.

The novel covers the police investigation with the two detectives  who vacillate back and forth on the possibility of Nick’s innocence. There’s also the dynamics of the search team–complete with groupies who are all-too-ready to console poor, lonely, good-looking Nick. Amy’s disappearance interests significant figures from her past, and while some ugly details about Nick begin to emerge, there’s an argument that Amy was “Amazing” in all the wrong ways. Things begin to look bad for Nick, and when a media frenzy begins, out of desperation he hires a well-known defense attorney, Tanner–a cynical man whose slightly sleazy, but wonderfully polished character leaps off the page. Tanner understands the power of the media along with the fact that “Americans love to see sinners apologize.”

Gone Girl is a page-turner–no argument there, and the twists and turns don’t stop. The book’s narrative power comes from its clever construction, and constructed any other way, the novel wouldn’t have worked in quite the same manner. As readers we begin with limited knowledge and then it’s doled out to us slowly. But how much can we trust the information told by an unreliable narrator–two unreliable narrators to be precise?

Gone Girl is well-written, wildly entertaining, suspenseful and packed full of terrific characters, but at the same time after I got past the halfway point, as a reader I began to feel manipulated. It feels strange admitting that–after all stories can be loaded with manipulation. Crime books frequently throw in red herrings, and authors often withhold essential information–we as readers sometimes have to be generous about a certain amount of misinformation before the crime is solved, but in Gone Girl while I admire the way the story was put together, at the same time I feel a little annoyed by it. Reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and I expect that Gone Girl will pick up awards on its way to being a bestseller, so perhaps I’m in the minority. My complaint is only going to make sense to those who’ve read the book–can’t reveal more without spoiling the plot.

On another level, praise must be given for the way in which the novel shows just how society likes narratives. Parts of the novel include the media frenzy that sweeps over Nick and the way in which narratives are forced onto the story of Amy’s disappearance. I found it impossible to read the book without recalling certain notorious cases that appeared in the news, and Amy and Nick’s story was in many ways a clever, gripping composite of these headline grabbers.

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Filed under Fiction, Flynn Gillian