The Little Girls: Elizabeth Bowen (1963)

“And yet now, this minute, with you sitting there opposite, I quite distinctly see you the way you were. You so bring yourself back that it’s like a conjuring trick.”

Is it wise to revisit the past? This is the question asked in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Little Girls.  Dinah, a woman in her early 60s, assisted by Major Frank Wilkins, constructs a time capsule; she’s “asking people for things.” This all takes place at Applegate, a 1912 “substantial villa“–a splendid dwelling which includes incredible workmanship, “lush green woods,” “the rolling Somerset landscape” and a cave. The process of gathering objects stirs Dinah’s memories back to 1914 when she was 11. Her school friends were Clare Burkin-Jones and Sheila Beaker. But that was fifty years ago. Where are they now?

The little Girls

A rather aggressive series of advertisements, which carry hints and possibly even threats, bring Clare and Sheila from the woodwork. What does Dinah want and how will her two friends react after decades of silence?

The book’s first section brings these three women back together, and it only takes a few minutes in each other’s company for the old relationships to slide back into place. These may be women in their 60s, but suddenly they are 11 once more with all the old rivalries in place–except now there are some nasty comments to toss around.

Sheila has married well but somewhat predictably and she’s immersed and concerned with the appearance of respectability. Clare, who is now a successful businesswoman, hasn’t aged well.

Her forehead, exposed by the turban, was forever scored by the horizontal lines into which it rolled up when she raised, as she often did, her comedian’s eyebrows. Bags underhung her eyes; deep creases down from the broadened lobes of the nostrils, bracketed her mouth. Her pug nose and long upper lip (which she still drew down) should have been recognizable features, had the whole of her not so paralyzed Sheila’s eye. Strictly, she was massive rather than  fat: her tailor-made, tailored to contain her, did not minimize (as she sat at the table) shoulders, chest, bust or rib-cage. Clare had arrived, you might feel, by elimination at the one style possible for herself, and thereafter stuck to it. It did not so much fit her as she it. 

So 3 women who’ve lost touch are now back in the same room, and as you’ve probably guessed it’s a mistake. They don’t want to be reminded of who they were, and yet they find themselves rapidly slipping back into the old groves (including old nicknames). And what is the deal with Dinah’s snoopy servant, Francis?

The book’s first section brings the three women back together and then in the second section, we’re in 1914, and some languid days right before the eruption of WWI. Part 3 brings us back to the present.

The first and second sections of the book were fairly strong, but unfortunately the third section is a disappointment. There are hints of some horrible secret which are never fully realized, and the book is far stronger when it details the relationships between the girls, the women they become, and the poignant scenes of 1914. Of note, however, are the descriptions of the garden which made me see and smell the flowers:

As they mounted the steps, the temperature rose. Above ground, the steamy flower-smells filled the air (more, still, that of a lingering August than of September) as the three followed a spongy serpentine grass path towards the house. On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, Double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy; more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that–she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid onto the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth,.

That paragraph gives a sense of Bowen’s sometimes convoluted style. But above all, this author must have been a gardener.

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Middle England: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Middle England moving from 2010 until 2018 is a state-of-the-nation novel. The lives of a handful of characters are set against a troubled Britain as the country moves towards (and through) Brexit. The main character here is Benjamin Trotter who also appeared in The Rotter’s Club and  The Closed Circle.. While this is a trilogy, Middle England can be read as a standalone novel. When  Middle England opens, Benjamin, now in his fifties, is attending his mother’s funeral. Benjamin is ‘retired’ after making a bundle from selling his London property. He’s moved to a converted watermill in Shropshire, where he lives alone trying to finish his novel. 

Middle England

The novel spans 8 years in Britain’s history: a short time considering all that has gone before, but what a momentous 8 years it’s been. Other main characters include Benjamin’s university lecturer niece, Sophie and her plebeian husband, driving instructor, Ian–a couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. There’s also Benjamin’s sister Lois who now works in York while her neglected husband remains in Birmingham. Another character is one of Benjamin’s best friends, Doug Anderton, a journalist who writes political op-ed pieces. He appears at Benjamin’s home on the night of the funeral and opens the subject of the political landscape in Britain.  He notes that Britain is “at a crossroads, “ that there’s a large chunk of the population who are unhappy and resentful, and that the political future in Britain is “volatile.” Doug who’s left-wing and married to an embarrassingly wealthy woman feels he’s “just a spectator” who lives in a “cocoon” of privilege. 

I’m just a spectator. I live in a house in Chelsea worth millions.  My wife’s family own half of the Home Counties. I don’t know what I’m talking about. And it shows up in my writing. Of course it does.

This theme, of being out of touch with the undercurrents of British society, “the sense of simmering injustice,”  runs though the novel. While Doug grasps that politically, Britain is facing change, just what that change will be seems to catch everyone (the politicians especially) off guard. The political scene is presented as it occurs: against the backdrop of life, so we see a timeline of events: the murder of Jo Cox on the news, the rumble of net migration figures. Benjamin, his sister, his niece and his friends are not comfortable with the shifting ‘face’ of Britain. They are upperclass/uppermiddle class. The working class make a slim showing here, and subjects such as Disability Living Allowance and fit-to-work tests are not given a mention–although the Leave promise to send 350,000,000 pounds weekly to the NHS does appear. 

As a novel, Middle England is flawed. The author’s political bias is evident, and while I don’t know quite how you escape that trapdoor when you tackle a subject such as this in a novel, the pro-leave characters are portrayed as rather ignorant repulsive people; the remainers seem stunned and confused (no doubt realistically) by what’s afoot and characters are rather conveniently slotted into “incidents.” The novel is at its strongest (IMO) when characters face an epiphany: such as when Sophie finds herself defending political correctness, publicly, over her husband’s crushed ambitions. This rather interesting scenario is spoiled when later Sophie becomes entangled in an incident involving a transgender student. Would, anyone, after all that is happened, visit the student in hospital? Sophie’s words have already been horrible misinterpreted and twisted once. So that brings me to another question: is the visit logical or does it say something about Sophie’s need to prove that she wasn’t all the things she was accused of.

Middle England is an ambitious novel which attempts to catch the mood of a country as radical changes take place. The novel doesn’t try to present a cogent discussion about immigration or the Brexit decision. Instead it acts as a mirror for the times, and in that sense written from the perspective of characters who are rather privileged, I think it’s a job well done. I watched Brexit from afar. I thought it would happen and it did; I have relatives who live in Britain, Australia, NZ, and Europe, and the latter who left (mainly) due to dissatisfaction with the UK, now are nervous about their future. By taking major political events in a timeline sort-of-way and placing this timeline in the lives of the characters, the novel goes a long way to explaining the mood of residents and an argument for why the Brexit vote passed. In spite of its flaws, I liked the book, and here’s Lisa’s review.

I find myself thinking a lot about the characters who voted to stay in Brexit, who then feel so uncomfortable in their home country that they leave. So on both sides of the Brexit divide, people don’t like what Britain has become. That’s a lot to think about. Finally, loved the Hobbit references which burrowed into the whole Middle Earth/Middle England idea, and the way the Olympics seemed to tap some deep core of patriotism.  

Review Copy

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Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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Bad Debts: Peter Temple

“One thing practicing law gives you is a feeling for some kinds of truth.”

I’ve been meaning to read the Jack Irish novels for years, but then I watched the series which featured the marvelous Guy Pearce as the title character. Guy Pearce IS Jack Irish–he’s excellent in the role, so good in fact that I started to wonder if I should skip the books.

Jack Irish

Roll on to Bad Debts, the first book in the series: I was in the mood for some light crime, and Jack Irish seemed the perfect choice.  First for those who haven’t seen the series, Jack Irish was a successful criminal lawyer until his wife was murdered by a pissed off client. Then he sank into an alcoholic haze. It was the beginning of the forgotten zone,” and when he hit rock bottom, Jack’s former law partner, Andrew Greer “pulled strings” to get Jack “off a variety of charges.”  Jack lives in Fitzroy and only does very minor legal work; most of his income comes from “collecting serious debts or finding witnesses.”

I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built of cow pasture west of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.

Eddie Dollery’s skin wasn’t looking good. He’d cut himself several times shaving and each nick was wearing a little red centered rosette of toilet paper. The rest of Eddie, short, bloated, was wearing yesterday’s superfine cotton business shirt, striped, and scarlet pajama pants, silk. The overall effect was not fetching.

This is how the novel opens, I swept right into Jack Irish’s world and was delighted to hang out in his company for the course of the novel. The plot involves the death of an ex-client, McKillop, a man who approaches Jack pleading for help, but before Jack makes contact, the man is shot dead by police. Jack begins digging with a low grade curiosity and a twinge of nagging guilt. The dead man was one of the last people Jack represented during his black alcoholic phase; he remembers little of the case and so it’s with a sense of tenderly, tentatively probing this awful time in his life that he begins to ask questions. Soon he’s warned off the case which, of course, only fuels Jack’s quest. In a way Jack feels as though he owes McKillop something and this feeling, a debt not paid, propels Jack forward.

As always with a series PI (and that’s basically what Jack is at this point–that and an amateur woodworker) the story vacillates between the character’s personal and private life. In Bad Debts, the story moves between Jack’s various jobs, so one plot thread finds him digging into lucrative gentrification contracts, while another plot thread finds him hanging out with Cameron Delray, the understated “enigmatic footsoldier,” who works for diminutive Harry Strang, a horse racing enthusiast. Wily Strang frequently employs Jack Irish for a range of jobs.

Bad Debts is loaded with marvelous characters: there’s the three senior citizens who appear to be glued permanently to the stools of the local pub “nursing glasses of beer and old grievances.” There’s also Stan the publican and Senior Sergeant Barry Tregear–a man who constantly eats fast food messily, and “looked two slabs of beer away from fat.” All these characters appear in the series. It’s in this novel that Jack meets reporter Linda. She was a character I disliked intensely in the series: too holier-than-thou for my tastes, and she seemed a bit mismatched for Jack’s low-key, understated, damaged yet slightly slippery character. In the novel, she’s more relaxed and interesting. If you enjoy horse racing or football, you will have additional plot elements to interest you, but for me, Jack’s world vision is the best thing in the book. There’s something about that sense of humour that lets you know what lowlifes people really are without that sort of reflected back judgement which always taints:

He was an ex-cop called Col Boon, pensioned off the force for extreme hypertension after shooting another cop during a raid on an indoor dope plantation in Coburg. A tragic mistake, the coroner said. I suppose in some ways it’s always a tragic mistake to shoot the man who’s rooting your wife every time you’re on nightshift and he’s not. 

Review copy.

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The Body of Jonah Boyd: David Leavitt

David Leavitt’s The Body of Jonah Boyd is narrated by Judith “Denny” Denham, a secretary who’s having an affair with her psychology professor boss, Dr. Ernest Wright. It’s the 60s and the story is told in retrospect thirty years later by Denny, and while it’s her story, it’s also the story of the Wright family.

It’s sticky enough that Denny is having an affair (one in a long series of affairs) with her married boss, but the entanglement doesn’t stop there. Nancy Wright, Ernest’s wife, “found” Denny at the hairdresser’s and insists on inviting her home as a “four-hand partner” for the piano. The idea is that Denny is supposed to replace Nancy’s former piano partner and best friend Anne. Denny accepts and so begins her relationship with the Wright family. Denny is frequently a guest at the Wrights’ home, and her invitation to Thanksgiving is secured. On weekends, Ernest and Denny often scurry up to his office above the garage for some gropey sex, while Nancy and the Wright children: Mark, Daphne and Ben are in other parts of the house. Denny doesn’t have a problem with all these complications and claims to keep her relationships with Nancy and Ernest cleanly separate, stating that “my friendship with Nancy was in certain crucial ways remote from my relationship with her husband.”  But is that true?

When Thanksgiving 1969 rolls around, the Wrights’ oldest child, Mark is a draft dodger in Canada, and that’s the Thanksgiving that Nancy’s best friend, Anne and her second husband, Jonah Boyd come to visit.

Denny, whose role was to replace Anne at the piano, has heard so many nauseatingly positive things about Anne that the reality is a shock.

Anne was wearing a wool coat that had been torn near the pocket and then clumsily restitched, and she carried an enormous, shapeless handbag. She had shaggy red hair that was graying at the roots, nicotine-stained teeth, a thick middle. Also her eye makeup was smudged in a way that suggested she had been weeping. 

All at once, a sensation of misplaced triumph welled up in me. This Anne was a far cry from the willowy creature Nancy had described. Certainly they could never have shared clothes! I admit, my rival’s sordid demeanor–not to mention the expression of concern and disappointment that claimed Nancy’s face as she gave Anne the once-over–sparked in me an unexpected confidence, and I shook Anne’s hand heartily. 

There are obvious marital problems between Jonah and Anne, and while Anne seethes and drinks too much, Jonah sets out to charm everyone. The fact that he succeeds so easily seems to bother Anne, and so she airs some of the marital dirty laundry. It’s not a particularly pleasant evening–especially when, after Jonah gives a reading of his soon-to-be-published novel, teenager Ben insists on reading some of his angst-ridden poetry.

It’s an evening to remember, and as Denny narrates the story we learn about the terrible things that subsequently happened to several of the people who attended Thanksgiving that evening. Years pass and then Denny runs into Ben again. …

Every story must begin somewhere and end somewhere. The author (or the narrator) takes a cookie cutter to life and offers readers just that piece. A large portion of Denny’s time must have existed outside of the Wrights but it seems that they are the most important part of her life. And what a tangled relationship she has with this family. At times she seems to wish herself Nancy’s daughter, and she admits “yearning” “to have been Daphne.” But when you put that in the context of Denny’s affair with Ernest, it seems rather incestuous–especially when there are a few times she sees her affair with Ernest as a sort of revenge against Nancy’s slights. Then there is another time Denny admits that she’s “besotted” with Nancy.  The Wrights seem to have various “needs” for Nancy too, so the relationship between Nancy and the Wrights isn’t a one-way street.

This was a reread. I was struck this time by Ernest’s philosophy to life. Ernest believes that “what people get, most of the time, is what they want,” and this philosophy seems to work itself into the later relationship between Danny and Ben. I wasn’t as convinced by the character of Denny this time around. This is a young woman who has a series of affairs with married men, yet asks nothing from them. Given her feelings about various members of the Wright family, somehow she seems  needy and not the cool I-need-my-space serial mistress type.

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The Execution of Justice: Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel, The Execution of Justice opens with our drunk narrator, lawyer Felix Spät offering the reader an explanation of past “events that led to the acquittal of  a murderer and to the death of an innocent man.” He says he needs to “think through the steps I was lured into taking, the measures I took, the possibilities left undone.” It soon becomes clear he’s questioning the justice system and he’s preparing for a “just murder.”

Execution

Back in time to what seems an open-and-shut murder case. Retired from both law and politics, Dr Isaak Kohler is in a taxi accompanying a British minister to the airport. He asks the chauffeur to make a sidetrip to a restaurant. Leaving the dozing politician in the taxi, Kohler walks into the restaurant and without saying a word, shoots Professor Adolf Winter. Then with no evidence of panic, he walks back outside, gets into the taxi and leaves. Later, with the police on the hunt for a presumed fugitive from justice, Kohler rather coolly attends a concert.

Naturally since there are dozens of witnesses, it seem as though there’s no doubt that Kohler is the killer (that or he has a twin). At first it seems that the plot will explore not ‘who-did-it’ but why?

Kohler is tried and convicted. Thriving in prison and claiming his life has improved considerably, Kohler sends for down-on-luck lawyer Felix Spät and hires him to investigate the murder “under the presumption” that Kohler was  “not the murderer.”

“I want you to reinvestigate my case.”

I flinched.

“Meaning you want me to appeal it, Herr Kohler?”

He shook his head. “If I were to pursue an appeal, that would necessarily imply that there is something wrong with my sentence, but there is nothing wrong with it. My life is a closed case, it’s been led away. I know that the warden sometimes thinks I’m a fraud and you, Spät, probably think so too. That’s understandable. But I am neither a saint nor a devil, I’m simply a  man who’s discovered you don’t need anything more to live than a cell, hardly more than you need to die, a bed will do for that.”

Kohler also employs a retired professor, Knulpe, to research “the consequences of murder.” He adds, “the idea is to plumb the depths of reality, to measure exactly what effects one deed has.” Given the plot (and the title) ‘Justice’ is under examination here. It’s really a clever title which could mean a) the death of Justice or b) the implementation of Justice. Kohler tells Felix to create an alternate scenario, an alternate reality to the crime if you will, and of course while defense lawyers often assume that tactic, in this case, Felix’s relationship with his client is fraught with moral dilemmas. Kohler isn’t saying he didn’t do it.

“You are to create a fiction, nothing more.”

“But you are, in point of fact, the murderer, and that makes you fiction quite meaningless,” I declared. 

“That’s the only thing that gives it meaning, Kohler answered. “You’re not supposed to investigate reality at all–our good old Knulpe is doing that–but rather one of the possibilities behind the reality.”

Yes Kohler is a smooth talker….

With Kohler playing mind games, Felix takes the job and lives to regret it.  In spite of this somewhat convoluted approach to the case (or perhaps even because of it) the plot’s premise has allure. Unfortunately, in its execution, there’s that word again, this rather metaphysical crime novel is a chore to read. After finishing it, I read that this book was started in 1957 but was not completed until 1985. Perhaps this explains the listless plot which could have been good if given some different treatment.

Review copy

Translated by John E. Woods.

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Little What’s-His-Name: Alphonse Daudet

“He did not foresee that, all through his life, he should be condemned to drag about, in the same silly way, a blue cage, the color of illusion, and a green parrot, the color of hope!”

It’s an odd experience to move from reading Daudet’s brilliant, funny, and worldly-wise stories: Artists’ Wives to Little What’s His Name (Le Petit Chose). I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that these two books sprang from the same author. Little What’s-His-Name was Daudet’s first published book, and it’s autobiographical.

Little What’s-His-Name is Daniel Eyssette, and the story opens with his birth. Daniel, one of three sons, is born in Languedoc, to a successful man who owns his own silk factory.  Daniel says he was his “parents’ unlucky star,” as right after his birth “incredible misfortunes assailed them from all quarters.”

First there was the customer from Marseilles who stole 40,000 francs, then two fires, a strike, a family quarrel, a lawsuit, and the coup de grace … the Revolution of 1848.  Within a few years, the business is finished and the family leave the factory and their splendid home and move to Lyons (Daniel/Little What’s His Name loses his beloved parrot on the way.) Chapter II is called The Cockroaches for the family’s humble home is plagued with the insects who proceed to make hell for the Eyssettes.  The education of the two youngest boys, Jacques and Daniel, takes a hit due to lack of funds, and the boys attend a school for choirboys. Later a scholarship is offered for one of the boys and the father, who doesn’t seem to think that highly of Jacques, selects Daniel.

It’s a rather sad childhood marked by death, poverty, and memories of a better life. But there’s worse to come; within a few years, with their fortunes tumbling even further, the remaining members of the family split up with “each one to seek his fortune independently.” Daniel is sent off to be a schoolmaster thanks to the recommendation from a family friend.

By this point, Daniel has earned the name “Little What’s-His-Name” thanks to his diminutive size and I’m guessing also because of his ability to sink into the background. Working at the boys’ school is hell for Daniel as he’s smaller than the bigger students, but at least he gets half a bottle of wine at meals!

It’s at the school that Daniel learns some painful life lessons. Daniel is trying hard in his job, and likes teaching the younger boys, but he runs into problems when he punishes the unpleasant son of a Marquis. This incident, with its humiliating results, throws Daniel into bad company at the local inn. It’s a bitter experience to learn that the man you thought was your friend is using you and considers you an idiot, and that’s exactly what happens to Daniel. Without giving away arguably the best part of the plot, Daniel finds himself in Paris.

The first section of the book is the tale of Daniel’s early life and the time spent at the school. The second half concerns Daniel’s move to Paris (he lives with Jacques) and his attempts at a literary career.

Daudet has the habit of moving, in his narrative, from first person to third which I found a little odd. This seems to be driven by sentiment/emotion when Little What’s His Name is embroiled in an emotional scene or is humiliated. Almost as if Daudet is only comfortable imparting these scenes when moving further from the character.

The man with the mustache looked like a good fellow; on the way I learned that his name was Roger, that he was a teacher of dancing, riding, fencing, and gymnastics in the school of Sarlande, and that he had served for a long time in the African light horse. This was enough to make him entirely attractive to me. Children are always inclined to like soldiers. We separated at the door of the inn with much shaking of hands and the explicit promise of becoming friends. 

And now, reader, I have a confession to make to you.

When Little What’s His Name found himself alone in his cold room, in front of his bed in that strange and vulgar inn, far from those whom, he loved, his heart burst, and the great philosopher weep like a child. Life terrified him now, he felt weak and helpless to meet it. He cried and cried. 

I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second half. The first half is powerful in its depiction of the innocence of youth, the battering, humiliating experiences that must be endured, and painful lessons regarding treachery. The second half lacks the same power. It’s too sentimental for my tastes, and that’s the problem with using autobiographical material. My copy comes from Mondial books with an introduction from W P. Trent who was also the translator,

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Splitting: Fay Weldon

“Women tend to be more than one person,” said Angel, “at the best of times, Men get just to be the one.”

Fay Weldon’s novel Splitting is a story of marriage, divorce and lost identity.

Sir Edwin Rice is divorcing Lady Angelica Rice, and what a messy divorce this is. Sir Edwin’s divorce petition includes accusations ranging from “lesbianism to bestiality. Bad cooking to adultery.” Lady Rice fights back and “claimed physical assault; over-frequent and perverted sexual activity which led to her humiliation; drunkenness, drug-taking and financial irresponsibility on the part of her husband; she asserted that her husband’s relationship with his dogs was of a sexual nature.” This divorce is going to be dirty.

splitting

When the book opens, Edwin’s lawyer, Brian Moss is dictating to his new secretary, Jelly White. Jelly White is none other than Lady Angelica Rice. It’s a strategic self placement, and it’s a position that comes in handy when you want to stack the deck in your favour.

While the novel begins with the ugly divorce, it then slips back into the past: when middle-class Angelica first meets Edwin, the youngest son of Lord Cowarth. Edwin marries Angelica and they make their home at the “dilapidated manor house” Rice Court. How fortunate that Angelica has a Savings and Loans balance of 823,000 pounds generated from a single hit “Kinky Virgin.” Angelica dutifully hands this sum over to the Land Agent, and then the marital games begin.

A few years into the marriage, cracks begin to show, and the problems erupt over money. Angelica, now Lady Rice, manages her home well, but Edwin is critical. Fissures in the marriage widen when adulterous relationships evolve between the Rices and their friends Rosamund, Susan, Humphrey, and Lambert. This section of the novel seemed to be deliberately confusing. I couldn’t keep track of the bed hopping, and this is partly because everyone lies and they all accuse each other of various affairs possibly to obfuscate the truth.

The “Splitting” of the title occurs though matrimonial discord.

“How dare he!” says a voice in Angelica’s head. “How dare he!” Another one says “don’t rock the boat,” another says “take him upstairs and fuck him,” and Angelica shakes her head to be rid of them, which works.

These voices, which offer conflicting advice lead to a “perforated, split personality.” Not in the strait-jacket lock-up sense, but in the sense of a woman who’s carried a role for years but then with doubt and rebellion gnawing at her mind, loses any formed sense of self  (loyal wife) and ‘splits’ into other possible selves–an “internal war.”

“Pull yourself together, for God’s sake, “Jelly said to Lady Rice, out of the mirror. But she added more kindly, “It’s been a long, hard day.”

“In future,” said Angelica. “we’ll go home by bus, not Underground. It’s easier on the nerves. And do stop crying, before our eyes get red and puffy. Jesus! What a sight!”

“Let’s do downstairs to the bar,” said Angel, “and make out with some rich businessman. Have a fun night out, some sex-good or bad; I grant you that’s a risk. We’ll score if we can and make ourselves some money.”

“Score?” said Lady Rice.

“Drugs,” said Angel.

Lady Rice uttered a little scream.

Lady Rice found herself looking out her best lingerie and trying it on, while Jelly agitated.

Marriage is a union of two people. The ‘me and the we’ positions are the hardest to negotiate, and in Splitting, Angelica gave up her class, her home, her friends, her identity to marry Edwin. She became Lady Rice–a totally different person, and when the marriage falls apart, the identity crisis in which Angelica fights with various splintered aspects of herself, is alarming, funny and bitterly real.

This isn’t my favourite Weldon novel. The affairs were confusing and difficult to follow, and the novel’s premise: a woman whose personality splits into various warring selves adds to the mayhem. That said, the novel is a strong cautionary tale: women who give up their personalities, friends, family, environment and career to adopt a marital role will have issues with identity.

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Lemons Never Lie: Donald Westlake (1971)

Lemons Never Lie is written by Donald Westlake using his Richard Stark pseudonym. That means it’s not one of Westlake’s funny ones; it’s harder, tougher, meaner.

The lemons in the title refer to slot machine lemons, and when actor/thief Grofield flies into Vegas to listen to a pitch about a heist, the very first thing he does on terra firma is to go to the closest slot, put in a nickel, and pull the handle. Three lemons flip onto the screen. Yes three lemons. According to Grofield, “Lemons never lie,” and three lemons on the slot machine signal bad luck. He should have turned around and got onto the next plane back to Indiana, but he didn’t, and that’s what this tale is all about: bad luck, fate and revenge.

Lemons never lie

Grofield meets a man called Myers in a hotel on the strip. They’re joined by a handful of other crooks and Myers (accompanied by a bodyguard) explains a heist he plans.  Myers, a “blowhard,” exudes a bad vibe. Grofield who runs a theatre in Indiana which doesn’t pay the bills, needs the money badly, but when he hears that the badly conceived plan includes murdering several people, he backs out–as does acquaintance Dan Leach, another crook who invited Grofield to attend the meeting.

“No,” said Grofield.

Myers stopped mid-sentence, his hand dipping down for yet another photo or map or graph. He blinked. “What?”

“I said no. Don’t tell me any more of it, I’m out.”

Myers frowned; he couldn’t understand it. “What’s the matter, Grofield?”

“Killing,” Grofield said.

“They’ve got a half a dozen armed guards in there,” Myers said. “There’s absolutely no other way to get past them.”

“I believe you. That’s why I’m out.”

Myers looked sardonic. “You really that kind, Grofield? Sight of blood bother you?”

“No, it’s more the sight of cops. The law looks a lot harder for a killer than it does for a thief. Sorry, Myers, but you can count me out.”

Leach wins big at the tables that night, but then Grofield and Leach are later mugged. Grofield managed to ID Myers and his bodyguard as the culprits, but Myers disappears while the body guard is in the hotel room with his throat cut.

At this point, Grofield knows to get out of Vegas fast, and since the popular phrase is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” he flies home thinking he’ll never cross paths with Myers again. …

He’s wrong.

This is a dark, mean tale that begins with an omen of bad luck and then weaves a savage twisted thread. To add more to the plot would spoil the read that awaits Westlake fans. The novel brings up the issue of crooks working with other crooks: who do you trust? Sooner or later you’re going to run into psychos, egomaniacs, and sadists, and then what do you do? For its emphasis on the inescapable nature of fate, I’d file this under noir. 

(This book is number 4 in the Alan Grofield series)

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