Carmilla: J. Sheridan Lefanu (1872)

But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exits and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is the book that comes to mind when I think about vampyr novels, but J. Sheridan Lefanu’s Carmilla predates Dracula by over 2 decades. I really didn’t expect much when I picked up Carmilla, but I found myself drawn into this intense gothic tale. The prologue establishes that the story comes from the notebook of a Dr. Hesselius, but the body of the tale is told by Laura, whose English father, upon retirement from the Austrian service, purchased a remote castle located on the edge of a forest. The gothic castle comes complete with a drawbridge and moat. The remoteness of the castle is established immediately, but it’s more than just remote: it’s creepy. The forest is large, extending 15 miles to the right of the castle and 12 miles to the left. General Spielsdorf’s schloss is 20 miles away. 3 miles to the west is an abandoned village with an equally abandoned chateau that was once owned by the now vanished, noble Karnstein family.

When the story opens, Laura is 19. She lives with her father and two older women who are companions. Laura stresses that she is lonely and isolated. This is a dull life for a young girl, and her isolation contributes to the events that take place. But there’s change and excitement in the air with the expected arrival of General Spielsdorf and his niece/ward Bertha Rheinfeldt. But excitement fades to sadness and disappointment when Laura’s father receives a letter from the General informing him the visit is cancelled as Bertha is dead. The letter also contains some cryptic information, which is ascribed to the general’s grief, that he is now tracking a “monster” who is responsible for Bertha’s death.

Just as Laura and her father absorb the news, a carriage accident takes place literally outside of their drawbridge. The carriage contains two women: a mother and daughter. The daughter, Carmilla, appears to be stunned by the accident and the mother, who is on a mysterious emergency mission and will be gone for 3 months, cannot take her daughter with her. Laura’s father gallantly offers to let Carmilla stay with them. Big mistake. …

Now let’s back up a bit. Laura had a disturbing dream when she was 6 years old. In the dream a beautiful woman visited her bedside, and guess what, Carmilla is the mirror image of the woman in the dream. Carmilla befriends Laura. A great deal of the suspense comes from us knowing that this is a vampyr story, and we can guess who the vampyr is. Carmilla has strange habits which no one questions. She must sleep alone, she sleeps with her door locked and she avoids prayers (dead giveaway.) Since it’s not hard to guess who the vampyr is here, the suspense comes from Carmilla’s behaviour, her seduction of Laura, and the question of whether this castle of innocents will guess that they harbour a blood-hungry vampyr in their midst? :

Dearest, your little heart is wounded; think me not cruel because I obey the irresistible law of my strength and weakness; if your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die–die, sweetly die–into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others, and learn the rapture of that cruelty, which yet is love; so, for a while, seek to know no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected to. The setting was deliciously creepy, and Lefanu creates a wonderful back drop for this Gothic story. Dracula is depicted, in film at least, as a seducer of women–always sneaking into off-limit bedrooms in the middle of the night. Some readings of Carmilla argue that this is a lesbian vampyr tale. Well young women are afflicted all over the region and are soon dropping like flies.

But to die as lovers may – to die together, so that they may live together. Girls are caterpillars when they live in the world, to be finally butterflies when the summer comes; but in the meantime there are grubs and larvae, don’t you see – each with their peculiar propensities, necessities and structures.

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Temples of Delight: Barbara Trapido

In Barbara Trapido’s novel, Temples of Delight, Alice Pilling, the only daughter of affluent, loving parents attends a dreary girls’ school which provides a dull, mediocre education. The arrival of a new girl, Veronica Bernadette or Jem, as she calls herself, alters Alice’s world irrevocably. A mediocre education can produce mediocre minds, and so none of the pupils question any of the nonsense taught in the curriculum. But Jem, handed a biography of Oliver Cromwell and told to read it, hides The Leopard inside the biography’s covers, and does so right under the nose of her unsuspecting teacher. Jem, it seems, was booted from her last, convent, school, and it doesn’t take long for the subversive Jem to disrupt classes, much to Alice’s delight. On day one, the subject in class is the Norman Conquest, and one girl asks “how did we get back to being English again?” According to the teacher, Miss Aldridge, “we soon turned them [the Normans] into good Englishmen.”

“Excuse me, Miss Aldridge ,” Jem said, and she looked up from the Lampedusa. “Would you say that during the Roman occupation we all became Italians?”

Miss Aldridge frowned with displeasure. She was close to retirement by then and belonged to a generation of Englishwomen not overkeen on foreigners, in general, though Alice thought she had once detected a certain romanticism in Miss Aldridge’s attitude toward Bedouin Arabs. Italians were definitely among her least favourite foreigners and tradition had it among some of the girls that she had had her bottom pinched while on a package holiday in Sorrento. Alice’s imagination had privately elaborated upon this myth, so that she believed Miss Aldridge to have resorted to her armor-plated corsetry as a precaution against a sudden airdrop of Italians on Surrey.

“The Ancient Romans were not Italians, Veronica,” Miss Aldridge said. “Dear me, no! They were a highly disciplined and very hygienic people.”

Jem describes her father as an eccentric who “busies himself in the summerhouse,” her mother as a glamourous Frenchwoman, and her sisters as bohemians. Alice, a periodic stammerer is smitten with Jem, and when Flora, Alice’s former best friend, returns to school after the death of her father, she finds her friendship with Alice co-opted. (There’s a riotous back story section involving Alice and Flora’s family at a restaurant.) Jem’s presence unleashes rivalry between the girls, and the rivalry explodes over Jem’s novel, a bodice-ripper extraordinaire/sensation novel called My Last Duchess. Jem disappears and Alice never quite gets over the loss of her mercurial friend.

As a young woman, Alice, introverted and subdued, attends Oxford, and always the memory of Jem hovers over Alice’s life. At Oxford, she meets the smug, insufferable schoolmaster, Roland, who patiently patronizes Alice, and who forms a reductive image of her as a stammering virgin who needs “coaxing” out of her “funny” ways. Other people in Alice’s life serve as a contrast to Roland’s smug world view, but it’s a visit “up North” that brings a crisis.

Temples of Delight reminded of Elizabeth Jolley in terms of the humour and the eccentric characters. I was gleefully delighted by the wild, outrageous beginning sections with Jem and I liked the middle section with Alice and Roland. The ending, with its religious stuff, for this reader was disappointing. Perhaps part of the issue is that Jem is such a glittering character, the novel suffers from her absence.

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High Priest of California: Charles Willeford (1953)

“By nine am the next morning, the sun decide to burn its way through the clouds and let San Francisco take a look at it.”

Used Car salesmen are apparently the High Priest[s] of California, or at least that’s the idea in Charles Willeford’s dark noir novel. The High Priest in this case is San-Francisco based Russell Haxby, a sleazy predator who looks for easy sex and easy marks. And in this world, there’s no shortage of either. Haxby is a strange character. He appears to be-laid back and easy going, but erase that image and think instead of a predator who takes his sweet time tenderizing his prey, and that’s closer to Haxby’s real nature.

The novel opens with a bored Haxby out on the prowl at a dance hall “where men come to pick up something and women come to be picked up.” At first, there seem to be no likely prospects, but he spies an attractive shapely woman in a red suit and asks her to dance. One thing leads to another, and Haxby takes the woman, Alyce, for dinner and drinks. He “pumps” her about her living situation, and after discovering that she lives with an older, female cousin, Ruthie, Haxby thinks this will be a “cinch.” Once inside her apartment, Haxby is repelled. The place smells like a “zoo,” or more precisely of cat, several tomcats, which Alyce subsequently introduces to Haxby. Haxby decides that Alyce is “too weird” for him, but partly because he’s bored and partly because he doesn’t have any other better prospects, Haxby relentlessly, gradually, dissolves Alyce’s resistance to any form of intimate, physical contact. She’s a “new type,” for Haxby. In time, Haxby learns Alyce’s big secret which explains her reluctance to have any sort of relationship, and her apparent abhorrence of sex. But her indifference to sex and fundamental naivete merely eggs Haxby on.

Given that this is written by Charles Willeford, I expected murder around the corner. Haxby is a violent man who vents his pent-up frustrations, sexual and otherwise, on lowly males who won’t put up a defense. At the same time, he listens to classical music to soothe the beast within, and reads James Joyce. Willeford skillfully describes a sleazy world which is ruled by the meanest, unscrupulous people who prey on the weak. Haxby is a predator, circling Alyce until her scruples simply wear down. At one point, he considers unzipping her housecoat but decides it would be “too easy.” Part of the fun for Haxby is seducing Alyce with murmurs of love everlasting, and watching her swallow his spiel.

We see Haxby on the car lot, flipping prices on various heaps, and waiting for returning servicemen with deep pockets to buy without too many questions. Alyce’s cousin, Ruthie, an older blowsy woman, is seeing a married man who is waiting for his invalid wife to die. He’s not much of a prize, but Ruthie has put the time in to the relationship and expects the pay off soon. There’s no room for tenderness. Innocence… well that’s a sign of weakness.

Women don’t eat much, foolish, foolish. I believe a person should take advantage of anything that gives them pleasure. When you figure that this rock we’re living on is spinning around once a day, every day, 365 spins a year, and with each day you get a day older. What the hell does an extra inch or two around the waistline mean? An extra inch or two, period.

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Swann’s Way: Proust

I’ve had a few false starts with Proust, but this year (2022) I was determined to begin Remembrance of Things Past. This goal was motivated by the short story Time Lost by Elizabeth Berridge. The story is told by a niece whose aunt says she is “leaving him [Proust] for my deathbed.” The aunt imagines herself “drift[ing] off” to the words of Proust. It’s a great image, no argument there, but that’s not what happens. When it comes to her deathbed, Proust is the last thing on the aunt’s mind. The story is a cautionary tale, ‘don’t put good things off.’ I needed no more, so in January I started the first volume.

I am obviously not an expert on Proust; no doubt there are many PhD’s out there on Proust, so here I am just a reader. First: if you have been putting off Proust: don’t. Second: if you want to read Proust because you think you should, then read him for the delights that await you. I am not going to rehash the plot. Over the years I’ve heard the madeleines reference so many times, that in a sense Proust became distilled down to that, and that’s a shame. The madeleines were a tiny part sliver of the whole idea of memory. Huge chunks of the book dwell on the elusiveness of memory and time: how the past can be ‘hidden’ in a material object.

The book opens with the narrator as a boy. Swann’s Way is essentially the childhood of the narrator, so we read about his family, his friends, his relations, his childhood holiday, influences. Snobbery and bourgeois values are weaved through the many relationships here. A significant character is Aunt Léonie who, after the death of her husband, retreated into invalidism. Even though she rarely emerges from her bedroom, she is nonetheless a tyrant. Friends and acquaintances are ‘dropped’ if they don’t show the carefully measured respect for her invalidism, and her loyal, fiercely protective servant, Françoise, simmers with resentment and jealousy when her employer pays attention to Eulalie, a servant who visits occasionally.

The Swanns dominate the novel: Monsieur Swann is referred to repeatedly as a somewhat problematic person, socially, (his “unfortunate” marriage) and over time his relationship with Odette, a courtesan, is detailed. I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intense description of obsession. Well, I’ll back up and say that Maugham’s Of Human Bondage is also incredibly intense on the subject. The sections with M. Swann were some of my favourites. Swann is a woman chaser. He visits houses of friends and when he does this, his hosts often wonder why he is such a frequent visitor, but it’s always because he’s pursuing one of the female servants. The references to Swann create a sort of mystique in the narrator’s eyes, and this mystique only increases when he eventually meets and loves, Swann’s daughter, Gilberte….

The narrator is an only child, and his fragile health sometimes constrained his desires. He develops a love of reading which is an intensely emotional experience. He notes “these afternoons were crammed with more dramatic and sensational events than occur often in a whole lifetime. These were the events that took place in the book I was reading.”

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable by the human spirit, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which the spirit can assimilate to itself. After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, while we turn over, feverishly, the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes. And once the novelist has brought us to that state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid, and of a more lasting impression than those which come to us in sleep; why, then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which, only, we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the keenest, the most intense of which would never have been revealed to us because the slow course of their development stops our perception of them. It is the same in life, the heart changes, that is our worst misfortune, but we learn of it only from reading or from imagination, for in reality, its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual, even if we are able to distinguish successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.

The narrator’s life is highly, leisurely, detailed. Many of the characters are so intensely described that it’s almost as if we know them. My copy is heavily marked with notes, and I can’t possibly include all the profound quotes that I chewed over repeatedly as I read the book. I should add here that I listened to this on audio (plus have physical copy), and for me audio was a very successful way to tackle Proust. I’ve read many Modiano novels, and Modiano also tackles the subject of memory. It’s not fair to compare him to Proust, but after reading Proust, I can’t help but conclude that Modiano presents a light version of memory. Also I read/listened along with Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past by Patrick Alexander. The book helped tremendously. Special thanks to Patrick Alexander for mentioning the Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition. You can watch a sort clip here:

Monty Python All-England Summarize Proust Competition

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The Galton Case: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 8)1959

In Ross Macdonald’s The Galton Case, PI Lew Archer is hired by one of California’s richest families to find the long lost heir, Anthony Galton. 22-year-old Anthony Galton disappeared, along with his pregnant, lowlife wife and a sizeable amount of cash, over 20 years ago in 1936. There’s been no word from him since. Widowed Mrs Galton, querulous and ill, wants Anthony, Tony, found, so the family lawyer, Sable, hires Archer for the job. With the trail long cold, Archer thinks the search is a waste of time and money, but he takes the job. mainly due to curiosity.

Oddly enough, in this cold case, there’s a trail of clues, like pieces of gingerbread that lead Archer to a pile of bones and a young man who claims to be Anthony Galton’s son. This seems to be the end of a long saga, but Archer isn’t satisfied. Early in the book, Archer says he “hates coincidences,” and those coincidences begin piling up.

When Archer starts digging, it’s the 50s, but the case reaches back into a world of prohibition and organized crime. There are many unanswered questions: including who killed Anthony Galton (the pile of bones without a head) and why? Where is his wife? The son has a story which seems to check out, but the entire swirling mess is entangled with some very unsavory characters. One of them, an impertinent, unlikely ‘butler’ who works for Sable and his much younger wife, is stabbed to death on the Sables’ doorstep by an unidentified man. Also, Archer isn’t happy with the way in which the missing persons case was solved so easily. Plus he is beaten badly and ends up in hospital.

Archer is a great character; he has his own code of ethics and once interested in a case, no-one can shake him lose. In The Galton Case, Archer is given a big cheque and is expected to walk away, but Archer senses there’s a lot more to the Galton story, and he continues investigating. Lew Archer books are peppered with fascinating characters, and there’s always the sense that Archer stumbles into the messy detritus of people’s lives. Here there’s a middle-aged poet, a woman with a shady past who now lives shrouded in middle-aged respectability, and a sordid couple who run a sordid rooming house. Many of the characters are imprisoned in their miserable lives. The class divide is the strongest yet I’ve seen in an Archer novel.

I bought a pint of whisky to ward off the chill and checked in at the Salisbury, a small side-street hotel where I usually stayed in San Francisco. The desk clerk was new to me. Desk clerks are always moving up or down. This one was old and on his way down; his sallow face dropped in the pull of gravity. He handed me my key reluctantly:

“No luggage, sir?”

I showed him my bottle in its paper bag.

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The New Neighbor: Carter Wilson

In Carter Wilson’s thriller, The New Neighbor, Irish transplant, bartender Aidan Marlowe, buries his much-loved wife, Holly, on the same day he wins the lottery. Talk about the ups and downs of fortune. Marlowe, as he prefers to call himself, is a new widower, facing the daunting prospect of raising twins, Bo and Maggie. As he stands at the graveside wondering how he is going to cope, he gets the news that he is now a millionaire. There’s a great irony to the timing here. Now Marlowe has money, at last, serious money, he no longer has his wife to share it with. All those years of struggle together, and she’s not here to share in the bounty. Of course, the money will make it easier to raise the children, won’t it?

One of the first things Marlowe decides to do is to uproot the children from Baltimore. He buys a 8,000 sq. ft. mansion in Bury Ct. There are several reasons for this decision, and Marlowe leaves all the old furniture behind for this fresh new start. The house Marlowe buys was owned by some very wealthy people who simply disappeared. Marlowe becomes fascinated by the mystery of their disappearance.

It’s clear that life is not going to be smooth sailing for Marlowe, millions or no millions, but the money should pave the way, but instead, the money brings unexpected complications when anonymous, threatening notes begin to arrive. …After the threats pile up, Marlowe brings his Da, from Ireland to help, but Marlowe’s actions, drinking and blackouts raise the question of his sanity. Plus then there’s the whole unreliable narrator thing.

I liked the novel’s premise and the way the parasites some crawling out of the woodwork, drawn by the smell of money, but found a number of things implausible and other things jarring: the description of Holly’s face decomposing like a “pumpkin rotting in the sun”–a truly horrible image of the woman he loves from Marlowe’s mind (made me wonder if he did love her), and then the way he answers his cell phone at the graveside. Yes, he was alone, so there was no one to tut-tut–except me. Readers should be aware that there are descriptions of animal torture. This is a deal breaker for a lot of readers. You have warning and can skip it … still…

review copy

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The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”

Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:

There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.

Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.

Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.

While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?

Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.

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The Younger Wife: Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth’s domestic suspense novel, The Younger Wife, begins with the wedding of Melbourne-based heart surgeon, Stephen Aston, a man in his 60s and Heather, a 30-something interior designer. It’s a big wedding, with Stephen’s two daughters, Tully and Rachel in attendance. The groom is old enough to be the bride’s father … well it’s an old story. But wait … there’s something really odd about this wedding. Stephen’s ex-wife, Pamela, is also a guest. Stephen insists that even though Pamela and he are divorced, she should attend as she’s still family. Pamela, by the way, is living in a care home with dementia. Backstory: Heather was hired for home renovations by Stephen and Pamela when they were still married. Shortly after Stephen met Heather, he put Pamela in a care home. A month after moving Pamela into the care home, he filed for divorce and announced his upcoming marriage to Heather. Alarm bells were going off in my head with this information. And I’m not the only one. Most of the guests feel uneasy about Pamela’s presence, and this unease is proved warranted when something goes horribly wrong. …

The novel segues to a restaurant dinner organized by Stephen. He invites his daughters Tully and Rachel and, there he introduces Heather as his fiancée. Tully and Heather are floored. They are still adjusting to the relocation of their mother to a nursing home, and they had no idea their dad was even dating. Tully’s first reaction to Heather is to assume she’s going to “destroy their lives.” Rachel plays a cooler hand, but both young women struggle to adjust to the news.

Under different circumstances, Rachel might have felt pleasure at this meeting. For example, if her father had started dating someone after mum died. A nice widow named Beryl, perhaps

The story moves from Stephen’s announcement up to the wedding. While both Rachel and Tully try to adjust to the news that they are shortly to have a young stepmum, both young women face other challenges in their lives. Rachel, who runs a bakery business from her home, discovers mysterious contents in her mother’s hot water bottle. Tully, who lives in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Melbourne, faces an uncertain future. Both sisters have ‘issues;’ Rachel, who doesn’t date, has never dated, tends to eat her feelings, and Tully has picked up a nasty little habit since she was 11. Rachel, unsettled by the news of the wedding combined with the contents of the water bottle, tries to ask her mother some questions, but it’s a roll of the dice when it comes to whether or not Pamela will recognize her children. As events roll on, Rachel and Tully begin to question every thing they know about their parents.

All the characters have secrets, and all of those secrets will be uncovered by the time the book ends. The story unfolds through the voices of an (initially) unnamed woman, Heather, Tully and Rachel. The Younger Wife is a page turner. I liked the relationship between the very different sisters. Yet while this story is highly readable, I had some issues with a couple of things. 1) Tully’s husband, Sonny, makes a MAJOR mistake (no spoilers) but Tully basically shrugs and that’s that. Of course, underneath Tully’s acceptance and nonchalance, it’s NOT ok, and this is evident by her later stressed out, self-destructive behaviour. Sonny is appalled by his wife’s behaviour, and Tully waits for the lightening to fall. But wait…. Sonny isn’t called to account for his actions.

2) Another issue I had was with the character of Heather. The choices she makes after one particular incident pushed credulity over the edge. Can’t say more than that without spoilers. One’s past makes one more vulnerable in certain situations and to certain relationships, I get that, and I agree, BUT when the evidence is irrefutable … c’mon. What sort of idiot accepts PILLS after YOU KNOW what the truth is? Heather’s behaviour makes her … well either NOT a credible character or not the sharpest tool in the toolbox (yes even taking her past into consideration.) Still, in spite of these flaws, I liked the way the author showed that the ideal family is sometimes rotten to the core. It takes being inside that family to know the truth.

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Of Human Bondage: W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched, for they are full of the truthless ideals which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. “

W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage, is an intense character study of Philip Carey from his unhappy childhood through his life as a young man. The book is labelled a bildungsroman, and in this case, the label is a reductive. Of Human Bondage had been in my to-read list for years, and this wonderful book makes my Best-of-Year list.

Philip’s life does not begin well. He is born with a club foot, a deformity which shapes his entire life. His father, a London doctor, spent above his means and died unexpectedly, leaving a widow, pretty Helen and his small son just a tiny amount of money. When Philip is 9, his mother dies and he’s left in the care of his paternal uncle, William Carey, a Vicar and his wife, Louisa. William and Louisa are a childless couple, and life at the vicarage is dull and restrictive. While Aunt Louisa loves Philip and tries to do her best for the boy, life at the vicarage is built around the selfishness and self-importance of the vicar. William Carey earns just 300 pounds a year, not a great deal, so he is the one who eats an egg while his wife nibbles nervously at bread and butter. The pompous, miserable, querulous vicar is the one who goes on holiday while Louisa stays home. If Philip is a ‘good boy’ he may get the top of his uncle’s boiled egg. With the household built around the idea that the vicar is the most important creature in the house, the addition of a small, lonely, unhappy boy is not easy. The vicar, who did not approve of Philip’s parents, intends that Philip should enter the church. Shipped off to boarding school, Philip, due to his club foot, suffers great torments at the hands of the other boys. It’s at boarding school, Philip finally finds a friend, but it’s a friendship based in Philip’s deep insecurities and need for love.

When he’s a young man, Philip refuses to try for an Oxford scholarship and instead, using his small inheritance, goes to Germany. He’s desperate to ‘live’ and escape the suffocating life in the vicarage. His aunt’s sad, dreary existence seems to be an incentive to gain experience abroad. Philip returns home and studies accounting but decides that is not for him, and so, possessing a little artistic talent, he moves to Paris to study Art. Eventually realizing that he will never be a great artist, he returns to England and begins his training as a doctor. Philip meets a cockney waitress named Mildred and she becomes the bête noire of his life.

Our lives are defined by our experiences and our choices and so it is with Philip. He obsessively pursues the dreadful Mildred, and she treats him abominably. She drifts in and out of Philip’s life, using him shamelessly, and each time she returns and leaves, her degrading treatment of Philip is worse and worse. She is a horrid creature; she understands Philip in terms of how she can manipulate him, but she sees his code of behaviour, his ‘niceness’ as weakness. Philip falls as low as a human being can go in terms of money, and it’s only when he hits rock bottom that he begins to surface.

It’s through Philip’s interactions with Mildred we see how relationships fill a need. Philip has nothing in common with Mildred, but think of a key and a lock, they ‘fit’ together, and while even Philip recognises that the awful passion he has for Mildred is self-destructive, he can’t stop.

He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with one than happiness with the other.

So enough of the plot, but onto some of the significant people Philip meets. He has a sexual relationship with an older woman in his uncle’s home and after her successful conquest, he abandons her without hesitation. He meets a repellent young female art student in Paris, and fails to see her deep poverty until it is too late. He meets a fellow artist who gives him a rug saying it explains the meaning of life, and through his hospital work, he befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelny–a man of grandiose ideas who has a large, lively family.

After finishing the novel, I chewed over the entire ‘bondage’ idea. Philip is hostage to many things: his deformity, religion, money, sexual desire and his need for love. Philip tries to find freedom, the illusory idea of freedom, by leaving the stifling atmosphere of the vicarage, but he carries his human limitations with him to Germany and later Paris. He experiences many failures and disappointments while observing the failures of others who also seek freedom, fame or the meaning of life. Maugham addresses the idea of what it means to be ‘free’ and this is the question that haunts Philip until the novel’s conclusion. Freedom isn’t ‘out there,’–it’s not a geographical location–it’s metaphysical and Philip must overcome his emotional and mental hurdles in order to achieve freedom of the mind. Only then does he have a shot at happiness.

There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.

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Filed under Fiction, Maugham, W. Somerset

The Heights: Louise Candlish

Louise Candlish’s novel, The Heights, is a story of revenge told through several voices including a mother who lost her son in a senseless car accident. It’s the sort of book that causes readers to question how we would act in the same circumstances.

The story is mostly told by Ellen Saint, but there are also sections that are written by a journalist who is sitting in a writing class also attended by Ellen. Middle-aged Ellen Saint is married for the second time to Justin. They have a daughter together, Freya. Ellen, an interior designer, also has a son, Lucas, by her ex-husband, Vic. When the novel opens, Lucas is dead. He died in a horrible car accident in which his friend, Kieran, drove.

So here’s the backstory: Lucas attends an upscale school, Kieran, the product of a broken home is placed at the school by his foster mother, Prisca. Kieran, with a history of drug problems, learning difficulties, and rough edges riles Ellen immediately. She resents Kieran and his friendship with Lucas. To Ellen, Kieran leads Lucas astray; under Kieran’s influence, Lucas skips school, takes drugs, lies to his parents, and begins failing classes. So in other words, Kieran is every parents’ nightmare. Following Lucas’s death, Ellen is driven by only one thing: revenge.

As far as Ellen knows, when the novel opens, Kieran is dead and she begins with the statement.

It can’t be Kieran Watts, I tell myself. And if anyone can be sure of that it is me.

Because I’m the one who killed him.

Then why is Kieran alive and well in London? Or is Ellen, who has had other mistaken ‘sightings’ of Keiran in the past, wrong once again?

That’s enough of the plot…. It was hard to be in Ellen’s head. She is so full of hate and rage, that her mind is not a pleasant place. On one hand, since she lost her son due, rage is one option, but the majority of the novel dwells in this rage-filled place and it’s tiring. I had issues with Ellen almost immediately. There are indications that she’s a bit ‘off.’ The way she turns to her EX. The way Lucas is never at fault. … Anyway, this is a compulsive read–if only to get to the basic truths of this situation. I wish Ellen had been a bit more sympathetic.

Review copy.

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Filed under Candlish Louise, Fiction