The Great Believers: Rebecca Makkai

“This disease has magnified all our mistakes.”

Rebecca Makkai’s splendid novel, The Great Believers moves back and forth between two timelines while exploring themes of survival, loss, and ethics. I read The Hundred Year House back in 2014. I enjoyed it, but The Great Believers is a better, richer, more mature novel.

The novel opens in 1985 Chicago. Nico, the close friend of Yale Tishman, has died of AIDS. Yale, the development director of an art gallery, and his partner, newspaper owner Charlie attend a party organized for Nico’s friends. Nico’s death was divisive. His family never accepted that Nico was gay, never accepted Nico’s gay partner, Terrence. It was only “in his last days, they’d claimed him,” and now Nico is dead, Terrence isn’t welcome at Nico’s funeral vigil, so Nico’s friends gather to remember Nico at a party.

While the party is an important event in the lives of Nico’s family and his little sister, Fiona, Yale, one of the novel’s two central characters is unaware that the party heralds an important turning point in his life. As the months pass, friends became “human dominoes,” as the disease decimates men in Yale’s social circle. In his professional life. Yale tries to secure an art collection  worth several million dollars from an elderly woman whose late husband attended Northwestern.

The elderly woman, Nora, the great-aunt of Fiona, is drawn to Yale for several reasons. Nora, who was at one point an artist, turned to modelling in post WWI Paris. She lost many artist friends to the war, and she notes the loss they represent. These were not famous artists; they died unknown–their talent lost to war.

Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you. But there are all these happy young people around you and you realize no, they’re not bereft. They don’t see the empty spaces.

Nora’s family don’t want her to donate the art to a university, and so they thwart Yale as much as possible. Yale treads a slippery slope in this situation: is it ethical to encourage Nora to donate her unique art collection? Is it ethical to work around the family and conceal the value of the collection? Yale becomes embroiled in a political nightmare when a prestigious donor to the university steps in to intervene. Yale walks a fine line, and it’s complicated by his slippery closet gay-boss and a new male intern.

The second storyline takes place in 2015, 30 years later. Fiona, now 51, is divorced, estranged from her only daughter and works in a resale shop. All of the young men in the gay circle which included her brother are gone. Fiona survived an epidemic, witnessed its cruel devastation first hand, and yet to most people she speaks to, AIDS is something they’ve heard about in a vague way.

Fiona had spent an inordinate amount of her adult life engaged in two different ongoing fantasies. One, especially lately, was the exercise in which she’d walk through Chicago and try to bring it back as it was in 1984, 1985. She’d start by picturing brown cars on the street. Brown cars parked nose-to-tail, mufflers falling off. Instead of the Gap, the Woolworth’s with the lunch counter, Wax Trax! Records, where the oral surgeon was now. And if she could see all that, then she could see her boys on the sidewalks in bomber jackets, calling after each other, running to cross before the light changed. She could see Nico in the distance, walking toward her.

The Great Believers captures the ignorance, the paranoia and the fear of the AIDS epidemic, conveying the atmosphere in Yale’s community of friends, many already ostracized from their families, with intensity and compassion.  Yale’s circle of friends have just begun to hear about the disease and prevention, and while the threat of contagion sparks a range of reactions, for some it’s already too late. While professionally Yale struggles with the ethics of working around Nora’s family, the plot also examines personal responsiblity to sexual partners. The novel subtly argues for a society that accepts homosexuality; the closet married gays here complicate a situation that is already marked with terrible stigma.

While this may sound like some sort of staged, preachy social awareness novel, it isn’t. Reading the novel brought back (like a slap across the face) how people treated gays as lepers, certain that breathing the same air could bring the ‘gay plague’ down on their heads.

This is a good, character-driven story. The novel goes back and forth in time, following Yale and then Fiona’s story. The two plotlines don’t quite come together–although there was a moment when I thought they might mesh. Yale’s story thread was the stronger of the two, simply because the stakes are so much higher. Yale is a marvellous character, a flawed tragic hero who never quite grasps human duplicity.

Review copy.

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A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet

I liked the premise of Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. We live in a world that’s changed a great deal in the last few decades: the internet makes the globe smaller in some ways and also much more dangerous. Through the story of a troubled marriage, The House Swap shows the ease with people can elbow into our lives.

The House Swap

The novel opens in 2015 with Caroline and Francis, a married couple, parents of a small boy, traveling to Chiswick on a house-swap arrangement. Caroline signed onto a house swap site “on an idle whim,” but then was contacted by an S. Kennedy who expressed interest in swapping a Chiswick house for the couple’s flat in Leeds. Francis had wanted to go abroad, but Caroline nixed that due to concerns about leaving their son. So the book finds the couple, who’ve left the child with a grandmother, a bit combative and miffed with each other. Chiswick seems a poor exchange for Paris or Spain.

The truth underneath the choice of location is that neither Caroline nor Francis have the energy to rustle up a holiday that requires much planning. You see, their marriage is on the rocks. Caroline has been a bad girl, but their marriage has survived the affair. Sort of….

Not in the best of moods, the couple arrive at the Chiswick house. Caroline finds the house a bit odd.

It’s the emptiest house I have ever seen. Nothing on the walls, not even a mirror. Pale pine floorboards and smooth blank doors opening into near vacant rooms. 

Weird, weird weird…. But then things get weirder when Caroline finds items in the house that remind her of her former lover, and what of the nosy, pushy neighbour a few doors down.

The story goes back and forth in time through a few different voices, while the background of Caroline’s affair and her marriage to Francis unfolds. Francis is a therapist, and gradually we see what a wreck Francis is, his unhealthy behaviours and exactly what pushed Caroline towards another man. Against this backstory, events in the past also occur which trouble Caroline in the present; she’s tried shoving thoughts of the affair into the back of her mind, but the Chiswick house brings memories flooding back.

This is a domestic thriller about two married people who had a lot going for them but threw it away, and now the consequences are there, back in their lives in spite of their best efforts otherwise. The characters are not likable (which is often a plus for me) but they were also not terribly interesting. Caroline ‘wakes up’ too slowly IMO, but the novel is stronger when showing that when a marriage is wrecked, the pieces never fit together again…

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books.

review copy.

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The Day of the Dead: Nicci French

The Day of the Dead is an ominous title for the final book in the Frieda Klein series from husband-and-wife writing team “Nicci French” (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). For those playing catch-up, this is the eighth book in the series which follows London psychologist Frieda Klein. I’ll add here that in spite of the fact that this book includes many repeat characters, it can be read as a standalone, but if you want to get a bit more out of the story, I’d recommend that you read at least the first one in the series: Blue Monday.

the day of the dead

The Day of the Dead begins with a horrific incident in London which leaves many people wounded, but as the police begin to investigate what seems like an accident, the incident turns into something much more sinister. This murder case initially baffles police, but then another body surfaces, and another, and another…..

Meanwhile, Frieda Klein (who doesn’t appear until we’re really deep into the plot) is in hiding. In Blue Monday, she met serial killer, psychopath Dean Reeve, and although he was supposedly dead at the end of the book, Frieda has insisted to the police for years that Dean was still alive. And considering how her life has been turned into a theatre of blood and murder since meeting Dean, she may be onto something.

Dean Reeve is the ultimate predator, and over the course the series he’s played a cat-and-mouse game with Frieda, always close by, always circling. To some, Frieda’s claims about Dean Reeve are too fantastic to be believed, and she is regarded as an attention seeking nut, a woman “who has left a trail of havoc behind her,” but Frieda also has her defenders.

In The Day of the Dead, the police finally have to acknowledge that Dean Reeve is alive, and into his current string of showy murders stumbles a young confused criminology student named Lola who has become so interested in Frieda that she decides to write a dissertation “deconstructing” the psychologist. Lola seeks Frieda and manages to find her, but with Dean Reeve circling, Lola doesn’t want to leave Frieda’s side. Frieda is in hiding for a reason as she knows that those close to her are in danger from Dean. Frieda knows that Dean “is reaching the end. One way or another.” 

Although this book clocks in at just over 400 pages, it was a very quick, addictive read. The novel’s strongest point, IMO, is that Frieda, having dealt with Dean Reeve, never underestimates him. Psychopaths are underestimated by novices who cannot even begin to imagine how someone like Dean thinks. Most of us are lucky enough to live our lives without ever crossing the path of a psychopath, but if you’re unfortunate enough to ever tangle with a sicko and survive, you move forward into an unsettling life. The authors nailed this feeling.  As the novel builds to its inevitable crescendo, the pacing is excellent. While Frieda seems to have reached a zen-like plateau in her acceptance of this, her final duel with Dean, the character of limpet-like Lola is rather annoying. The authors pulled a bit of a switcheroo with the plot, and I might have been a bit annoyed about it had I not already guessed it. Still, if you are in the mood for a a crime novel that sucks you and and refuses to let go, then The Day of the Dead may fit the bill.

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Strangers When We Meet: Evan Hunter (1958)

“You didn’t invent infidelity.”

The film version of Strangers When We Meet is one of my favourites. This 1960 film stars Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas as married (to other people) neighbours who meet and have an affair. The film is splendid, IMO, with terrific performances from the two main stars; it captures the nuances, excitement and agonies of an extramarital affair.

Now to the novel from Evan Hunter AKA Ed McBain …

Strangers when we meet

Architect Larry Cole, married to Eve, and the father of two little boys, lives in a modern suburban estate that he loathes. Early in Larry’s career, he won an architectural prize, but now, years later, the reality is that he designs ugly buildings and homes he dislikes but that fit the market tastes/demands. He has a loving, beautiful wife, but somehow … discontent creeps in, and then he meets Maggie, a gorgeous slightly younger married woman who lives in the same neighbourhood. Maggie is married to Don and has one son.

Is Larry’s discontent stoked by his meeting with Roger Altar, a successful writer and bachelor who employs Larry to build a home? Altar and Larry are the same age and Altar, a consummate bachelor, always has a fresh woman at his side, promptly discarded like a pair of old socks. There’s a synergy between the men, and there’s a subtle air of comparison of  their lives.

When Larry meets Maggie, there’s an instant attraction, and Maggie, who’s no novice to infidelity, recognises the signs. Soon Larry and Maggie begin an affair which begins at a cheap run-down motel.

Larry is the novel’s focus here. In the midst of this passionate affair which begins to define his life and his career, he finds himself confiding in the writer Altar, whose cynical view of women and sexual relationships doesn’t help Larry much.

“I’ve got a closetful of manufacturer’s labels. Architect, Husband, Father, Son, Striver, Brooder, man! I sew the labels into my own clothes. but the suits never fit me. Underneath all the crap, there’s me! And I’m never really me, never the Larry Cole I want to be until I’m with –” he cut himself off, suddenly wary.

“Sure,” Altar said, “and then you fly, don’t you? Then you’re bigger and stronger and handsomer and wittier, aren’t you? Then you can ride your white charger against the black knight! Then you can storm the enemy bastions!”

Another confidante is Felix, a casual acquaintance who welcomes Larry to an “international fraternity” and who, guessing Larry’s secret advises caution. According to Felix, if your wife suspects “then you haven’t got a wife any more, you’ve got the New York branch of the FBI.” Once Felix realises how Larry feels about Maggie, he recommends dropping the affair as it’s too consuming.

Larry realises that Felix, butcher by trade, is a completely different person as a philandering husband. Felix is a “cynical boudoir philosopher” who becomes the type of man he’d like to be–not a butcher, but a suave seducer of women. And yet… even while Larry grasps this about Felix, he doesn’t grasp that Maggie also fills a need. Is Larry’s married life constricting? Or is Larry just stymied in his career? Does anyone ever end up with the sort of life they wanted or planned? Felix, who has a very low opinion of women, doesn’t believe in Great Love, but he believes that all married people have affairs.

“It’s a big soapy dishpan of boredom. That’s the truth. And no husband can understand that soapy dishpan. And a woman can’t explain it to another woman because they’ve all got their hands in that same soapy boredom. So all a man has to be is understanding.

Yes baby, I know, I know, you’ve got a miserable life, here’re some flowers. Here’s some perfume, here’s ‘I love you,’ take off your pants.’ Bang!”

This novel was published in 1958, and it oozes the shifting views towards sexuality. Straight to the punch: in parts, the novel has not aged well. This is clearly a novel which reflects its times in the very typical male attitudes of the towards women and sex. And that’s not a good thing. In fact, at times, I found myself wincing.

There are scenes when Maggie is telling Larry, “no, no,” for example, and Larry hears “yes, yes.” (Actually I’m not sure that we’re supposed to hear mixed messages.) There’s another scene which depicts Maggie’s sexual frustration when she greets her husband at the door, sans undies, but her ‘dirty talk’ (mild) turns him off. Finally Maggie tells Larry about her relationship with a young man named Buck. Maggie’s version of events is ludicrous so I’m glad that Larry called her on it.

Still…. in spite of its dated view of life, women and sex, the novel has a lot going for it, and I’m glad I read it. The timeless lure of the affair is very well portrayed. Larry is discontented with life, wasting his talent on projects he doesn’t care about. He’s looking at middle age, and yes … he’s bored. Maggie appears to fill the gaps. Suddenly his life is exciting and unpredictable, but the affair doesn’t solve anything and ultimately creates turmoil. Many scenes between Larry and Eve are pitch-perfect–the way in which Larry picks a fight with Eve for no reason, for example:

He felt anger full upon him now, and he thought, We’re going to have a fight, but he was helpless to stop the anger or the argument which he was certain would erupt around them, He didn’t even know why he was angry, and his inability to pinpoint the cause of his irritation made him angrier still. 

One last point: Larry “found it impossible to conceive of anyone ever having an affair before the telephone was invented,” What would he make of cell phones? Have they made infidelity easier or more difficult?

Review copy/own a copy

 

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Blood on the Tracks: Edited by Martin Edwards

I have a suspicion that most crime readers enjoy books that are set in, or revolve around, trains. Blood on the Tracks, from British Library Crime Classics, includes an introduction from Martin Edwards, and he discusses reasons why trains make “such a suitable background for a mystery.” 

Part of the answer surely lies in the enclosed nature of life on board a train–the restrictions of space make for a wonderfully atmospheric environment in which tensions can rise rapidly between a small ‘closed circle’ of murder suspects or characters engaged (as in the enjoyable old film Sleeping Car to Trieste) in a deadly game of cat and mouse. 

Edwards covers many wonderful examples of train mysteries in this introduction, so there’s plenty for the aficionado to investigate, but back to this collection which includes:

The Man with the Watches: Arthur Conan Doyle

The Mystery of Felywn Tunnel: L.T Meade and Robert Eustace

How He Cut His Stick: Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway: Baroness Orczy

The Affair of the Corridor Express: Victor L. Whitechurch

The Case of Oscar Brodski: R. Austin Freeman

The Eighth Lamp: Roy Vickers

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem: Ernest Bramah

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L. Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

Mystery of the Slip-Coach: Sapper

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

The Adventure of the First Class Carriage: Ronald Knox

Murder on the 7:16: Michael Innes

The Coulman Handicap: Michael Gilbert

I’m not going to discuss all the stories–some I enjoyed more than others (and I learned that gold teeth seemed to be, at least in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, an American thing,) but my three favourites are

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face: Dorothy L.Sayers

The Railway Carriage: F. Tennyson Jesse

The Level-Crossing: Freeman Wills Crofts

In The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face, a train compartment full of passengers returning home after the Bank Holiday discuss a savage murder which occurred on a remote beach at East Felpham. This story shows how a train carriage throws together an assortment of people who would not otherwise be found in the same room. In this case, “an overflow” of third-class passengers crowd into the first class carriage. Various opinions rage forth about the crime, but as fate would have it, one of the passengers is Lord Peter Wimsey. Detective Inspector  Winterbottom, also in the carriage, pays close attention to Wimsey’s theories of the crime.

Blood on the tracks

F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Railway Carriage, is a supernatural tale which finds Solange (a series character) inside a carriage with two other passengers– an elderly Cockney woman and a “small, insignificant-looking man” who carries a large black bag.

The commonplace little man, with his shaven cheeks and his deft, stubby fingers, had seemed unusual in a way that was not altogether good, but no message of evil such as had so often told her of harm, had knocked upon her senses when he entered the carriage. Yet it was only since he and the old woman had been in it together that she had felt this spiritual unease. Something was wrong between these two human beings–and yet they apparently did not know each other.

Solange’s unease grows, and she’s relieved when the train stops and picks up other passengers who then enter the carriage. These passengers leave shortly after another stop, and Solange is left alone again with the two morose strangers in an atmosphere heavily laden with turmoil….

Another favourite is The Level Crossing by Freeman Wills Crofts. The story opens with Dunstan Thwaite planning to kill his blackmailer. Thwaite, an accountant at a large steel business dipped into company funds when he courted the wealthy Hilda Lorraine. He always meant to return the money, but another man is blamed for the theft and Thwaite thinks he’s home free until an unpleasant, obsequious blackmailer comes into his life. By this time, Thwaite is unhappily married to the demanding heiress, who as it turns out, wasn’t as rich as he assumed, plus she demands to be kept in an affluent lifestyle. Pressures mount, and between the demanding wife and the slimy blackmailer, Thwaite decides he can take no more and so turns to murder.

This collection is a lot of fun to read for anyone who enjoys the combination of crime and trains. Some of the stories make use of the closed carriage (there’s no corridor to exit to) and also the class divide melts as passengers surge, often dashing to catch a train, into whichever carriage can hold them.  Murder is discussed and murder takes place. In one story, a train is even the mode of murder. Each story is prefaced with a short bio of the author so eager readers can follow up on favorites.

Review copy

 

 

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The House by the Lake: Thomas Harding

In 2013, Thomas Harding traveled from London to Berlin in order to visit the weekend house in Groβ Glienicke built by his great-grandfather, Dr Alfred Alexander, a house which, by necessity was abandoned by Harding’s Jewish family in the harsh year of 1936.  The house “was on the front lines of history–the lives of its inhabitants ripped up and remade again and again, simply because of where they lived.” That statement is true for many of the holiday home’s inhabitants. Harding’s relatives were lucky enough to escape to London after his great-grandfather, who had long held the opinion that “his countrymen would see sense, that they would finally understand the madness of Hitler and his cronies,” finally agreed that the family must flee.

The Alexanders’ lake house was an idyllic holiday home for the well-to-do Jewish family. In the 1890s, a wealthy businessman, Otto Wollank with an eye for a bargain, bought a large estate near the Groβ Glienicke lake, fifteen kilometres outside of the city of Berlin.  Under Wollank, a former member of the Danzig Death’s Head Hussars, initially the estate prospered, but by the mid 20s it faced ruin. Wollank decided to lease out lakeside land which could tempt wealthy city dwellers to establish second homes in the country. Consequently, in 1927 Dr Alexander leased the land for 15 years and built a modest lakeside home for his children.

The location of the lakeside home turned out to have an impressive historic significance. Post WWII, the Berlin wall ran (inconveniently) between the lake and the land, so it’s easy to imagine the difficulties residents faced. But even before that, extreme political views arrived in Groβ Glienicke, marking the village out as an early area of turmoil.

The house by the lake

Wollank’s son-in-law, Robert von Schultz, was a rabid anti-Semite, “a product of the street battles of the 1920s, believing in the violent overthrow of the government, the supremacy of the German people and the importance of race.” Von Schultz was the regional leader of a right-wing paramilitary organization, and with the company von Schultz kept at the Wollank estate, soon there were “rumours of abductions, midnight interrogations and even torture.” Yet in spite of this, many of the leasehold tenants who had holiday homes on the Wollank land were Jewish.

The Night of the Long Knives saw von Schultz imprisoned, questioned, and placed on trial. In the meantime, his wife was approached by a representative of Herman Göring who asked her to sell a large part of the estate–a section which was later to used as an airfield– the airfield Hitler used “for his personal journeys, including to his mountain retreat in Berchtesgaden, providing a degree of privacy that he could not find at Berlin’s other airfields.

Once the Alexanders fled to England, the occupancy of the lakeside house fell into freefall. Residents lived there as they fell in and out of political favour, and during the Soviet occupation post WWII, the village became the site of a series of horrendous unsolved murders. Later, the house, under communal living, was at one time occupied by a somewhat lackadaisical Stasi informant known as “Ignition Key.”

When the author arrived to inspect the home (for the second time) in 2013 he found a wreck of a house that was “now owned by the city of Potsdam,” scheduled for demolition, and the author was told that in order to save the building, he would need to prove “it was culturally and historically significant.” That’s where all the research comes in.

It’s impossible to write the history of this house without writing a mini history of Germany–such was the impact of politics on the residents of this house. Readers may find themselves familiar with some of the historic information included here, but nonetheless, this is a remarkable story.

Review copy.

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Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

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Life in the Garden: Penelope Lively

“There is always this sense that the garden is a living entity with its own agenda.”

Penelope Lively’s non-fiction book, Life in the Garden, quickly drew me in with the author’s explanation that:

The two central activities of my life–alongside writing–have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. 

I too love reading and gardening, and the days are best when it’s possible to read in the garden; what better surrounding? And with that thought in mind, I managed to read most of Life in the Garden outside.

I am never going to have the talent/money/time to be one of the legendary gardeners mentioned in these pages, but in common with many people, I appreciate the labour of love a garden represents. And that love of gardening extends to Lively’s book as she explores her subject: this is part memoir, part meditation on the use of gardens in literature & art, aging, and in part a history of landscape architecture.

Life in th garden

Lively explains how she “grew up in a garden. Almost literally, because this was a hot, sunny garden in Egypt and much of life was lived out of doors. Our home was one of three houses built outside Cairo in the early twentieth century, a sort of alien enclave amid fields of sugarcane and clover, canals, and mud-hut villages.”

I immediately pictured a white house plonked on the desert sands with a pyramid in the background, but I was wrong. Penelope Lively’s mother created a garden “very much in the spirit of the English garden, with lawns, rose beds, lily ponds, pergolas walks, and with a necessary nod to the climate and what would grow there by way of poinsettias, Latana, zinnias, cinerarai and bougainvillea.”

The description (longer than quoted here) is certainly enough to evoke an image of the garden the author enjoyed as a child, and it’s also easy to imagine how a child who grew up in Egypt, yet lived somewhat incongruously in a lush green “English” garden, valued gardens for her entire life. But then as the author explains gardening runs in the family.  There’s a poignancy when Lively describes how she moved from a large garden to a small area in London, and that aging, naturally has “restricted” her capabilities.

Lively expounds on the temptations of garden centres, how gardens impacted the lives of several writers (including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville -West, Elizabeth von Armin,) the use of gardens in authors’ work (Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter, Angus Wilson, Edith Wharton etc.,) the gardens of artists, the merging of art and gardens, gardens and literature.  Lively admits that she pays attention when gardens appear in books, so for example, “as soon as ivy sneaks in you know it is there with possibly sinister intent.” Lively’s observations are, as always, intelligent, marvellous and graced with a gentle whisper of wisdom.

Initially I thought this book would appeal to any book reader, regardless of whether or not one has a passion for gardening, but my opinion shifted as the book continued and the author steps into some of the history of gardening, famous gardens and some names and periods associated with landscape architecture. Ultimately, IMO the book’s best audience is for fans of Lively and anyone who loves gardening and reading.

Review copy.

 

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New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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