The Second Woman: Louise Mey

“She remembers watching her grandmother retreat from the world in the same way, adrift somewhere far out at sea, her body still present, but her gaze more and more distant.”

In Loiuse Mey’s novel, The Second Woman, Sandrine is happy for the first time in her life. Ironically, her happiness is born in tragedy. She now lives a quiet, domestic life with Monsieur Langlois and his young son Matthias. Sandrine met Langlois after seeing the news that his wife, Caroline, had gone missing while out on a run in the forest. Caroline’s husband made an appeal for information about his wife on the television, and during the appeal, he started to cry. This struck Sandrine to the core, and so when an opportunity arose to join the “white walk” looking for the missing wife, Sandrine volunteered.

As Caroline’s grief-stricken parents hand out flyers with their daughter’s pictures, Sandrine sees Langlois and offers her support. Unlike other men who have only certain animalistic ways of looking at her, Langlois smiles at Sandrine. And so Sandrine spends the afternoon walking in the forest with Langlois and Matthias while Langlois askes Sandrine about her work, her life, her (lack of ) friends and her interests. Of course for the reader, there are already alarm bells, but Sandrine, whose horrible life has left her emotionally scarred, doesn’t pick up on the clues.

When the novel opens, Sandrine’s happiness is about to pulled away from her as it seems that Caroline has been found, an amnesiac, in Italy. Caroline has no memory of who she is, can’t even remember her name, or she ended up naked in Italy while her clothes, covered in diesel fuel, ended up in a field near her home. Langlois seems decidedly less-than-thrilled at the news that his wife may be alive, but Caroline’s parents are convinced that their daughter has been found and so they drive to meet this mystery woman.

Meanwhile, Sandrine waits for Langlois to tell her she must go… but oddly he doesn’t. He doesn’t even discuss the current difficult situation. He becomes sullen, uncommunicative. The police visit repeatedly and Langlois, under pressure and living with incredible tension, begins to show another side of himself.

This is a clever, short novel which explores the complexities and various phases of domestic violence. At the end of the novel, the author’s note contains a very concise description of exactly what we have seen between Sandrine and Langlois. Sandrine, subject to childhood abuse, falls right back into the role of ‘not being good enough,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘fat,’ and everything ‘her fucking fault.’ Langlois spotted Sandrine as the ‘perfect woman’ … insecure, low self-esteem, poor self-image, no family, no friends, desperate to please. These predators can spot their next victims easily.

This was not an easy read as the sense of dread builds towards inevitable violence, and there’s also a feeling of stifling suffocation, intense claustrophobia in this decreasing circle of independent thought and action. Abusers create what I call a greenhouse and then put their victim inside that greenhouse–which the predator then controls. In terms of recreating the atmosphere of the stages of abuse, the author does a brilliant job. Still… not an easy read, but then that’s the point.

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Translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie



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The Competition: Katherine Collette

“What? I’ve got mental health problems. In the olden days they put people like me in asylums.”

At the end of Katherine Collette’s novel, The Competition, the author explains that this novel was inspired by her experiences with Toastmasters. The organization in the novel, however, is called SpeechMakers (nothing to do with Toastmasters)–and the author points out that “the more negative, money-oriented aspects of SpeechMakers” are “made up.”

The action in the novel takes place at the SpeechMakers Public Speaking Championship held in Brisbane at the annual national conference. The plot involves a handful of characters who are in attendance either as competitors or organizers. There’s Keith, a member of SpeechMakers for 36 years; SpeechMakers is his life but that enthusiasm is not shared by his absent wife. Keith was at one time a mentor to new member, Frances. Frances, a troubled young woman, living at home on borrowed time, is there for the 40k prize money, and she’s managed to wing the expenses by using her parents’ credit cards–without their permission. There’s Neil, a Doctor of Accounting, a shy young man who has the power to bore you to sleep with his conversation but who comes alive on stage when making a speech.

What was a doctor of accounting anyway? Some kind of psychologist for people who couldn’t add?

Neil is not an eager participant, but his mother, coach Judy has enough drive for the pair of them.

Keith, as a long time member, is disturbed to see that SpeechMakers is taking a decided turn towards moneymaking. Everything costs. Nothing is cheap. There are workshops ($$), coaching sessions ($$), lectures ($$) and special seminars ($$)–not to mention merchandise.

The goal seemed less as Randall had so aptly put it all those years ago, to find your voice so much as to locate your wallet. Keith didn’t see why they needed to charge a joining fee and a one-off up front administration fee. In addition to the ongoing membership fees, which seemed to increase each quarter, and the compulsory contribution for ‘attendance and involvement’.

The entire structure of things is beginning to smack of a pyramid scheme. To gain a title within the organization such as “Highly Esteemed” you had to “either recruit 32 individual members or oversee the establishment of a new club.” And there’s a $20 dollar commission for each new member recruited.

“Only” the 120 semi-finalists competing in the national championship are “asked to attend” a tour of the “newly-renovated headquarters of SpeechMakers Australia.” Cost $280. Frances doesn’t see the point of the tour or the cost but she’s told she “might be disqualified” if she refuses to join the tour.

Keith couldn’t help but do a mental calculation: two thousand people each paying the $1800 conference fee was … nearly four million dollars. It never used to be so expensive.

Or so over the top. This year’s championship wasn’t only the semi-finals and the grand final; it was a four day extravaganza.

On the first day of the conference, Frances sees Rebecca Chu, a girl she knew in high school–the last person she wants to see on the entire planet. Obviously seeing Rebecca makes Frances horribly nervous, and gradually the reasons for this nervousness are revealed.

This was a fun, light and off-the-beaten track sort of read. Reading the book was an immersive introduction into the fictional world of SpeechMakers, and it becomes clear that the finals are fiercely competitive, and that to many members, this is more than a hobby–it’s a way of life.

The subject matter here is, at least for this reader, unusual. The tone of the book is light and amusing in spite of the tension of the competition. Some people will do anything to win, no shock there, and while SpeechMakers states that it exists in order to help each member find his/her voice, that voice may, it turns out, need to make a very special speech.

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The Guest: Emma Cline

In Emma Cline’s novel, The Guest, it’s August, and Alex, a young sex worker, is spending the summer in the Hamptons as a guest of a wealthy man in his 50s, Simon. Alex met Simon in a New York bar just as she hit rock bottom. She was behind on her rent, and her roommates want to throw her out. Business hasn’t been great lately, and Alex has “dropped her rates, then dropped them again.” She’s “no longer welcome in ” various hotel bars and restaurants for charging items to former client accounts, and “too many of her usuals” stopped calling. With business down, Alex became “lax with her usual screening policies,” and was “ripped off more than once.” Spiraling downwards with increasing desperation, she reconnects with a client named Dom, a volatile violent man. Alex, who steals whenever an opportunity presents itself, steals from Dom.

So Alex, at rock bottom, thinks Simon “swooped in to save the day.” When they meet at a bar, with her very practiced act, she imagines he thinks she’s just a “normal” girl,” and that he buys her coy, shy girl act, so when Simon invites Alex to his splendid home in the Hamptons for the month of August, she can’t believe her luck. At first everything goes well. She spends days at the beach swimming, and she attends various social events with Simon. He buys her many expensive designer gifts, and is Simon’s Barbie doll. Giving blow jobs on demand and “offer[ing] up no friction whatsoever.”

And wasn’t it better to give people what they wanted? A conversation performed as a smooth transaction–a silky back-and-forth without the interruption of reality. Most everyone preferred the story. Alex learned how to provide it, how to draw people in with a vision of themselves, unrecognizable but turned up ten degrees, amplified into something better. […] Alex had imagined what kind of person Simon would like, and that was the person Alex told him she was.

So here is Alex spending her days lounging on the beach and at Simon’s home, she lives in luxury, waited upon by his employees, and the most incredible meals are prepared for her. While it is, no doubt, not easy being someone’s sex toy who apparently has no desires, opinions or tastes of her own, this is Alex’s profession. So here’s a luxury holiday (with strings) handed to her on a plate, but there’s some little part of her character that cannot sustain the role. Perhaps it’s the boredom. Perhaps it’s a self-destructive streak.

When she horribly embarrasses Simon at a party, Alex finds herself rapidly kicked out of Paradise. With very little money, a dying cell phone, an angry Dom looking for her, and no place to stay, Alex grifts her way through the Hamptons, hoping to make it to Labour Day when she can crash Simon’s party, confident he will forgive her.

Alex is a credible creation. Self destructive, she trashes relationships and then thinks people will be charmed into one more favour–they’re not. She never gets over the idea that she’s special. Simon, I suspect, knows from the onset that Alex is a sex worker. She may think she’s giving him an ingenue story that he’s naive enough to believe, but perhaps Simon’s seeming acceptance of the story allows him to circumvent that grubby discussion of money. It’s highly likely that Simon has a string of girls just like Alex. They are easily replaceable.

As Alex desperately grifts her way through the Hamptons, lying and charming her way through favours, she meets a range of characters including Nicholas, an assistant/caretaker who spends an evening with Alex, much to his regret, a child who is Alex’s ticket into an exclusive members-only club (free food and drinks) and a young man with mental health issues. As the days pass in the Hamptons, we see the underbelly of this ultra-wealthy area–the gigolo husband whose boredom can’t compensate for a plush life, employees who act like automatons until their employers aren’t looking, wealthy residents who employ security to clear away trespassing vacationers like bits of trash, and holidaymakers who have their own version of the Hampton’s experience.

We see the vast gap between the Haves and the Have-nots, the Shangri-La estates of the ultra-rich which create a sort of unreality for those who long to be included, and the alienation of Alex, who longs to belong once more. There’s a totem pole here–Alex at first has a good position, albeit temporary, but as she slides down that pole, the ‘respect’ employees used towards her slips. Alex is a user, but she is also used. Basically homeless, and carrying around one bag of increasingly stained and creased designer clothing, it becomes harder and harder to keep up the charade that she belongs with the ultra-rich set.

Harrowing in its clear-eyed view of Alex’s descent and her own inability to recognize that she has little to parlay, this incredible book makes my Best-Of-Year list.

Alex could just go up to one of the men. Approach a table with only a few men hunched over their watery cocktails, a manageable audience. Easy enough. You waved your fingers, you spoke in a voice just a tick too quiet–they got flustered, trying to follow what was happening. Any glitch in the usual order of things, the expected social script, made people anxious, off balance. Even a glancing touch at their elbow, the barest squeeze of an arm, could short-circuit any wariness. Suddenly they were newly suggestible, eager to find steady footing in whatever story you offered.

And men did not, it turned out, mind being approached by a young woman–not usually anyway. They did not immediately assume that her motives might be murky, their vanity allowing for the possibility that she had been drawn over by the sheer force of their personhood. But not really sensible to try that here. The air was too domestic, dripping with the proximity of family and other blunt moral concerns. It had a chilling effect; the wives nearby, the children.

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You Are Here: Karin-Lin Greenberg

Karin-Lin Greenberg’s novel You Are Here centres on the impact of the closing of an upstate New York shopping mall on a handful of characters. Sunshine Clips is down to one station and the only hairstylist left standing is single mother Tina Huang whose only son, 9 year old Jackson hangs out in the mall after school. There’s red-headed bookshop manager Kevin ABD who now knows he will never finish his PhD or teach, and honestly to Kevin, not teaching is not a loss. At all. Kevin’s wife, Gwen, a poet and adjunct lecturer doesn’t know that Kevin has no desire to teach. She’s busy working on compiling poetry for a book.

Kevin, Gwen and their 6-year-old twins have moved back in with Gwen’s widowed mother in order to economize. Wait.. that’s not quite correct. Kevin built a 300 sq ft tiny house and it is parked in his mother-in-law, Joan’s back garden. Next to Joan lives 90 year-old widow, Ro. Ro and Joan have been neighbours for over 40 years but have never stepped inside each other’s homes.

When Joan and her now-deceased husband Earl Walker moved in their house in the mid 70s they were the first Black family in the neighbourhood. Ro’s husband Lawrence (also now deceased) wanted to make friends and be neighbourly but Ro wasn’t having that. Today she thinks that “forty years ago she wouldn’t have invited a black woman into her home, but today she would,” The problem is that having marginalized the Walkers for over 40 years, she can’t now shift from brief hellos to her neighbours to any sort of friendship.

And nowadays, she certainly isn’t a racist. Just look at all the people Ro has in her life. The woman who cuts her hair is Chinese, Jose who mows her lawn every Wednesday is Mexican, the neighbours down the street are from Pakistan, and the neighbours in the other direction at the end of the street are from Iran. At the block party in August, Ro even ate the biryani the Agarwals made and the fesenjan cooked by the Farzans, and if she’s being honest, she liked both of those dishes. A young lesbian couple, Dawn and Amy, live four doors down from Ro, and they have a rainbow flag flapping from their front porch. Ro smiles and says hello when they pass by while she’s working in her garden, even though they put their three-legged pug in a stroller and roll the dog around in the neighbourhood, which she doesn’t approve of.

Ro is inflexible and is on the nosy side, but she lives alone and the extent of her social life is her weekly hair appointment. She can’t help but notice the tiny home in her neighbour’s garden. Since the construction of the tiny house, she has become addicted to the programme, Tiny House Hunters:

These tiny homes–they are appalling. Tiny House Hunters only confirms this. Tonight’s episode features a woman who sold her colonial in Greensboro, North Carolina, after she got a divorce and her son went off to college. Ro takes a sip of her Sleepytime tea and watches as this woman divests herself of everything except what can fit in the trunk of her Subaru Outback. This woman has to climb a ladder in her tiny house to reach a loft for sleeping. She owns one bowl, one mug, one pan for cooking, one spoon, and one fork. What will she do when her son comes to visit? Will she tell him to steal silverware from the dining hall to bring home?

“It’s so freeing,” says the woman.” It makes you realize how much things own you.”

Ro snorts. Soon, this woman is going to miss her spatulas and colander and couch cushions.

You Are Here is a warm-hearted novel that asks whether people can change thanks to relationships with others. Ro is 90 and has opinions and attitudes from the 70s that clash with the current reality. She isn’t a ‘bad’ person by any means, but due to her attitudes, she has problems connecting with others. Kevin, in particular, has a very hard time accepting Ro, and consequently, his lack of understanding of Ro is unkind and narrow minded (things he accuses Ro of being). Many of the characters are dreamers–dreaming of a future or a better life than the ones they find themselves stuck in. Kevin, for example, who goes above and beyond at the bookshop, has various business schemes that go wrong. Tina dreams of being an artist while her son yearns to be a magician. You Are Here is sweeter than my normal read, but I enjoyed it for the exploration of character and how the author created a lonely universe for each character.

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The Eden Test: Adam Sternbergh

Adam Sternbergh’s novel The Eden Test begins with an ambulance collecting two dead bodies from a cabin owned by The Edenic Foundation, and then the novel goes back a few days to Daisy, a young married actress who has paid for a week at The Edenic Foundation’s private retreat. The foundation is owned by married therapists Drs. Kit and Bridget Arden, and Daisy was attracted to them by their podcasts and adverts “promising to save” marriages. The expensive week-long retreat the foundation offers includes a remote cabin on the retreat grounds. Each of the married partners are supposed to give up their phones for a week so that there is “no outside contact, no distractions,” Each day the couple will receive a question designed by the therapists which is supposed to be discussed and ruminated upon:

Seven days

Forever changed

That’s the pitch. One week to save a marriage.

Daisy’s marriage is in crisis. She married Craig 2 years ago, but even though the marriage is still young, it’s clear that they have massive problems, So here’s Daisy trying to fix things with a surprise week long retreat for just for the two of them to discover each other again, but here’s Craig who has a bag packed and is planning to head to Cabo San Lucas with his bit on the side, the sexy Lilith. A week with Lilith is supposed to be the segue before he moves into an Airbnb “love nest” while everything calms down and is sorted out with Daisy and Lilith’s husband. So Craig’s plans When Craig gets home expecting to see Daisy, he finds a brief note saying she has an “anniversary surprise” and there’s an address. Craig has to shift his plans from taking Daisy out for an anniversary dinner and then lowering the boom to driving to the cabin to see Daisy and then break the news that their marriage is over.

Not the best start for a week’s long marriage repair. And that’s even before the creepy locals show up ….

The story has layers of deceit. Craig is busy cheating on his wife and planning to dump her unceremoniously, and what of Daisy? Daisy has her own agenda.

I really liked Sternbergh’s book The Blinds, and perhaps because I read that and because it still lingers in my mind, I had an inkling of what was afoot. While the premise was great, this one did not quite work for me. The setup was excellent but the character of Craig was from the outset a dick and for this reader, fully set on the path to lifelong dickdom, so in other words: impossible to like, or care about. And impossible to imagine as changing in any significant way.

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Late Bloomers: Deepa Varadarajan

“It was all so much easier when your kids were little children. When they asked you questions and listened carefully to your answers–even if those answers were made up and wrong. Then they grew up and didn’t care what you thought about anything–had zero interest in hearing your answers to questions they didn’t ask.”

The Late Bloomers in Deppa Varadarajan’s light-hearted novel may be Lata and Suresh Raman who now in their 50s, are divorced. But then again, perhaps all 4 members of the Raman family qualify as late bloomers. Lata, Suresh, daughter Priya and son Nikesh are facing emotional hurdles that they must cross in order to develop and move on in their lives.

The story unfolds through the voices of the four family members. Lata has been a good wife and mother, and her arranged marriage in India to Suresh has been in that sense a success, and with the kids born in America, grown and gone, Suresh and Lata built their ‘dream’ home. It was everything Lata wanted, and she fought Suresh’s basic cheap, gloomy nature every step of the way, but when the house was done, it seemed to be a monument to their lifeless marriage. Lata demanded a divorce and moved out.

With 35-year-old Priya (a single, medieval history professor) and 30-year-old New York attorney Nikesh still reeling from the news that their parents have split, both Suresh and Lata make efforts to move on. Lata gets a job in the university library and Suresh, now retired, goes crazy with Indian online dating. He drives all over the country to meet women and quickly discovers two things: that he is a hot commodity and that “all these internet women lie.” Some of the lies are what Suresh excuses as “RDT’S” (“Reasonable Deviations from the truth) such as knocking a few years off one’s true age. Suresh knocks a few years off of his age so he finds a few lies acceptable, but some of the lies are outrageous. Suresh’s expectations are beginning to shrink when he meets Mallika, a 40 something knockout who claims to be a widow. Meanwhile, Lata has gained a few workplace friends–including the outgoing-boldly spoken Deanna. A music professor begins to try and establish a relationship with Lata, but now in her mid-50s, Lata has never dated in her life. The only life she imagined beyond Suresh was a peaceful single existence without his constant bitching and grousing.

Daughter Priya is extremely successful but she is locked into a relationship with a married man. Her brother Nikesh seems to be the all-around success story as he is married to his older boss, Denise, and they have a child together. But Nikesh’s family don’t know that his life is unravelling. He isn’t married to Denise and their relationship is fraught with tension. When the 4 Raman family members converge for Nikesh’s son’s birthday, everything explodes.

There were some very funny moments in the book, and it was a fun, light read. Not my usual fare, and it was a little too sweet for my dark tastes. However, I loved Deanna who has some acid comments at just the right moments. One of the issues raised by the book is whether we can change–if we can get out of our old grooves. Priya has a fixed schedule with her married lover, and Nikesh, still moping over an old girlfriend, can’t seem to commit to Denise. Divorce has forced Suresh and Lata to change. Suresh is not at his best with Lata, and even though he’s morose, he wants fun–just has no idea how to achieve it. After Lata moves out, Suresh grows in some ways, but still with Lata he remains clueless. Here he is asking himself how on earth Lata can stand living in a small condo:

Well, whatever Lata paid to live here, I had a hard time imagining her satisfied with condo life. As I remembered it, Lata liked wandering through rooms. When we lived together in our house, I’d enter the kitchen, and soon enough, she’d wander into the bedroom to look for something. Or I’d go into the bedroom, and she’d wander into the guest room to collect another blanket. A compulsive room-wanderer, she was, going from room to room, fussing about, organizing trinkets, straightening pictures.

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Birthright: Charles Lambert

In Charles Lambert’s psychological thriller, Birthright, 16-year-old Fiona leads a privileged life in Britain, but while her life may seem enviable on the outside, on closer inspection, she’s a lonely teenager whose much-loved father has died. Yes her mother remains but the mother-daughter relationship is problematic. Fiona’s mother does all the ‘right’ things but there’s a distinct lack of warmth. There is no emotional connection. Before her father’s death, Fiona and her parents spent their summers in Italy with an Italian family. Following the death of her father, there are no more summers in Italy, just life with mother when on breaks from boarding school. One day Fiona finds a clipping in a drawer. It’s a photo of a young woman, possibly under the influence of drugs, at a rock concert. Not the sort of clipping Fiona would expect her mother to keep, but what’s even odder is that there’s a child in the photo who appears to be Fiona’s double.

Back at boarding school, Fiona tells her best friend Jennifer about the clipping, and after some digging, Jennifer uncovers the names of the woman and her daughter–Heather and Maddy Thomsett. It’s clear from the news article containing this information that Maddy and Fiona are the same age. Are they related?

Fiona is invited to Jennifer’s home for the holidays. It’s here that Fiona meets Jennifer’s brother, shapeshifter, Patrick, a young man a few years older than Fiona. He’s interested in Fiona’s story, and he’s also interested in how much money she will inherit at age 21. Fiona tells Patrick about the clipping, and he promises to help. Fate intervenes and Fiona doesn’t see Patrick for 3 years when he mysteriously reappears in her life and gives her information about Maddy. His mantra:

The world has always needed people without principles to do its dirty work. I might be one of those.

Birthright follows the tangled web that connects Fiona to Maddy. These are two very different young women who have been raised in vastly different circumstances. Fiona has been raised in an upper-class home and enjoys the privileges that money can bring. Maddy has known nothing but a lack of structure, poverty, rootlessness. Each young woman envies the other for the things they lack. Throw in resentment, an inheritance and lovers, and this is a collision course set for murder. This is a frame story, and while the events concerning Maddy and Fiona begin in the early 80s, the frame, which encompasses the tale, is set decades later. There’s a large element of fate here–if you read the story you will know what I mean. Lambert expertly explores the idea that our values are shaped not just by those we know but also by our circumstances.

When I first started reading Birthright, I felt Patricia Highsmith vibes, but no, for this reader, ultimately the comparison to Ruth Rendell is stronger.


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The Soulmate: Sally Hepworth

Sally Hepworth’s domestic thriller The Soulmate unfolds through two voices: Pippa, a married ‘wills and estates’ lawyer, and Amanda, the wife of a billionaire. Amanda sacrifices everything to support her husband in his career and often turns the other way in order to ignore some shady business dealings. Pippa is married to Gabe, a stay-at-home dad who looks after the couple’s two children. Pippa tells everyone the two little girls are “Irish twins,” (less than a year apart). At first glance, Pippa and Gabe would appear to have an idyllic marriage, a idyllic clifftop beach home and an idyllic life. The one wrinkle on the horizon is that their clifftop home is actually a well-known suicide spot, and since they moved in, there have been numerous would-be suicides talked down by Gabe.

One day, Pippa and Gabe notice a woman standing on the cliff edge. Gabe rushes out to talk to her while Pippa calls the police, but before the police arrive the woman falls to her death. There was something about the interaction between Gabe and the woman that bothers Pippa–the way that Gabe appeared to argue with the woman, the position of his hands after the woman’s fall. …

From this point, everything starts to unravel. The story unfolds through Pippa and Amanda’s voices, in two time frames. Amanda, it turns out, is/was the wife of Max, Gabe’s one-time boss, and she’s the one who jumped to her death. Gabe tells the police a foolish lie–that he didn’t know the woman who threw herself off the cliff. Given that it’s going to be easy for the police to discover that Gabe knew Amanda, the lie seems … well… as suspicious as hell.

The tawdry tale is told by two women who reveal through their voices, now/then, the inner unhappy workings of their marriages. I am not fond of narrators who are ghosts/dead as questions begin to dart through my head. Can they see everything? Are they in limbo? Plus it seems like a type of narrative cheating in a way. For this reader, Gabe was an incredibly annoying person and Max was one dimensional. As for Pippa… I can understand someone telling themselves (or others) that their lives are great, etc, but Pippa’s delusions are something that need to be addressed by a professional. The book started out strong but then petered out into people being stupid. Looking at online reviews, it seems that many fans were disappointed.

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The Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen

“We desert those who desert us; we cannot afford to suffer; we must live how we can”

In Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, 16-year-old orphan Portia Quayne moves to London to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife, Anna. Years earlier, Thomas’s father had an extra-marital affair with a much younger woman named Irene, and after she became pregnant, Mrs Quayne, determined to do the ‘right thing,’ practically packed her husband’s bags for him and had her son, Thomas, deliver him to the train so he could join the pregnant Irene. It would be easy to take this action as a noble deed, but there’s a gleeful zealousness to Mrs. Quayne’s decision. This background, revealed later in the novel, underscores Thomas’s decision to ‘do the right thing’ by taking Portia, a girl he has never met, into his home after the death of Irene.

Poor Portia. It’s a sad situation, and it isn’t helped by the cold natures of Anna and Thomas. They are not cruel to Portia exactly, but they are not warm people. They simply don’t know how to love. Before Anna, Thomas’s only “loves had been married women,” and that means limited engagement. When they met, Thomas liked Anna’s coolness:

He dreaded (to be exact, he dreaded at that time) to be loved with any great gush of the heart. There was some nerve in his feeling he did not want touched: he protected it without knowing where it was.

Anna, for her part, is always emotionally detached. While she appears to move through her life with a sort of serenity, she is annoyed by things that pierce her icy armour: things such as Thomas sitting on her nice bedding. There are hints that she loved another man, but settled for reliable, well-heeled Thomas. The marriage works well and Thomas and Anna certainly ‘do right’ by Anna, but Duty is a poor substitute for love.

The only person in the house to show Portia any affection is long-time family servant Matchett who is full of wisdom, yet she’s inflexible enough she can’t show too much tenderness. Plus there are some rancid undercurrents in Matchett’s relationship with the Quaynes:

“Sacrificers,” said Matchett, “are not the ones to pity. The ones to pity are those that they sacrifice. Oh the sacrificers they get it both ways. A person knows themselves what they can do without. Yes, Mrs Quayne would give the clothes off her back but in the long run, she would never lose a thing.

One day, Anna reads Portia’s diary and she is so angry about what she reads that she confides in family friend and author, Sir Quentin. Anna is really bothered by the diary–although the entries about Anna are mild and certainly don’t justify Anna’s anger, but at the root of the problem, she is jealous of Portia.

Anna is Lady Bountiful, and the many people who visit the house know that she is a power source to be recruited. She persuades Thomas to give a young ne’er do-well named Eddie, a man she met at university, a job at Thomas’s Ad agency. Eddie, who relies on a series of favours and patrons, has a string of disasters in his wake–broken friendships, employers who are glad to see the back of him, patrons who are sick of him, and of course, according to Eddie, it’s never his fault. He has the knack of starting professional and personal relationships well, but it’s hard to keep up the pretense and Eddie always despises his patrons anyway. His shopworn charm still has a hint of glitter, yet while Eddie hits Anna up for a job, he despises her–even as he ingratiatingly sends her numerous bouquets of flowers.

There were times when Anna almost hated Eddie, for she was conscious of the vacuum inside him. As for him, he found her one mass of pretence, and detested the feeling she showed for power.

Eddie, a frequent visitor to the Quayne house, hones in on Portia. Unbeknownst to Anna and Thomas, Eddie develops a relationship with Portia–even going as far as to propose to her. Poor Portia, at 16, can’t see Eddie for the rat he is, and she takes every word he tells her seriously. An older, more experienced woman who see Eddie for empty rotter he is, but inexperienced Portia thinks he loves her. After all, he said so didn’t he? And as for Eddie, he likes having Portia around as she is so adoring. To Portia, every word that falls out of his mouth is a jewel. It’s fun for Eddie for while–until it isn’t:

Darling, I don’t want you; I’ve got no place for you; I only want what you give. I don’t want the whole of anyone. What you want is the whole of me-isn’t it, isn’t it?-and the whole of me isn’t there for anybody. In that full sense you want me I don’t exist.

The Death of the Heart could refer to Portia’s heart here, or it could refer to the collective cold, calculating behaviour of several of the characters. All of the relationships here are based on some sort of use, transactional. No one seems to really like anyone else. Matchett’s loyalty to the family could be seen as devotion (employers often think their servants are devoted), but Matchett dislikes Anna and disliked the late Mrs Quayne. Eddie is just out for what he can get, and he’s so corrupted that ‘giving people what they want’ is his excuse for his shabby behaviour. Another interesting character is Major Brutt, seeking a job, he too is a frequent visitor to Anna and Thomas’s house. He’s drawn to what he perceives is warmth, so he’s in for a rude awakening too. Portia doesn’t understand these sorts of relationships–she doesn’t even identify the underlying transactions–to her people are saying things they don’t mean, showing one pleasant face to an acquaintance while secretly despising them. Portia simply doesn’t get it; she seeks love, warmth and affection and in her new world, it doesn’t exist.

In his own eyes, shutters flicked back exposing for half a second right back in the dark, the Eddie in there.


Filed under Bowen, Elizabeth, Fiction, posts

Old God’s Time: Sebastian Barry

“To him this was the whole point of retirement, of existence–to be stationary, happy and useless.”

66-year-old Retired policeman, Tom Kettle is leading a quiet, solitary life. His much-loved wife June died years earlier. His son Joe lives in America and his daughter, Winnie lives nearby. Or do they? Tom’s current home, where he “washed up,” is unusual; it’s a lean-to annexed to a white castle, and it overlooks the sea. With books in boxes still unpacked, Tom enjoys his days watching the sea, thinking, and soaking up his memories.

All his working life he had dealt with villians. After a few decades of that your faith in human nature is in the ground. It’s a premature burial, predating your own. But he wanted to be a believer again, in something. He wanted to live in his welath of minutes, the ones he had left anyhow.

It’s only been 9 months since he retired, and there’s the idea that he deserves this peace and quiet. The peace and quiet, however, all comes to an end with the arrival of two young policeman, Wilson and O’Casey, from his old station. They arrive, act awkwardly and say they need his help on an old case. But do they? Then Detective Superintendent Fleming pays Kettle a visit and repeats the request for help with the old case, yet when Kettle finally travels to the police station, it doesn’t seem that his help is needed at all. The cold case, now reopened, is the brutal murder of priest found in the Dublin mountains, and Kettle can’t even remember being the investigating officer. This memory gap is jarring and causes Kettle to have an “out-of-body experience.”

Kettle is an unreliable narrator. The plot gives us signs right away: there are surreal moments, dream-like memories, odd encounters, and gradually the heavy price of violence is revealed. The cold-case murder of the priest under investigation and the past of Kettle’s long-dead wife are inexorably tangled.

Old God’s Time is hard reading. There are sick, twisted people in the world who prey on children, and there are others who, for whatever reason, cover up those crimes. How do survivors live, carry on, and deal with the past? Kettle’s life has been blighted by violence and grief. How can one live with memories when all those memories are vile?

Review copy


Filed under Barry Sebastian, Fiction, posts