The Evil Days: Bruno Fischer (1973)

In Bruno Fischer’s crime novel, The Evil Days, a married couple are on the Straight and Narrow until a bag of jewels introduces greed, sex and sin into suburbia. I love the theme of respectable citizens so easily derailed as it argues that honesty and decency exist simply due to lack of alternatives. One whiff of opportunity and morality, ethics, whatever are tossed to the curb.

Caleb Dawson, associate editor for a New York publisher, has the very typical life of a married suburbanite. Years earlier, Caleb and his sexy, avaricious, discontented wife Sally moved to the suburbs where they now live in a dull little tract home with their two dull little children. The move was a decision based on affordability, and no doubt that ever-elusive ‘quality of life’ issue was wrapped up in there somewhere too:

We lived in one of fourteen ranch-style houses lined up on both sides of the street. The houses were not quite identical. Some had garages on the right and some on the left; some had fixed black shutters on off-white shingles and some had white shutters on gray shingles. All had three bedrooms, and a dinette that merged into the living room, and an up-to-date kitchen wide enough for two skinny people, and a cement-block playroom in the basement. In the six years since we had bought it for more than we could afford, taxes had doubled, and in another twenty-four years (when I would be sixty-two), the mortgage would be paid off.

Every morning Caleb takes the 7:52 commuter train. And every evening Sally drives their sole vehicle, a station wagon, back to the station to meet Caleb from the 5:27 pm train. Life is a treadmill, and that makes Caleb either the hamster on the relentless wheel or a prisoner: you choose.

One day is exactly like another until the evening Sally starts acting weird, nervous and jumpy. At first she won’t tell Caleb what’s going on, but soon she confesses that she found a bag of jewelry outside of the bank. While Caleb’s first impulse is turn in the jewelry to the police, Sally persuades Caleb to delay–arguing that they should at least profit from a reward. Caleb, as village trustee, is in a unique position to monitor a theft/loss report, but things become far more complicated when he discovers that the jewelry belongs to his boss, Mr. Martaine’s wife, Norma.

Of course there are many questions rooted into the basic plot. How did Mrs. Martaine manage to lose her jewelry? How on earth are the Dawsons going to claim a reward without revealing that they have held on to the gems? Things are complicated enough but all hell breaks loose with the murder of a local playboy/poet. Suddenly, this boring little corner of suburbia is a hotbed of riotous sex, peeping toms, and voracious housewives.

The novel flings around some interesting numbers that reflect the cost of living and wages during the ugliness of the 70s. Fischer manages to slide in some criticism about the publishing industry through Caleb who fumes over his relatively low standard of living in relation of others in the work force. I didn’t like any of the characters and didn’t find them particularly interesting. The fun here is the way in which Fischer deftly shifts gears from boredom, routine and dissatisfied domestication to sex, greed and murder in the suburbs. The possibility of newfound wealth unleashes both Caleb and Sally, and there’s the underlying idea that the Dawsons each buried some of the more unpleasant aspects of their respective natures–at least from each other for years. With the jewelry adding temptation, wage slave Caleb finds that his resentments float to the surface and that Sally has hidden depths–none of them are good:

Then she began to move and turn and undulate like a belly dancer, watching herself all the time in the mirror. There was something quite unfamiliar about that familiar body, a hothouse lushness that seemed to have changed it in subtle ways–something unfamiliar about the sensuous smile directed at her naked image. And she was different. She had never before had a quarter of a million dollars of jewels on her flesh, and the erotic effect they had on her in the mirror reached out to me at the window.

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The Survivors: Jane Harper

Jane Harper’s intense crime novel, The Survivors is an exploration of the corrosive nature of guilt and the ways in which we cope with loss. The title refers both to a shipwreck memorial set on a rock formation on the inhospitable coastline of a dying Tasmanian community, and also to a destructive storm that claimed several lives from this small town. When the novel opens, physiotherapist Kieran Elliot returns home to Evelyn Bay 12 years after the drowning deaths of his brother Finn and his business partner, Toby. It’s a bitter return for Kieran, who, thanks to a foolish mistake, feels responsible for the deaths of Finn and Toby; he’s blamed and hated himself for years, but he’s back to help his aging parents, Brian & Verity, pack up and prepare for a move to a nursing home. Kieran’s father, once a vibrant, energetic man, now suffers from dementia. Kieran, who brings along his girlfriend Mia and their baby for the visit home, really had no idea just how much his father’s condition had progressed, and coming home has been painful.

Some residents still consider Kieran responsible for the drowning deaths of Finn and Toby, but Kieran has a few mates from his youth, including Olivia, Sean, and Ash to hang out with. Shortly after Kieran’s return, Bronte, a young art student from Canberra, who is working temporarily at Evelyn Bay, turns up dead on the beach, and her murder reawakens the disappearance of 13 year-old Gabby Birch, Olivia’s sister, 12-year before. Bronte’s murder brings all the poison from the past floating to the surface, and there are some in town who connect Kieran’s return to the crime. Other residents in this close-knit community would prefer to believe that the murderer is a tourist–not a resident. During the murder investigation, a detective begins to look into Gabby’s disappearance. Gabby vanished the day of the terrible storm which claimed the lives of Finn and Toby. Everyone, except Trish, Gabby’s mother, assumed that she had been drowned since her backpack was found washed up on the beach. In essence Gabby’s disappearance was incorporated into the storm and the drowning deaths. But the murder of Bronte causes some to question Gabby’s disappearance. Did she drown? Was she also murdered? Is Bronte’s murder somehow connected to Gabby’s disappearance?

There are not many characters in this brooding atmospheric novel. There’s a handful of Kieran’s friends, Kieran’s parents, Gabby and Olivia’s grief-stricken mother, a couple of people who work at the barely viable business, The Surf and Turf, a few policemen (the town’s police station is about to be closed,) and a writer who moves to Evelyn Bay only to encounter hostility when he trashes the landscaping of the home he bought.

Intense landscape descriptions have never been a thrill for me, but here in Jane Harper’s capable hands, the landscape is inseparable from the characters and the crimes. While the sea is beautiful, it’s also deadly, menacing and threatening. This is the essence of Nature, of course; it can be unpredictable, but what about human nature–the sense of imminent menace continues on land. This is a community where everyone knows everyone else; they’ve all grown up together, and in theory there are few secrets.

The mystery of Bronte’s murder and Gabby’s disappearance are seminal to this environment and its incubated simmering, brooding violence. Evelyn Bay is a stunningly beautiful yet miserable place-a place with a tourist attraction that commemorates death, and a diving business that lures tourists into revisiting death and tragedy. Kieran and Mia escaped, and the friends who remained behind are permanently stunted by the area’s oppressive, limited economy. The descriptions of the ocean are the most powerful I’ve ever read and they are matched by the descriptions of relentless grief–grief which ravages lives and snatches away any hope of peace. We all accept that grief is a normal, natural process, and yet here we see various versions of grief. Grief is a personal personal journey. Why are some aspects of grief socially acceptable while others are not? Gabby’s mother, Trish, never believed that Gabby drowned during the storm–she believed that her daughter’s body would have washed up somewhere is that had happened. But her theories and persistence have marginalized her and she’s labeled as a broken record, a sad nut case. She identifies with Bronte’s mother and argues that, once the anger has passed, she’ll end up “doing her own secret crazy things like the rest of us.”

“It never changes, you know. Even when they’re older. You’d take a bullet for someone who won’t even wave to you at the school gate. Then suddenly they’re ripped away and..” Trish shrugged.

The drownings, the murder and the disappearance–they have impacted all the town’s residents in various ways. The ravages of grief and the ravages of Time: Police Sgt Renn, who 12 years ago had been “fresh-faced and overeager to please” is permanently damaged by the unsolved mystery of Gabby Birch. The plot plays with the notion of various suspects and the ending was impossible to guess.

I listened to the audio version which was read, marvelously, by Stephen Shanahan.

The beach below was a thin strip, small enough that Kieran immediately felt uneasy. Out to sea, the waves lapped high at The Survivors. All around him, the birds bristled and flapped.

(And if you read this highly recommended book, IMO the crimes were ‘motive-sanitized’ by the perp.)

Review copy

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The Girls of Slender Means: Muriel Spark (1963)

The meaning of the title of this, a short novel from Muriel Spark, becomes clear by the time the book concludes. The Girls of Slender Means is set in an-all female residence, The May of Teck Club. It’s London 1963 in this frame story, and The May of Teck Club has been in existence for decades. Originally, it was intended “for the pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means” below the age of thirty. The 30-year rule has long been ignored and many of the female residents have lived at The May of Teck Club for decades. The novel is jump-started by the news of the death (murder) in Haiti of Nicholas Farringdon, a Jesuit at the time of his death.

The novel goes back and forth from the present (1963) to 1945 and opens in London with a vivid depiction of bombed-out buildings.

The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or no repair at all, bombsites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out leaving the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art form, leading up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye.

So in 1963, when “woman columnist,” Jane Wright hears of the death of Nicholas Farringdon, she contacts acquaintances she knew back in 1945, people who also have slivers of memories of the dead Jesuit. Those who remember him, recall that Nicholas was the lover of Selina, a resident of The May of Teck Club. That’s his claim to fame as far as the residents, or former residents of The May of Teck Club are concerned. Then the story peels back the decades to the story of what happened during that brief period of 1945. Although The May of Teck Club is the home of dozens of young women, we are only concerned with the fate of a handful: including the beautiful, capricious, and fickle Selina, saintly rector’s daughter Joanna Childe, and Jane Wright. The residence houses just women, but some of the female residents pass through a narrow slit window which grants access to the flat roof of the club. It’s here that lovers meet.

This is a peculiar book replete with Muriel Spark’s dark (I’m going to say it: ‘twisted.’) wit. While the plot is far removed from The Driver’s Seat, nonetheless, the connection is the bizarre undercurrent worming its way under what appears to be a fairly non-exciting plot. On one level there’s a shocking incident that occurs in 1945 and that is linked, somehow, to the death of Nicholas Farringdon. It’s not a direct thread–Muriel Spark is too subtle for that. Instead it’s a question of how did Nicholas Farringdon, anarchist/poet, end up as a martyred Jesuit in Haiti? There’s no definite answer to that, but it’s a matter of connecting the dots.

Here’s Lisa’s review

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It’s a Wrap: 2020

It’s been a great reading year and here’s the list:

The Spectator Bird: Wallace Stegner

Narrated by former literary agent, Joe Allston, this marvellous novel focuses on aging and the choices we make. As Joe reflects back on his life, he is full of regrets, yet the choices we make are part of who we are.

To quote Etta James: “If I did it any other way,
It wouldn’t be me.” (Life, Love and the Blues.)

Abigail: Magda Szabó

This impressive Hungarian author sets her novel in WWII. The main character is Gina, a 14 -year-old daughter of a general. Gina’s life changes drastically when her father leaves her at a distant, strict, cloistered all-girls school. Gina, at first furious with her father, eventually learns the power of self-discipline–an invaluable trait, especially in the face of unexpected betrayals. An incredible book.

Valentine: Elizabeth Wetmore: This is the story of a what happens to a handful of women in a small east Texas town following a brutal rape. This is a debut novel, so here is an author to watch.

White Ivy: Susie Yang. Another debut novel that is so assured, so powerful, that I can’t wait for the next novel. The main character here is Ivy, the very troubled daughter of Chinese immigrants. She hungers for the American Dream (money, status) and in the process, any sense of self and identity evaporate and all that is left is a transgressive female, a shape-shifter who is willing to become whatever she needs to be.

Providence: Max Barry. I waited years for another Max Barry. And it was well worth it. In this novel, set mostly aboard a vast space ship, Max Barry goes full sci-fi (fans knew it was coming). We follow a small crew of people as they pursue an alien race, the Salamanders, throughout deep space. Who is in charge? The Captain or the ship’s AI system. Which is more reliable? Man vs. Alien, Man vs AI, all wrapped up in a tale in which social media plays a creepy role. I couldn’t put this book down.

The Imposter: Damon Galgut. Set in South Africa, this is a tale of moral choices and moral dilemmas. After losing his job, Adam decides to retreat to a remote area and write poetry. Guess what…. it doesn’t work out.

More Better Deals: Joe Lansdale. This is a stand-alone noir novel. A used car salesman, a sex-hungry wife and a murder plot. What more do you want?

Good Women: Jane Stevenson. A trilogy of novellas and each one is a wicked, transgressive delight.

Tides: Edouard von Keyserling. What is it about the decaying Prussian Empire? A bunch of Prussian aristocrats gather at a seaside resort for a holiday. Problems arise with the appearance of a former countess who ran away from her elderly husband.

On the Holloway Road: Andrew Blackman. This is what happens when a writer who is in a slump misidentifies a looney’s energy as meaningful and authentic. Part road-trip, part examination of the authenticity of rebellion, this book contains one of my favourite themes: How to Blow Up Your Life.

Theft: Luke Brown. Quirky, understated, darkly funny and also transgressive. How ‘accidents,’ mishaps, and loose lips get us what we really want.

 

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Christmas 1955: Stuart Evers

“Some fantasies, if they are suitably meagre, have the possibility of coming to pass.”

Speaking for myself, the New Year is always a time for reflection: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, so that may explain why I related to Stuart Evers’ short story, Christmas 1955. The main character, June, has the long-held tradition of taking a long, luxurious bath on the evening of the 24th. As with most traditions, June’s leisurely bath is deeply rooted in the past. In this case, June, at age 16 when she was in service to “Madam” was tasked with preparing her employer’s bath, and the task was “as much of a gift as those glittering beneath the eight-foot fir in the dining room.” Madam would remain in the bath until dinner, attended by family and guests, was over.

At age 16, June was so impressed with Madam’s ceremonial relaxation, she “promised herself-in that way we carelessly promise ourselves the impossible-that all June’s future Christmas Eves would be taken just like that; alone, in a bathroom, up to her neck in salted water.”

As June takes her time in the bath, she has conversations with her former employer, “Madam,” who has, as it turns out been dead for some years. June is now married to Peter; we know many decades have passed as Peter is retired and June has a grandson. The time in the bath allows June to reflect on her past, and the many changes in her life; one of the changes was to move to a house with indoor plumbing.

In many ways, Christmas 1955 reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but it lacks the sentimentality and manufactured pathos. June reflects at moments in her life, remembering those she knew and lost, and the memories pass like a series of picture postcards with salient moments caught like fossils in amber.

It is a communion, this tradition, it is an armistice with the dead; but it is also a reckoning of sorts.

The short story is set in the world of Stuart Evers’ novel, The Blind Light, and for some reason, the novel’s release escaped my notice. Onto the list it goes

Review copy

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Quotes from Fay Weldon

Big Girls Don’t Cry:

“Children then were grateful to have been born at all; were on the whole uncritical of their upbringing; parents did the best they could in the light of their own natures, it was commonly assumed.” 

 “Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Ying, yang.”

“That was in the mid-seventies: socialist days. Long ago. The notion of primal ownership has returned with a vengeance: and the profit therein. The rain that falls from heaven belongs not to god but to the Water Board, the forests nature grew are fenced off and belong to the Forestry Commission; your very corpse belongs to the state: its parts up for sale for research purposes. Money has won over human dithering. The natural mother owns the genes of the child she forgot and can claim that child back from the adoptive mother any time: the moral right of the one who toils is swept away in the tide of mine, mine: the country you claim is the one of your ancestors not the one which reared you.”

Kehua!:

“Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.”

“Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.”

“it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.”

Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen:

“A writer’s all, Alice, is not taken up by the real world. There is something left over: enough for them to build these alternative, finite realities.”

“Who reads Arnold Bennett now, or Sinclair Lewis? But perhaps soon, with any luck, they’ll be rediscovered. ‘How interesting,’ people will say, pushing open the creaking doors. ‘How remarkable! Don’t you feel the atmosphere here? So familiar, so true: the amazing masquerading as the ordinary? Why haven’t we been here for so long?’ And Bennett, Lewis, or whoever, will be rediscovered, and the houses of his imagination be renovated, restored, and hinges oiled so that doors open easily, and the builder, the writer, takes his rightful place again in the great alternative hierarchy. “

Little Sisters:

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

“Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine.”

“The rich do play games with other people. They have nothing better to do.”

“Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.”

“And let us not think that we get what we deserve, any of us: some of us are better at triumphing over obstacles, that’s all.”

“Gemma had the courage of the very young.”

“The rich lack the inhibitions of the poor when it comes to the discussion of delicate problems. The poor know there are no solutions. The rich have the experience that there generally is.”

“We put ourselves in prison. No one put us there” (on being faithful during marriage)

“It is the imperfect we miss so badly, once they are gone.”

“Damaged people go on living: hide the damage from themselves, laugh, cry, even offer up some verisimilitude of love, but are never what they could have been, should have been.”

“If only,” observes Gemma. “we women could learn from one another.”

“Sexual passion, requited, invigorates the parties concerned, and enhances rather than diminishes the response to the outer world. An excellent patent medicine for all afflictions–curing madness, rheumatism, the bloody flux, anxiety, depression, warts and so on–at least for a time.Romantic love, on the other hand, seems to work as slow poison, making the suffered egocentric, vapid consumptive. and hard to get along with.”

“It doesn’t matter how long ago your childhood was,” says Gemma, by way of explanation. “it is never finished. Never.”

“Wickedness comes expensive. Goodness is a far cheaper and more boring phenomenon, especially in retrospect.”

“I was in love with a man once. I didn’t behave like that. I just kept out of his way. It depends on the opinion you have of yourself, I suppose…”

“How dreadful the past is, and all its inhabitants. I’m sure I don’t know why I go on tormenting myself with it. One will never understand it; much less oneself.”

“Hate is the easiest, most invigorating emotion of all: next, of course, to despising.”

“Don’t despise her. Thus we have all stayed to endure, when we need not. While teachers caned us, parents scolded us, meals upset our digestions. Sat at dinner and been abused: lain in beds, likewise. The door is there, and partly open. We seldom go out of it.”

Lives and Loves of a She-Devil

She devils are beyond nature: they create themselves out of nothing.”

Puffball:

“Many people dream of country cottages. Liffey dreamed for many years, and saw the dream come true one hot Sunday afternoon, in Somerset, in September. Bees droned, sky glazed, flowers glowed, and the name carved above the lintel, half hidden by rich red roses, was Honeycomb Cottage and Liffey knew that she must have it. A trap closed around her.”

“Isn’t she skinny,” said Mabs, watching through field glasses from the bedroom of Cadbury Farm. Her husband Tucker took the glasses.

“They grow them like that in the city,” he said. They both spoke in the gentle, caressing drawl of the West Country, mocking the universe, defying its harshness. “You don’t know they’re from the city,” Mabs objected. “They’re not from round here,” said Tucker. “No one round here does it in public.”

Praxis:

“The funny farm, the loony bin, the mental home. The shelter for the mentally disabled. I have visited them all, over the years.”

“Staring at herself in the mirror, at her doll’s face, stiff doll’s body, curly blonde doll’s hair, she wondered what experience or wisdom could possibly shine through the casing that Ivor had selected for her. She did not blame Ivor: she knew that she had done it to herself : had preferred to live as a figment of Ivor’s imagination, rather than put up with the confusion of being herself.”

“The New Women! I could barely recognize them as being of the same sex as myself, their buttocks arrogant in tight jeans, openly inviting, breasts falling free and shameless and feeling no apparent obligation to smile, look pleasant or keep their voices low. And how they love! Just look at them to know how! If a man doesn’t bring them to orgasm, they look for another who does. If by mistake they fall pregnant, they abort by vacuum aspiration. If they don’t like the food, they push the plate away. If the job doesn’t suit them, they hand in their notice. They are satiated by everything, hungry for nothing. They are what I wanted to be; they are what I worked for them to be: and now I see them, I hate them.”

“There’s only way to get out of the fix you’re in,” said Irma. “And that’s to sleep your way out of it. Sorry and all that.” 

  “a good lay. But where is she going to find that? Look at the way she dresses.”

The Fat Woman’s Joke:

“There were little gray clouds, here and there, like Alan’s writing, which was distracting him from his job, and Peter’s precocity, and my boredom with the home, and simply, I suppose growing older and fatter. In truth, of course, they weren’t little clouds at all. They were raging bloody crashing thunderstorms.”

“Nothing happens here. I know what to expect from one day to the next. I can control everything, and I can eat. Were I attracted to men, or indeed attractive to them, I would perhaps find a similar pleasure in some form of sexual activity. But as it is, I just eat. When you eat, you get fat, and that’s all. There are no complications. But husbands, children-no, Phyllis, I am sorry. I am not strong enough for them.”

I don’t think she feels very much at all. Like fish feel no pain when you catch them. From what Alan says, her emotional extremities are primitive.”

“One wonders which came first,” she said brightly,” the mistress or the female whine. It would be interesting to do a study.”

The Ted Dreams:

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

“That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.”

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Female Trouble (1974): My kind of Xmas

(sorry for the ads)

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Act of Love: Celia Dale (1969)

There is some terrible flaw in me against which I must always struggle.”

I’ve been on a Celia Dale roll lately: A Helping Hand-is a very credible crime tale of what to do with your elderly relatives when they annoy you. In Sheep’s Clothing– two con-women find that the elderly are easy pickings. Helping With Inquiries concerns the murder of a married woman in a quiet suburb. And this brings me to Act of Love; it’s another crime novel, but this time it’s with a Victorian gothic setting.

22-year-old Bernard West, “Bun” to his family, leaves the impoverished family home to accept the job of tutor to the 2 children of Henry and Isabel Mortimer. The tale is partly narrated by Bernard, who is, as it turns out, somewhat unreliable, or at least less than truthful. We know he’s been “ill” with “brain fever,” but that now he’s “completely recovered.” Bernard’s father, who is another private tutor, is “ruined,” when he “imprudently stood guarantor” for a “rascal who defaulted.” Bernard also has two sisters, doomed to spinsterhood: Agatha and Mary. According to Bernard, all the hopes and fortunes of the family rest with him.

The first few days at Bulmer Hall are not good. Bernard is very quickly relegated to a lowlier position in the household than he expected. Mr. Mortimer, who is pleasant enough, has a very strong personality, disappears frequently to London to indulge his vices, and walks with a cane due to an old wound. His much younger wife, Isabel Mortimer is the snot here. She’s beautiful, a wonderful horsewoman, and she immediately puts Bernard in his place :

She was slender, with dark hair piled high under a small cap, a perfect cameo-line of brown and nose, lips and chin; eyes of the same inky blue as were her daughter’s but cool as ice, as was her smile, which seemed to glide over us all like skates. I had never before seen anyone so perfectly indifferent to other people, so actuated by nothing but the thinnest pretense of politeness.

It’s soon abundantly clear that while the house is magnificent, and while the Mortimers are wealthy, there is something not quite right with life at Bulmer Hall:

Yet it had no heart. It ran with the mechanical motions of a clockwork toy, lifelike but artificial.

The only regular guest at Bulmer Hall is the oily Dr. Brooke, who at one time practiced in the slums of London. He’s seen enough of “the debasement of the human animal” that he is now more or less retired, thanks to an inheritance, with only the occasional wealthy client to fuss over. Dr. Brooke befriends Bernard, and appears to take an interest in the young man’s future. And while at first Isabel humiliates Bernard every chance she gets with “her glance shifting over [him] as indifferently as a searchlight over the sea,” a turn of events throws Bernard and Isabel together.

Act of Love is mostly cleverly constructed, and for a while I thought I was reading something as magnificent as My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately, the book slides into purple prose, with rather long passages so torrid and yet vague that I was forced to reread these sections several times to understand the implications. The ending seemed a little hurried which was unfortunate given the cleverness of the plotting.

Still… I enjoyed the structure if not the execution. The characters are great creations but this is my least favourite Celia Dale to date.

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Big Girl, Small Town: Michelle Gallen

“She never said no to a shag.”

Michelle Gallen’s debut novel, Big Girl, Little Town centres on the life of twenty-something Majella O’Neill. Majella (Jelly to some) lives with her toxic, heavily medicated and frequently drunk mother in a small Irish border town, and works in the local chip shop. Not exactly an exciting life, and it’s a life shaped by blurry events: a grandfather who “died after getting a hiding in internment,” an absent father who disappeared years ago, an IRA member uncle, who died while planting a bomb, and the latest: Majella’s grandmother bludgeoned to death. How much tragedy and violence can one life sustain?

Majella’s life is, on one level, a joyless grind. She gets up, deals with her mother, goes to work at A Salt and Battered, serves a motley assortment of customers–most of whom have colourful nicknames, and occasionally has sweaty sex with her married co-worker. For R&R, there’s Dallas reruns and food (greasy chips and toast). More Dallas reruns and more food. Majella’s personal life isn’t exactly messy; it could be described as bleak and barren. Consequently, Majella lives a mostly interior life and perhaps that’s why she keeps a “list of stuff in her head that she wasn’t keen on.”

1) Small talk, bullshit and gossip

2) Physical contact

3) Noise

4) Bright lights

5) Scented stuff

6) Cunter

7) Sweating

8) Jokes
9) Make-up

10) Fashion

The full list of things Majella wasn’t keen on extended to ninety-seven items, with subcategories for each item.

Majella’s list-keeping seems in opposition to her character. She isn’t a particularly organized or self-disciplined person, but the list keeping is arguably a way of maintaining order in the midst of chaos. This theory seems to be borne out by the way she sticks to her routines, hates to be late and has a mania for cleaning the fish and chip shop.

Majella squished a chip into her garlic mayonnaise and then rammed it into her mouth. She debated getting up to check on her ma. She remembered what J.R. Ewing did when he found Sue-Ellen in a similar state. he simply left her to her own fate, assigning her to the care of the good Lord above.

What makes Big Girl, Small Town so interesting is yes this is an ordinary life–so ordinary, narrow and confining that it’s easy to imagine living like this. At the same time in spite of the ordinary and mundane, there are serious events: the tiny town of Aghbogey is a place where everyone knows everyone else (and that includes all the private business you’d like to keep that way). Yet Aghbogey, a place where really nothing much should happen, is a place fraught with tragedy. It’s a town that cannot deny its turbulent Northern Ireland border location. Majella, while leading an unenviable life in its mind-numbing banality (a 9-year long career in a chip shop with no end in sight) is forced to cope with events that most of us are lucky enough to avoid.

Throughout her childhood, the local news had been a litany of deaths, explosions and murders attempts. Things only got worse after peace broke out.

We see Majella’s life: the way she eats to fill the void in her life, the way she handles the customers, including the bingo crowd, the late night pub goers, the worn-out, tired women on the game, Jake the Snake Connolly, Cabbage McAteer, Jimmy Nine Pints, the way she manages her mother, and the ways in which she has learned to cope. Majella, author Michelle Gallen’s very human creation, is full of contradictions: sensitive but she’s learned to blunt her emotions. There’s the sense that under different circumstances. Majella could be a larger-than-life personality, someone with an active social life, but instead she minds her own business and keeps her thoughts to herself.

For non English speakers, the book may be a challenge. A small amount of the text is written in local dialect. It is not throughout the entire book but appears now and then. It’s written in such a way it’s easy to translate for the native speaker (not as tough as Scottish dialect IMO). Not sure how this would be for the non-native speaker.

Gay uz a bagga chipz anna tubba garlick mayo Jelly

and

Am ah standing here talking tae myself? Am ah just some eejit wasting her breath talking til her daughter’s door?

Refreshing in its honest portrayal of a non spectacular life lived with the harnessing of emotions that Majella cannot afford, Big Girl, Small Town is a below-the-radar examination of the effects of decades of violence on an ordinary girl. Surrounded by violence and intolerance, both accepted as the normal state of affairs, and with Dallas as a moral guide, Marjella  still views life with a black sense of humour.

Review copy

  • Triggers. Includes a scene of kittens drowning and a pap smear. 

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Filed under Fiction, Gallen Michelle

A Helping Hand: Celia Dale (1966)

In A Helping Hand, author Celia Dale, whose books seem to have dropped off the radar, shows exactly what can be done with a crime novel. No ritualistic serial killers, no gore, no teenage girls chained up in the basement–the crime in this book is a crime so subtly committed, no one seems to notice. This is the third novel I’ve read from this author; I’m currently reading a fourth, and for crime fans who are interested: Helping with Inquiries is the story of a murder investigation following the bludgeoning death of a married woman in her home; Sheep’s Clothing is the story of two con-women who mercilessly prey on the elderly. All of the novels create a sense of suffocating claustrophobia, and even though none of the sensationalistic elements of crime novels exist within these pages, somehow Celia Dale’s crime novels are sinister and terrifying–simply because they seem to occur in such ordinary, mundane circumstances.

A Helping Hand opens with the death of an elderly lady. It sounds as though it’s a gentle, expected death and former nurse Mrs. Maisie Evans and her hubbie Josh who were the deceased woman’s caretakers, meet the necessary legal obligations: contacting the doctor, checking documents and putting aside the pension book. It’s May, and by summer time, Josh and Maisie are on holiday in Italy where they run into the elderly, widowed Cynthia Fingal and her middle-aged niece Lena. A long way from home, it seems perfectly natural that the 4 British people should strike up a relationship with Maisie befriending Lena and Josh shepherding Cynthia around the cafes and the more accessible tourist spots. It doesn’t take long for Lena to spew forth complaints about her aunt: how much she sacrifices for the “spoiled” old lady, how she can’t have a personal life, and how what Aunt Cynthia pays for room and board doesn’t compensate for “the inconvenience of always having her under my feet.” Lena actually voices the opinion that “when old people get so they can’t control themselves they ought to be put away.” Or does she mean put down? While Lena confides in a sympathetic Maisie, Josh is busily and tediously squiring Cynthia around town with an element of low grade flirtation, letting her talk endlessly about her past life while he ogles the girls on the beach.

Before the holiday is over, Cynthia decides she wants to live with Maisie and Josh which suits Lena. She practically begs the Evanses to take her aunt off her hands. After all, why not? The Evanses are experienced caretakers of the elderly. Mrs. Evans always seems to have various medicines on hand, and she’s a dull woman, respectable, caring, a wonderful cook and an avid crafter. Josh pays attention to Mrs. Fingal who soaks up male attention, so it’s an arrangement that suits everyone. And what a warm welcome the Evanses give Mrs Fingal when she arrives.

It’s a good thing really that Mrs. Fingal is not a particularly sympathetic character. Good for the reader that is. Maisie Evans, so experienced in the care of the elderly knows just what to do. …

There was an air of quiet cheerfulness about the Evanses that weekend. Josh got out in the garden, mowed the grass, staked the fast-growing plants, weeded–although that made his back ache. Mrs Evans started on an order for six embroidered tea cosies, all in autumn tints. Mrs Fingal lay in her bed, a shell from which the tide had receded. Sometimes she shuffled through the old magazines which sagged on the bedside table, but mostly she just lay, waiting for Josh to visit her, but he did not.

A Helping Hand is a very realistic crime novel. No fireworks, no brilliant detective to swoop in and save the day, but two very experienced minders who know how to fleece the elderly. There’s another character here, a young Italian girl, and her character seemed a bit overdone. She is innocence personified (that’s the overdone bit) and her introduction to the Evanses’ household is beyond anything she can imagine. There’s a simply wonderful twist at the end. Shan’t spoil it, but for vintage crime fans who like their crime bloodless yet cold as ice, this is recommended.

 

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Filed under Dale Celia, Fiction