Providence: Max Barry

“You don’t want a world of absent gods. You want meaning and purpose.”

It’s rare for me to follow an author’s career, but I make an exception with Max Barry. There are two reasons for this:

  • his books are excellent
  • he’s evolved as a writer (more of that later)

Barry’s first novel was Syrup (1999), the tale of a young man who dreams up a new soft drink–only to find that his friend, Sneaky Pete, has trademarked the formula.

Then came the brilliantly imaginative Jennifer Government (2003)–sci-fi territory here. The novel is set in a dystopian future with the world ruled by corporations.

Company (2006) followed next. In some ways, this was a return of Syrup–lots of humour and lots more corporate malfeasance–and one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

Machine Man (2011)–again a trip into the misty, harsh future. This is the story of a mechanical engineer who loses a leg in a work-related accident. One thing leads to another, and soon the engineer replaces all of this body parts with more efficient prostheses.

Lexicon (2013) delves into data collection and the annihilation of privacy with trained ‘persuaders’ who can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type.

And now Providence. I had this feeling that Barry was moving towards full-blown science fiction novel, and this is it. Makes my Best-of-Year list.

Providence

I’m going to say: think Alien on steroids. The novel begins with a team of four people preparing to head out into space in a three-mile long Providence battleship: their  four-year long mission is to encounter and destroy an alien race called Salamanders. As the newly formed crew prep for the mission–which is a huge social media event–the team members watch footage of the hair raising encounter between humans and aliens that started the war. …

You knew what you’d be watching today but you weren’t prepared for it to feel like this, like it’s wrong to be here. And wrong not only because you know what’s going to happen, and not even because there are four people who need your help and you can’t give it, but wrong like you’re intruding. They’re about the experience the worst moment of their lives, and you’ve come to watch it.

It’s an incredible beginning to an incredible book. The plot concerns the journey into space of the battleship and its hunt for Salamanders, and while there’s a lot of down time between alien encounters, the heart-pounding, nail-biting tension never lets up. We know that this ship is headed into something big and gradually it becomes apparent that not all the crew members are privy to certain information.

In some ways the crew members may appear to be cliches, but it all makes sense as the plot continues. Captain Jackson survived a notorious Salamander attack and was broken by the experience. Unable to adjust to civilian life, she’s hostile to AI and much more willing to put her faith in decisions made by humans. Then there’s Life Officer, Talia Beanfield, the most popular member of the crew with 311 million people “following the clips, and quips of Life Officer Talia Beanfield as transmitted from her Providence-class battleship in an undisclosed but, trust me, incredibly dangerous part of space.”

Anders, the Weapons Officer who appears to be a brainless jock, is a man whose transgressive behavior would seem to have negated his position on the crew, and this raises the question as to why AI selected him for the mission. Finally there’s the Intel specialist, civilian, Gilly who is perfectly comfortable with AI, and yet he’s still ambushed by the ship’s abilities. When it comes to destinations and encounters, the ship makes the decisions, and after one hard skip, they are in the fighting zone. Two years into the mission, with kills mounting, the ship takes another hard skip into the Violet Zone “an area devoid of beacons and relays.” There will be no contact with earth. It’s a “long time to go dark.

The realities and stresses of living on a space ship become evident over time. Life Officer Beanfield, who is privy to intelligence withheld from Gilly and Anders, is perhaps the best equipped emotionally to deal with the various emergencies and disasters that arise. Her intense training at Camp Zero, designed to motivate and manipulate the other crew members, involved playing various scenarios and role playing situations 

They’d told her back at Camp Zero: You will be the most important person on the ship and no one will know it. It was true. It was so true. 

Anders, the most volatile and unpredictable crew member, “couldn’t be left to his own devices. All his devices had built-in self-destructs.” Bored and frustrated by confinement and lack of relevance, seeking revenge for his brothers killed in the war, Anders goes into complete meltdown, wants to grab the guns and revert to destruction the only way he knows how. His actions have devastating consequences for the mission.

Gilly spends hours working on his theory that the aliens are learning from each encounter with the humans, only to realize that the ship’s AI system is way ahead of him. Gilly, who continues to hold firm to the idea that AI is superior to human intelligence, realizes that the ship will defend itself in unimagined ways. At one point in the novel, Beanfield and Gilly debate about the ship as an alternate life form. The Ship said “hello” when the crew boarded, and Gilly insists it’s a pre-programmed message, but as the mission continues, it becomes clear that the ship’s abilities are beyond human comprehension and therefore unpredictable.

Providence on one level is a story of man vs alien, but there’s a lot more at play here. The book examines the reliability and fallacies of both AI and human intelligence, while showing a war in which social media grants the crew members celebrity status which is pumped by edited transmissions back to home. It’s part reality TV for those at home and almost like a video game for those who think they operate the ship. Providence illustrates the place of human ingenuity in the world of AI; humans and AI share a fragile partnership.

One of the most marvelous things about this book is the way the crew members–all damaged in various ways–somehow manage to find what they are looking for, a sort of redemption. But as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for. This is both a gripping and a haunting read.

Absolutely brilliant. Providence is a spectacular, absorbing, relevant achievement.

Providence makes my Best-of-Year List

Review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Barry, Max, Fiction

The Godmother: Hannelore Cayre

“I’m not ashamed to admit I was a difficult mother, not at all the nurturing type.”

Hannelore Cayre’s novel The Godmother features Patience Portefeux, a 53 year-old Paris-based Arabic translator. Patience, mother of two, and a widow whose husband died years earlier, has utilized her Arabic, becoming a court reporter. Patience doesn’t glam herself up, or try to defy her age; her hair is long, and white, she’s overweight and while she’s “well-groomed” she only wears “monochrome suites–grey, black, or anthracite.” I read somewhere that the middle-aged woman is the most invisible person in society, and that definitely seems to be true of Patience. Yes she’s middle-aged, overweight, probably nothing that noticeable if you work with her…. but take away those labels and underneath her bland disguise, beats the heart of a transgressive personality who submerges into criminalism when presented with an opportunity. 

The godmother

Patience’s criminal expertise didn’t materialize from thin air. It’s in her blood. She tells her life story–how she grew up in the biz, with immigrant parents and countless bodies buried on their land. 

My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money. For them it wasn’t an inert substance stashed away in a suitcase or held in some account. No, they loved it as a living, intelligent being that can create and destroy, that possesses the gift of reproduction. Something mighty that forges destinies, that separates beauty from ugliness, winners from losers. Money is Everything; the distillation of all that can be bought in a world where everything is for sale. It is the answer to every question. 

Early marriage to a man who also had shady business deals ended with Patience a young widow left with two daughters. They were soon stripped of everything, and this led to a sojourn in a loony bin. Patience clawed her way back and landed the interpreter gig, but Patience realizing that “the interpreter was simply a tool to accelerate the act of repression,” begins translating “phone taps for the drug and organized crime squads.”  

Despite my disillusion, I made dazzling progress on the career front. My colleagues will say I must have slept with a lot of people. The cruder version that made it back to me : There must have been kilometers of cops’ dicks involved, etc., etc. 

One thing leads to another and before you know it, Patience, dealing with her aged mother who is kicked out of a care home, is deep in the drug industry, and she’s working both ends–moving massive amounts of drugs, sleeping with her cop boyfriend and monitoring phone taps of her rivals. 

Prudence is a wonderful, fascinating peppery character: all the labels attached to her by society are just that: underneath simmers her true nature, and the novel excels in showing how we judge people by these labels. I could have done with less wire tap conversations and more about Prudence as she negotiates society. 

Damn, you’re quite the paradox, aren’t you. You always lower our eyes whenever anybody speaks to you, like you’re shy, but at the same time you’re giving off this feeling of kick-ass confidence–like the very worst scum bags in fact.

Stories, true or fiction, often portray straight-arrow people becoming corrupted when opportunity presents itself, but The Godmother plays with the tantalizing idea that corruption occurs, yes when opportunity presents itself, but also as a laying-in-wait and ambushing the ‘system’ variety.

Translated by Stephanie Smee.

A contribution for the cancelled Quai de Polar 2020. Now I want to read a book about Griselda Blanco. 

5 Comments

Filed under Cayre Hannelore, Fiction

Summer of Reckoning: Marion Brunet

Marion Brunet’s novel, The Summer of Reckoning, explores the near impossibility of escaping the cycle of poverty.  Sisters 16-year-old Céline and 15-year-old Johanna (Jo) should be on the brink of their lives, but poverty and now Céline’s pregnancy have combined to squash their futures. Since age 14, Céline, the more attractive of the sisters, had the curse of early sexuality, so all the local boys compete for her attention, while Jo, with two different coloured eyes, is prickly and considered strange.

the summer of reckoning

The sisters live with their father Manuel and mother Séverine in the Luberon, and while the family is poor, Manuel works on the villas that belong to the wealthy, often absent owners. This creates a surreal contrast, a sharp divide between the rich and the poor, with Céline and Jo trespassing onto the extensive grounds of magnificent deserted villas–enjoying the luxuries that the owners seem to have forgotten about.

Céline and Jo’s home life is rocky and tenuous, their social life almost non-existent, but when Manuel learns that his eldest daughter is pregnant, his deep rage encompasses his own failures as a man, a husband and a father. With Céline, refusing to identify the father, the scene is set for disaster. …

Everyone in the area hates Arabs, and a likely suspect seems to be Saïd, a friend of the family, a young man who hangs around the girls and who has some shady business dealings with builder Manuel.

The novel’s strengths lie in Manuel and Séverine’s bitterness which floats to the surface with the news of Céline’s pregnancy. It’s history repeating itself. Manuel stews on the knowledge that he wasn’t, and still isn’t, considered good enough for Séverine by her land-owning parents. Séverine, who is now going to be a grandmother at age 34, recalls she “did have her moment of glory, twenty years ago-twenty!” She dwells on how she became pregnant with Céline, and how marriage to Manuel seemed the only option at the time. Now roll on 17 years and here she is seeing the same thing happen to her eldest daughter … but this time there’s no question of marriage because Céline refuses to name the father.

There’s a dull simmering rage that runs throughout the story, and these characterizations feel real, bitterly, sadly real. With the exception of Jo, who wants more from life, none of these characters are appealing. Jo rations herself, subconsciously, refusing to meet the expectations of the local boys who have suddenly stopped panting after Céline now that she’s pregnant.

Jo is looking for ways out. She must be patient, but she has neither the age nor the temperament for patience. What she dreams of is explosions, magnificent events, nuclear wars. She is all pernicious expectation and anxiety. Céline’s pregnancy doesn’t actually change anything, and it’s again about her sister, the centre of attention. But there’s something hatching, buzzing in the thick atmosphere, in the family silences. She can feel it, like that sharp taste when biting into a green grape, on alert.

(Readers: there’s a scene of kittens being drowned. I get the addition of this scene: unwanted kittens can be drowned while life moves on (not the same for humans) plus the casual cheap brutality that permeates the tale.  Still the scene is there.)

Review copy

Translated by Katherine Gregor

Leave a comment

Filed under Brunet Marion, Fiction

Ask for Me Tomorrow: Margaret Millar (1976)

“In this business you see their worst side, until pretty soon you forget they have a better one. And then ten chances to one they haven’t, anyway.”

Margaret Millar’s Ask for Me Tomorrow opens on a hot afternoon in Santa Felicia, California. Immediately we step into a toxic domestic scene. Middle-aged Gilly is watching and talking to her wheelchair bound husband, Marco, a stroke victim. His right eyelid closes and opens “normally,” but the rest of his body is paralyzed. He doesn’t respond to his wife, and he doesn’t seem to register her presence, but in spite of this, Gilly keeps up almost constant conversation. She’s convinced that Marco is aware, at least on some level. Gilly’s efforts are admirable, but there’s also something off about her behaviour too. Is she trying too hard?

Trying was part of her nature, just as giving up was part of Marco’s. He had given up long before the stroke. It was merely a punctuation mark, a period at the end of a sentence.

Gilly is wealthy. She has hired a male nurse, beefcake Reed (think Tab Hunter wearing tight swimming trunks), and there’s also the housekeeper, the extremely religious, nosy Violet Smith who seems out-of-place in the household.

ask for me tomorrow

Through her lawyer, Smedley, Gilly arranges to hire a bilingual, newly graduated lawyer named Tom Aragon. Gilly refuses to discuss anything with Smedley and insists on discussing her case with Aragon at her home. Gilly tells Aragon that she was married before to a very wealthy man named B.J. Lockwood, but the marriage only lasted 5 years and ended when B.J. ran off with Tula, their 15 year-old pregnant Mexican maid. She hires Aragon to travel to Mexico and find out what happened to B.J. and the child he had with Tula.

Well, I’m fifty. That’s not very old, of course, but it cuts down on your alternatives, narrows your choices. There are more goodbyes and not so many hellos. Too many of the goodbyes are final. And the hellos-well, they’ve become more and more casual … I’ve lost one husband and I’m about to lose another. I’m depressed, scared, sitting in that room with Marco, listening to his breathing and waiting for it to stop. When it does stop, I’ll be alone, alone, period. I have no relatives and no friends I haven’t bought.

All a little weird as Gilly doesn’t seem the sentimental type. She arms Aragon with a letter she received from B.J. 5 years earlier. In the letter, B. J. asks Gilly for $100,000 which he says is an “opportunity to invest” in a building project, Jenlock Haciendas, in partnership with another American named Jenkins. According to B.J. “once the Americans get word of it we expect to be deluged with offers.” Yeah right. 

Gilly never sent the money. So Aragon’s task is to travel to Bahía de Ballenas, a place with no roads and no signposts, and discover what happened to B.J. and the child. Aragon goes to this remote, dusty, undeveloped region and ignites a trail of murder. 

Ask For Me Tomorrow is a wonderful book, full of peppy dialogue and quirky secondary characters, the waspish lawyer’s secretary, the pouty male nurse Reed, and Jenkins, the man caught up in the frenzy of dreams of riches. Yes, it’s a crime novel, and while I thought the plot was leading me in one direction, it took me somewhere else. More than anything else it’s about human nature and the bitterness of experience. There’s Gilly’s life story, of how she fell in love with the already married B.J. and how she worked on taking him from his wife, Ethel. He was, she claims, the love of her life, and yet there’s also bitterness there in a conversation she has with Aragon when she describes how B.J. ran off with Tula.

“B.J. always did honorable things, impulsive, stupid, absurd, but honorable. So the two of them rode off into the sunset. It was what they rode in that burns me up–the brand new motor home I’d just bought for us to go on a vacation to British Columbia. I was crazy about that thing. Dreamboat, I called it. On the first night it was delivered here to the house B.J. and I actually slept in it, and the next morning I made our breakfast in the little kitchen, orange juice and Grapenuts. A week later it was goodbye Dreamboat, B.J., Tula and the rest of the box of Grapenuts.”

“What do you want me to do, get back the rest of the Grapenuts?”

And then there’s B. J. What kind of a man was he? Evidently women were his Achilles’ heel but while he seems passive–the sort of man things happen to–he nonetheless manages to stir a maelstrom of emotions. 

It’s funny when you think about it–Henry Jenkins took B.J. from Tula the way she took him from me and I took him from Ethel. We just sort of passed him along from one to another like a used car. Even Ethel, Ethel the Good, she probably took him from somebody else. There was always someone waiting, wanting to use B.J. Where did it all start? The day he was born, the day the car came off the assembly line.

Absolutely fantastic

There are three Tom Aragon novels: Ask for Me Tomorrow, The Murder of Miranda, and Mermaid

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Millar Margaret

C’est la Vie: Pascal Garnier

“Happiness for those unused to it is like food for the starving–a little too much can be fatal.”

The times are shaping my reading, and so I turned to an old friend for his signature bleakness, endless despair, death obsession and an exploration of the despicable depths of human nature. Who else could possibly cheer me up? Yes: Pascal Garnier, take me to the dark places of the human soul.

C’est la Vie is 11th Garnier novel I’ve read, and here are the rest: The Panda Theory, How’s the Pain?, Moon in a Dead Eye, The Front Seat Passenger, The IslandersBoxes, Too Close to the Edge, The Eskimo Solution, The A-26, and Low Heights. 

C’est La Vie is a rather different novel for Garnier. Yes it’s full of his signature themes but it’s also a lot lighter. 

Cest la vie

The book opens with middle aged author, Jean-François Colombier, meeting band member/drug dealer son Damian. They aren’t close, and the main point of the meeting, a rare event between these two, is so that Colombier can tell Damian that there’s a new woman in his life, journalist Hélène. Not that Damian cares. 

The book moves forward in time. Yet another relationship has turned sour, and  Colombier, who was so optimistic about Hélène, meets her in a restaurant to turn over the keys to her apartment. And it had looked so promising. 

Everyone has their little habits. You have to put up with them. We had lived together for five years, I with my nose in a glass, she with her nose in powder. Our different ways of anaesthetising ourselves. It wasn’t that I blamed her or that she blamed me but we were both upset because we had believed we would make it together. It’s not easy to escape the shipwreck of the forties, swimming in a dead sea as a thick as pea soup, with that island on the horizon that shrinks as you approach it. 

But perhaps things are looking up. Colombier’s relationship with Hélène may be dead but his new book brings him fame and fortune. He’s not “exactly rich,” but his career is paying off. Then at a book signing he meets a woman named Eve. She’s young, rich, stable and nurturing. Soon they are living together in her inherited chateau. It’s a dream come true. And yet ….

Things are just a little too rosy for Colombier, and feeling like he’s living in a “gilded dream,” he absconds for Paris–not exactly sure what he’s looking for, not exactly sure why he’s disconnected.

I would be in Paris, and then … I wasn’t sure what next. I had no plan other than to escape a life that seemed to belong to someone else and to rediscover what I was used to–a more mediocre existence.

Colombier finds adventure in the shape of a conman, a crazy old lady and a young girl he picks up at party. 

C’est La Vie is full of Garnier’s themes: an amused disgust with humanity, preoccupation with physical decay, and rampant disgust of the human body. Poor old Colombier has the humiliation of a boil on his bottom, and at one point looks at his reflection which isn’t improved by an all-night binge:

I had spent the previous evening drinking and looking in the mirror. The more I drank, the less I recognised the mottled skin dotted with blackheads, the nostrils filled with thick hair, and eyelids the colour of days-old ham that even the worst convenience store would have hesitated to sell to a blind man.

Garnier pushes the boundaries of his readers, and there are times when even I wince at some plot elements. Colombier comes off as a middle aged idiot whose angst and self-centeredness leads him to a surreal life lesson that scares him straight. We humans can have it all and it’s still never enough. This short novel isn’t nearly as bleak as the others I’ve read; it’s much less dark and is basically a middle-aged affluent man’s nightmare. It’s not my favourite, but I still enjoyed it. 

Translated by Jane Aitken

1 Comment

Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

Marrow and Bone: Walter Kempowski

Walter Kempowski’s Marrow and Bone is a road trip novel rife with a sense of historic reckoning. The tale is set in 1988, West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Jonathan Fabrizius, the centre of this story, is a middle-aged journalist, navigating a middling career. He doesn’t make enough to support himself, but he has an uncle, a furniture manufacturer, who supplements his income with a monthly allowance. Jonathan is a war orphan. His father was a lieutenant in the Wehrmacht who died on the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast. As for his mother, following a horrendous, freezing journey from the Eastern front in a cart, she died in East Prussia after giving birth to Jonathan. This bare bones story provides Jonathan with his sense of identity, and while the history is murky and lacks details, it has provided a sort of heroic, romantic structure of his past.

As far as suffering was concerned, this guaranteed him an unparalleled advantage over his friends.

Jonathan lives in a fabulous but decaying building which somehow managed to survive the bombing of WWII. His peculiar girlfriend, Ulla, who works part time at the municipal art gallery, also lives there. It would be a stretch to say that they live together, for while their rooms connect, they both block their room’s access with furniture. That’s a statement, so it’s probably more accurate to say they share things together: such as sex and outings. Ulla is fascinated by “depictions of cruelty in the visual arts,” so her “shelves were full of books showing all sorts of Inquisition torture” But she’s also interested in modern atrocities but “none of these terrible images left the slightest impression”on her.

Marrow and Bone

With Jonathan’s relationship with Ulla moving towards a termination (that he’s unaware of) he receives an invitation from the Santubara car maker. The company offers Jonathan a job, a trip to East Prussia. It’s a “test-driving tour for motoring journalists to convince them of the outstanding quality of its latest” car. Jonathan agrees and soon finds himself on a road trip accompanying diminutive harem-pant wearing Frau Anita Winkelvoss, and race car driver Hansi Strohtmeyer.

There’s humour in the Germans’ attitude towards Poland and the Polish. This ranges from amusing (Jonathan, Anita, and Hansi tend to make sweeping, unflattering generalizations) to queasy observations. 

She praised the fact that they’d been able to take a shower in this hotel without a problem and was astonished that all the Poles were so friendly. To us Germans! After what we did to them. A third of the population exterminated and all the towns and cities destroyed.

Along the way to their destination, the three Germans stop at various historic sites such as Danzig and Marienburg which “the Russians had used for target practice.” At one point several groups of Germans converge: the homeland association, and a delegation from Bremen, the “Socialist Pupils Council of the Rosa Luxemberg Comprehensive there to see “what sort of fascist revanchism was being played out.” Touring the sites has awkward moments with the Polish tour guide leaving out “the invasion of Poland by the German Wehrmacht.” It’s entirely possible that members of the homeland association “had been here before, as children, with their school or with the Hitler Youth.” At one point the German tourists see an exhibition of concentration camp drawings, and the “homeland association slunk past these,” while a teacher “perked up” and yet another tourist, who had been imprisoned in Dachau wants to move on. 

The book, with dark humour, examines how these Germans ‘deal’ with their history and “the business with the Jews.” Frau Winkelvoss has definitely moved on from “all that Jewish stuff,” and her ignorance shows. Another major theme is human suffering as spectacle. The characters here are removed from human suffering–it’s a thing of the past, history or even Art. 

In Stutthof they had a pleasant surprise, as Hansi Strohtmeyer put it: the concentration camp was shut. 

At one point the three travellers visit Hitler’s Bunker, and again, Jonathan, while the most informed of the three, seems to lack understanding of Hitler’s psychology. This is in many ways a book that deals with our ‘roots’ and confronting our personal and national mythologies and history, and for Jonathan, finally, the trip has an unexpected emotional impact. 

Review copy

Translated by Charlotte Collins

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction

The New Life of Hugo Gardner: Louis Begley

My first Louis Begley book was About Schmidt and I came to it via the film. Can’t say I liked the film much but there was something about the main character that drove me to check out the source material. Since then, I’ve read a few other novels by the same author, so when I saw The New Life of Hugo Gardner, I knew I had to read it. 

the new life of hugo gardner

Hugo Gardner is 84, he’s still healthy–although there are some nagging questions about his PSA. He’s had a phenomenal career as a journalist and author, he’s wealthy, he has two children, Barbara and Rod and he’s happily married to Valerie. Wait … he thought he was happily married, so Hugo is stunned one day to get a phone call from Valerie’s new lawyer who tells Hugo that Valerie, a successful food writer who has her own cooking show, wants a divorce. Valerie, at “a very shapely 61” has left Hugo for a younger man. Oh the humiliation. Hugo wants to confirm his wife’s decision:

Don’t you know that living with you is like living with a corpse? Not even a zombie. An unburied corpse! I can’t stand you, I haven’t been able to stand you for years! You don’t know that, imbecile!

Ouch!

Hugo lawyers up, and after the first shock passes, the divorce moves quickly and as painlessly as possible.

This life-changing event causes Hugo to reevaluate himself as a husband and a father, and all this takes him back to revisit his past in the form of the girlfriend he dumped when he met Valerie.

On one level, it’s hard as a reader to relate to Hugo–he’s part of the 1%, with a great New York apartment and a house in Bridgehampton. Trips to Paris, eating at the finest restaurants and hiring staff to clean etc all come easy to Hugo. But scrape that aside and this is an engaging tale of a man who suddenly finds himself alone, wondering if he made the right choices, troubled by his children, and facing his own mortality. Hugo may be 84, but there’s still a lot of living to be done, and his zest for life is admirable. There’s some marvellous stuff between Hugo and his daughter, Barbara. Hugo continually shells out money for his grandchildren and while he wonders what is going on between Barbara and her dermatologist husband, he never questions or refuses her requests for money. For him, it’s there no moral decision involved

Barbara’s calls, the ones timed for when I would have finished breakfast but hadn’t yet gone out, were often of the ‘I’ve got something I’d sort of like to ask you’ variety. Duly translated they meant: I want some money. For the kids’ piano and dance lessons, summer camp fees, and the like. Why her dermatologist husband, practicing in Wellesley, which is, to my knowledge, still a wealthy suburb, can’t afford this stuff, I don’t know. The truth is that I don’t much care. When I am invited, for instance, to fund my elder granddaughter Trudy’s first-year tuition at a private day school, a sum for which I could have bought myself a Mercedes two-seater, I reply, but of course. Why should I say no? I have no desire to become the owner of that two-seater and love unconditionally my daughter and granddaughters.

The story is set against the upcoming presidential nomination, and Hugo isn’t shy about expressing his political opinions. Hugo is in many ways a disconnected character. His divorce comes as a shock,  his daughter’s resentments are unexpected tirades (later explained) and he’s not that close with his son. Later when Hugo reconnects (and reignites sexually) with an old flame in Paris, he’s also far behind the 8 ball. Hugo, who leads an active life of the mind, is self-absorbed and so he’s always taken off guard in his personal relationships. That will never change. But ultimately, he’s a character who travels lightly–bears no grudges, rolls with the punches, and deals with life’s humiliations with equanimity and gentle self-deprecating humour.

Review copy

 

4 Comments

Filed under Begley, Louis, Fiction

We Are All Made of Glue: Marina Lewycka

Marina Lewcyka novels are unusual. They are eclectic and not what you’d call tightly plotted when it comes to narrative, but they are always fun. This novel encompasses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (along with some history), glue composition, the Miners’ strike, the writing of a really bad romance novel, the class divide, Geriatric care, the exploitation of the Elderly, and the shortcomings of Social services. We Are All Made of Glue is narrated by Georgie Sinclair, a London-based writer of articles about glue. Georgie’s boring, self-important upper-class husband Rip has departed, as it turns out, to take over someone else’s greener pastures. So Georgie remains in the family home with teenage son, Ben.

Georgie’s split from Rip comes as a shock and as the result of a petty disagreement over the installation of a toothbrush holder. It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but it’s the excuse Rip needs to leave, and Georgie waits, fruitlessly and lost, for his return. She decides to take action by throwing his belongings in a skip, conveniently parked out front. And this is how she meets Naomi Shapiro who is digging for discarded treasures in the skip.

Scrambling to her feet, she shook herself like a cat. Her face was half hidden under the peak of the cap–it was one of those big jaunty baker boy caps that Twiggy used to wear, with a diamanté brooch pinned to one side. 

Considering that Naomi is followed by a horde of cats, rather dirty and smelly, and pushing a dilapidated pram full of junk, Georgie assumed that Naomi is homeless, “one of life’s casualties.” But then soon after Georgie runs into Naomi again at Sainsbury’s. 

The sticker lady was doing her end-of-day reductions. A crowd was milling around her like a piranha tank as feeding time. 

The most aggressive customer is Naomi. Georgie watches as the same “bony gnarled, jewel-encrusted hand” grabs items just as fast as the reduced stickers appear. This meeting leads to Naomi inviting Georgie to her home for dinner. As it turns out, Naomi is sitting on a valuable piece of real estate; yes Canaan House may be falling down, but it’s worth a packet.

When Naomi falls ill, avaricious real estate agents, scenting blood aided and abetted by a corrupt social worker move in for the kill. Naomi has no family, and so Georgie, who needs a cause to shift focus from her own problems, steps into the fray, but since she has no legal standing, her efforts are limited. Plus there’s a mystery surrounding Naomi’s identify which clouds the situation even further. 

As with all Marina Lewycka novels, there’s a lot of humour. This is mostly found in Georgie’s recreated married scenes with her insufferable spouse, the constant edits of her truly terrible romance novel, and in the character of Naomi, a woman who defies the constraints of age and is ready to flirt with any man within a ten foot radius. Naomi’s speech is written with her foreign accent but it’s not too hard to decipher. The Big Question here is that while Naomi is potty at what point, ethically, should The State step in and take over? 

She was wearing a long-sleeved dress in carmine velvet, shaped at the waist and daringly cut away at the front and the back to reveal her wrinkled shoulders and the loose skin from her chest. A double string of pearls gleamed around her throat. Her dramatic black curls were piled on top of her head with a collection of tortoiseshell combs, and she’d painted on a dash of matching carmine lipstick–not all of it on her lips. 

For this reader, the sections with Ben were weak. Wouldn’t Georgie have done a bit more to intervene as she watches her son slide down the rabbit hole? Georgie’s husband is a caricature rather than a fully dimensional human being but then he’s drawn with humour so it was easy to accept his characterization. And this characterization is matched by Georgie’s lurid affair that seems ripped from the pages of a tawdry romance novel. We Are All Made of Glue covers a lot of serious issues, but the author’s light touch and quirky world view make this a fun read. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Lewycka Marina

Honeymoon: Patrick Modiano

“When was the turning point in my life, after which summers suddenly seemed to me to be different from the ones I had known up to then?”

In Patrick Modiano’s haunting novel Honeymoon, Jean, a documentary film maker checks into a hotel in Milan. He’s in the bar when he learns that another guest, a woman, committed suicide in her room 2 days earlier. There’s a certain curiosity of course–especially when he learns that she was attractive, French and drank the same drink as him. Later, thanks to a short obituary in the paper, Jean discovers that he knew this woman. Her name was Ingrid Rigaud and Jean met the Rigauds 6 years previously. It was one of those chance encounters that later takes on more significance with time. Jean, down on his luck, was hitchhiking and the Rigauds gave him a lift, took him to stay at their villa, and finally bought him a train ticket home. Jean was 20 at the time with his whole life ahead of him. He didn’t really understand that the Rigauds were damaged people.

Honeymoon

Move forward eighteen years. Jean, now established in his career and married to Annette who is carrying on, none too subtly, with a friend. His career is stale and seems past its peak:

I wanted to tell them that we were too old for the profession that can only be described by the antiquated name of ‘explorer.’ How much longer would we go on showing our documentary films in the Salle Pleyel or in the provincial cinemas that were becoming fewer all the time? When we were very young we had wanted to follow the example of our elders, but it was already too late for us. There was no more virgin territory to explore. 

Jean, obsessed with what became of the Rigauds, has been secretly working on Ingrid’s biography for years. Jean, a man whose films concentrate on explorers decides to disappear from his own life rather as Ingrid disappeared from hers, and he plans to hole up in Paris and complete Ingrid’s biography. He tells Annette and his friends that he’s leaving for Brazil, but he has no intention of taking the flight; instead he stays in Paris and disappears. Well … tries to.

Honeymoon takes the reader into typical Modiano territory. Memory of course, but since this novel is not as opaque as others I’ve read by this author, Time plays a much bigger role. The years are rolled out; the past and present, but there’s this curious sense of overlapping, circles of  time. Jean is twenty when he meets the Rigauds and they were the age he is when he ‘disappears’ from his life. He ‘misses’ Ingrid in Milan by a mere 2 days. Would her suicide have occurred if Jean had run into her? And what about that other occasion when he ran into a solitary melancholy Ingrid in Paris? Could Jean have said anything or done anything to help? In retrospect, he hadn’t even asked pertinent questions. At one point, Jean remembers his time with the Rigauds:

I saw myself again, twenty years earlier. with Ingrid and Rigaud, in the semi-darkness outside the bungalow. Around us, shouts and burst of laughter similar to those now reaching me from the terrace. I was now about the same age as Ingrid and Rigaud were then, and whereas their attitude had seemed so strange then, I shared it this evening. I remembered what Ingrid had said: “We’ll pretend to be dead.”

As so often with a Modiano novel, a telephone book plays a role. A telephone rings in an empty apartment as we call the past.

I’ve read a number of Modiano novels now and IMO this is his finest. It hit a nerve. A friend committed suicide a decade ago and I often imagine myself stepping somehow through the corridors of time to stop her. In this novel, Modiano creates the sense that the departed are there in the next room. We just have to find a way to pass through the door.

I was somewhere else, in another summer, more and more distant, and with time the light of that summer underwent a curious transformation; far from fading, like old over-exposed photos, the contrasts of sun and shade became so accentuated that I recall everything in black and white. 

(I went back and rechecked the gaps between various meetings and they seem correct but the years slide across each other and I may have made an error)

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Modiano Patrick

Getting It Right: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“People usually find what they seek, if they really search for it.”

For some reason, I had the impression that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s novel, Getting It Right, was the story of a young man losing his virginity–the fodder of those teen movies which so many people seem to find hilarious. Anyway, it was that description that put me off of reading this book, and that’s a shame as this is a wonderfully funny tale–different from other novels I’ve read (and enjoyed) from this author to date. In fact, I think this is my favourite Howard novel so far.

getting it right

Gavin Lamb, is a 31-year-old London hairdresser who lives with his mum and dad. Right away we have an impression of Gavin, right? Even his name gives the reader a hint that Gavin is a gentle soul, and then he’s still living at home. What’s going on with that?

Gavin is a good son, a loyal friend, an excellent hairdresser and takes his job very seriously. Beyond work he has an active intellectual life; he’s a classical music aficionado, loves poetry and literature and also attends the opera.

Now let’s list what’s wrong with Gavin’s life:

He has mentally constructed something  he calls the ‘Ladder of Fear,’ and women are right at the top. He’s painfully shy with women, so there’s no girlfriend, but there are fantasies. Not graphic and mostly dreamlike. 

Gavin works for Mr. Achilles, the toupee-wearing, tight-fisted salon owner who sits reading the racing paper all day long and only breaks concentration on his bets to criticize his employees and deliver lectures.

Gavin’s married sister, Marge, is determined that Gavin should marry, and his sister’s “undoubted favourite” was Muriel. a woman that Gavin isn’t attracted to at all. Still that doesn’t put Muriel off and she pursues Gavin, even showing up at the salon, much to Gavin’s embarrassment, to get her hair done. In her mind, she’s already planted her flag and staked a claim.

Plus there’s Gavin’s weird home life. Gavin’s mother is a neurotic woman full of bizarre theories; she sits making outfits for a teddy bear no one wants, and produces meals which are a “recurring hazard.”  Once when Gavin and his resilient father “mildly” say that a curry was too hot, her reaction was extreme:

She “burst into wracking sobs and a tirade that beginning with their ingratitude had extended to the futility of her whole life. It had taken hours to calm her, and even then she had not been really appeased and they had been treated to tinned food served with sardonic sniffs and nasty remarks made to Providence for nearly a week.” 

One particularly revolting meal involves a chicken mole for which Gavin’s mother substitutes “that nasty unsweetened chocolate” with Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Gavin and his father work in cahoots to bolster domestic tranquility with appeasement:

She was always one jump ahead, Gavin thought, no sooner had they laid one anxiety to rest than she pounced upon another and they lumbered after her shovelling sand into all the ground she cut beneath their feet: she called it ‘Where would be you be without me?’ and he [dad] called it ‘understanding women’. It gave them both a sense of domestic strategy, Gavin thought. 

So these are the things troubling Gavin when the novel begins. Gavin’s one friend, masseur Harry lives with the volatile, vain, violent Winthrop who smashes china and delivers black eyes from flying ashtrays. Harry, thinks that Gavin may also be gay but that he just hasn’t ‘declared’ himself yet. Harry, deciding to be ‘helpful’ invites Gavin to a party, and while Gavin feels as though he’s “being propelled along what could only turn out to be a sexual cul-de-sac” he attends the party to avoid Muriel. It’s a party that changes Gavin’s life. ..

The characters range from eccentric to downright bonkers. Gavin’s policy of appeasement gets him into deep waters when he meets the anorexic, desperate, needy and totally looney Minerva Munday and her bizarre parents. 

At one point in the novel, a character asks Gavin if he’s noticed that “everyone who gets married” is a bit enclosed. There’s Peter, a hairdresser who works with Gavin, and his wife Hazel. They’ve exploded into a frenzy of DIY home improvement and their dreary one-dimensional lives are driven by Peter’s extreme financial planning for a future that looks stunningly miserable. Then there’s Minerva’s parents who are also totally bonkers. Her mother is an alcoholic and her father is a pompous bore. Their marriage, complete with stately home and a creaky old butler, could very well be a long-running stage play as it seems guaranteed that the same lines are rolled out every night. All the marriages/relationships in the novel are bizarre with each partner acting out the roles and the lines they’ve held for years, both dodging and creating domestic explosions as best they can. 

Finally I have to add that some of the most brilliant parts of this wonderful book are Gavin’s scenes with his clients. Some of the clients are sweet, some are nasty, some are sad and some come in and rant their beliefs at Gavin who puts his mind “in neutral.” There’s too much to add here but one of my favourites is Mrs Wagstaffe and her “irritable dachshund Sherry.” She insists on bringing the dog to the hairdresser and there he sits “poised” in his owner’s lap and fends off Gavin.

“Now then, Sherry, good morning, Mrs Wagstaffe,” he said in that order.

“Isn’t he amazing? He never forgets.”

Since Mrs Wagstaffe came in regularity every three weeks to have her iron-grey bob and fringe trimmed, there seems no earthly reason why Sherry should forget, but as a master of petty grievance he would probably remember if she didn’t come in more than once a year. 

“Let him smell you,” invited Mrs Wagstaffe, but Gavin had been had that way.

I’ve said on this blog numerous times that I prefer nasty characters, but Getting it Right is an exception. Gavin is a nice person: kind, considerate, responsible–a good employee, a good friend, a good son, and while ‘nice’ people can be boring to read about, Gavin proves to be an exception. Gavin is given to deep introspective musing about people and relationships, and he is deeply sensitive (too much so) when it comes to the problems of others. This leads to Gavin believing he’s responsible for situations and people when he isn’t. I enjoyed being in Gavin’s head–although I winced a bit when he started his intellectual education of a workmate.

Highly, highly recommended. 

own a copy/review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Howard Elizabeth Jane