What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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Doctor Thorne: Anthony Trollope

You lawyers never like to give an opinion without money.”

Doctor Thorne, the third novel in the Barsetshire series, follows on the heels on the marvellous, Barchester Towers. While the first two novels in the series focused on the ecclesiastical “aristocracy” of Barsetshire, Doctor Thorne is a complete change of pace. In Barchester Towers, we met the Thornes of Ullathorne, an elderly brother and sister who are unwilling to be dragged into the nineteenth century. The Thornes pride themselves on their breeding, and although the hero of this novel, Doctor Thorne is a “lesser cousin” of the wealthy branch of the family, he is, nonetheless, very proud of his blood. In the first chapter, Trollope gives the background of the Gresham family, and explains how Frank Gresham, a heir with 14,000 pounds a year, married Lady Arabella de Courcy and became seduced by the grandeur of his snooty in-laws. He ploughed money into politics and lost big-time. Then tragedy struck the Gresham nursery repeatedly, which brings Doctor Thorne into the picture as he attends the sickly children.

There’s a back story with Doctor Thorne. Doctor Thorne’s brother, Henry, seduced the beautiful Mary Scatcherd, and she became pregnant. When Roger Scatcherd, a stonemason, with a teensy drinking problem discovers his sister is pregnant, he kills Henry in a drunken rage. Roger goes to prison and Mary gives birth to a girl. A local man offers to marry Mary and whisk her off to America, but only if she will leave her child behind. The doctor offers to raise the child, also named Mary, but he keeps her parentage secret. Roger is told by his sister that the child is dead. Poor Roger’s wife lives in horrendous poverty while her husband is in jail, but later, Doctor Thorne recommends her as a wet nurse for the sickly Gresham heir. So we have connections between The Greshams, the Scatcherds and the Thornes.

So that’s the back plot. Fast forward … Mary has grown up, lives with her uncle Doctor Thorne, and is a frequent companion to the Gresham children at Greshamsbury Hall. Squire Gresham inherited a fortune but managed to lose most of it, and this has resulted in debt gradually built up against the estate. Doctor Thorne, who attends the squire’s wife, Lady Arabella, is in the awkward position of helping the squire broker loans, and these loans are held by … none other than Sir Roger Scatcherd, who is now, post prison, a phenomenally wealthy railway tycoon. Problems arise when Mary and Frank Gresham fall in love. Since the estate is heavily in debt, Lady de Courcy, Frank’s snobbish aunt, declares that Frank “must marry money,” and Lady Arabella leaps eagerly into the scheme. Soon Frank is invited to Courcy Castle to meet Martha Dunstable, “the oil of Lebanon” heiress, a woman who is considerably older than Frank. Snobbery and pride are rife in these pages: it’s perfectly acceptable to marry a person of ‘low birth’ as long as here’s a high bank balance in view. So it’s acceptable for the nauseating Mr Moffat to marry Lady Augusta Gresham, but Frank must not cast his eyes towards Mary. Frank isn’t much of a hero. He chases too many women to carry much weight as a earnest lover.

Trollope asserts that Doctor Thorne is the hero of this story, and he is indeed. While this is essentially a love story between Mary Thorne, Doctor Thorne’s niece and Frank Gresham, the focus here is on the actions of Doctor Thorne, a man of principle. Mary and Frank, must, according to his mother and aunt, be kept apart, and Mary bears the burden of blame–and she doesn’t deserve it.

At several points in the novel, Doctor Thorne makes moral choices, and he does this regardless of other incentives. There is some humour here in the rivalry between the local doctors. Doctor Thorne is disapproved of by other members of his profession as he is also an apothecary, and this ‘taints’ him with the stain of trade rather than a profession. Thorne is not well-off at all, and although his fees are much lower than those of Dr. Fillgrave, nonetheless, Thorne is seen as:

always thinking of his money, like an apothecary. […] A physician should take his fee without letting the left hand know what his right hand was doing; it should be taken without a thought, without a look, without a move of the facial muscles; the true physician should hardly be aware that the last friendly grasp of the hand had been made more precious by the touch of gold. Whereas that fellow Thorne would lug out half a crown from his breeches pocket and give it in change for a ten-shilling piece. And then it was clear that this man had no appreciation of the dignity of a learned profession.

In spite of the fact that the plot forms around a love story (and a rather drippy one at that) I enjoyed this tale a great deal. IMO, it does not match the quality of Barchester Towers, but there are some great characters and many wonderful scenes: the riotous elections, the snobby De Courcy family and their dreary, pretentious ‘castle,’ the larger-than-life Roger Scatcherd (“When money’s been made, the next thing is to spend it. Now the man who makes it has not the heart to do that.”), Louis the drunkard Scatcherd son and heir, Joe, Louis Scatcherd’s dreadful valet who meets his comeuppance at the end of a rolling pin, and the hilarious dinner party scene at Greshamsbury in which Louis Scatcherd gets drunk. Trollope recreates this robust period and shows the reader how industrialization changed not only the face of commerce, but also the ‘gentry.’ Trade is marrying into the landed gentry: Mr. Moffat, the son of a tailor is considered a good match for Lady Augusta Gresham, Martha Dunstable’s wealth from the ‘Oil of Lebanon’ guarantees she will be welcomed in the ‘best’ homes, and then there’s Louis Scatcherd… whose money was made by his railway building tycoon father murderer/baronet. Yet… with all these inroads of the trade classes into the gentry, they are still expected to behave, and Louis Scatcherd’s dinner invitation to Greshamsbury is ill-conceived and therefore great entertainment.

While there’s a lot drama and various romantic relationships, the book is also a character study of Doctor Thorne, a man “who had within him an inner, stubborn, self-admiring pride, which made him believe himself to be better and higher than those around him.” While this sounds unpleasant, this pride mainly manifests itself in setting a certain standard of behaviour and sticking to it. In Trollope’s autobiography, he said this was “the most popular book that I have written.” The love affair between Mary and Frank goes on a bit too long and with many bumps along the way. Trollope presents a rather rosy, generous view of human nature, but that’s part of Trollope’s great, enduring charm.

How frequent it is that men on their road to ruin feel elation such as this! A man signs away a moiety of his substance; nay, that were nothing; but a moiety of the substance of his children; he puts pen to the paper that ruins him and them; but in doing so he frees himself from a score of immediate little pestering, stinging troubles: and therefore, feels as though fortune had been almost kind to him.

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Under the Sun: Lottie Moggach

This cautionary tale, set in the British ex-pat community in Spain 2008/9, follows the failed dreams of graphic designer, Anna. Anna’s London career was just taking off when she met dickhead artist Michael. But Michael “declared he’d had enough of London,” and suggests a move to Spain. Anna is initially reluctant, but she flies out, finds a finca, and buys it. Naturally she has to sell her flat, but Michael can’t sell his as it turns out his “mum’s company” owns it. So Anna plonks all of HER money, and later an inheritance, into this money-pit finca.

When the novel opens, Anna and Michael are living in the finca and entertaining two snotty houseguests, old chums of Michael’s from his Oxford uni days. The visit serves to illustrate to Anna just how she and Michael have grown apart.

As Anna’s savings were being converted into septic tanks and concrete underlay and eyelet curtains, his feelings towards her had changed. There were no huge rows, nothing to grasp onto; but his disdain could be felt like a drop in temperature.

Poor Anna, who didn’t realise that the relationship had an expiration date, wakes up one morning and finds a note from Michael telling her he’s back off to London and where to find the car in the airport’s long-term parking. Charming. Anna isn’t doing well after the break-up. For one thing, she’s been dumped, but she’s been dumped after jettisoning her career, and ploughing all her savings into a remote money pit in Spain. To top if off, the financial crisis means she can’t sell; she’s stuck–along with an entire desperate ex-pat community who see their dream lives being flushed down the toilet as the bottom falls out of the real estate market. It’s probably no wonder that Anna turns to drink….

2009 finds Anna running a bar, but it’s more that’s she’s ‘minding’ a bar as there’s no real tourism, and members of the British ex-pat community are skint. So when a man appears and offers to rent Anna’s finca for 600 Euros a month, she jumps at it, no questions asked. …

Under the Sun shows the inherent unhealthiness of the British ex-pat community. They mingle only with each other, don’t speak the lingo, and don’t like the locals (a mutual feeling). The entire area is overrun with illegal African immigrants who are smuggled in and then harnessed into servitude through debt to their smugglers. The desperation of the British ex pats, who feel that the Africans don’t belong, rises from them like a bad smell. The ex-pats juggle throwing more money into these properties to attract buyers in this competitive market against … why bother? But then who has extra money to spend? They collectively, eagerly, anticipate someone coming along to buy their Spanish properties so that they can escape.

She hadn’t cleaned up since the last time she had customers in, three days before Christmas, when the expats had gathered to watch the Spanish national lottery on TV. They’d all entered as a group, with a single ticket, and expectations were high. This, they were sure, would be the thing that saved them, that would wipe out the problem of their houses being worthless and the effects of the rotten euro on their pensions.

In their wake, ex-pats leave behind their abandoned, houses, animals and possessions. Those who remain, mostly over 50, have car boot sales, and even while desperate to sell their homes, they maintain the fiction that they ‘are living the life’ and to talk about wanting to return to the UK is treason. Under the Sun explores the inherent unhealthiness within the insular community. The ex-pats have no idea what is going on under their noses. They have no clue about local politics. They have no clue how the locals dislike them. Wrapped in their own warped little world, they somehow think they have brought the UK with them, and while they have imported their culture, that’s about the extent of it. Anna, who is in a muddled affair, doesn’t grasp the delicacy of her position. This is a very entertaining read. IMO Anna’s behaviour was ill-advised and in real life, she probably would have ended up dead. But the value here is in the remarkable sense of atmosphere–all these dreams turned to the worst possible outcome.

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Days in the Caucasus: Banine

“‘The champagne flowed freely’ to use that classic phrase. Thus our world marched towards disaster.

Memoirs potentially offer valuable eye-witness accounts, and, unlike non-fiction, are unmoored from facts, figures and extensive research, yet with that ‘insider’s view,’ they can illuminate great moments in history. Banine’s Days in the Caucasus is a great example of the niche-memoir. Born in 1905, into a large oil merchant’s family made rich when a peasant grandfather struck oil, Banine (real name Ummulbanu Asadullayeva) was caught between two worlds. On one hand, her wealthy father fostered western ways (a devoted Baltic German governess, Miss Anna), but she was also a member of a Muslim family, and her relatives expected Banine and her sisters to conform to Muslim ways. It didn’t help that Banine’s grandmother, “a fat, authoritarian woman,” had been abandoned by her husband for a Russian, so that from that time on, all things Russian were despised. When the memoir opens, life is good for Banine. Her father is a widower who places the care of his many daughters into the gentle, loving hands of Miss Anna. The politics on the horizon are strictly family politics–and those focus on marriage. Banine spends a great deal of the memoir describing her early life; it’s certainly colorful, but in spite of growing up in luxury, there’s always the distant threat of marriage.

Banine’s childhood includes the ethic troubles between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Banine and her two nasty male cousins “played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others.” While the children ‘play’ at torture and disembowelment, the 2 males cousins, without Banine’s knowledge, ‘play’ “rape the Armenian.” The malicious tendencies of these two dreadful cousins appear later in the memoir.

By 1914, the Caucasus becomes “full of Russians,” and this brings changes to Banine’s family. At first, the biggest ‘threat’ is Russian men carrying off Muslim girls, and Banine’s older sister turns those fears into reality. But suddenly, after the Tsar abdicated, the Armenian population “managed to install a military dictatorship,” and Banine’s family was forced to flee. There was a brief period in which the family managed to move back to Baku, but ironically just as her grandfather died leaving Banine a “a multimillionaire at the age of thirteen,” the Red Army soldiers arrived. So much for the inheritance. ….

After her father’s arrest, Banine retreats to her grandmother’s countryside house where she is reunited with her libidinous cousin, Gulnar. Their way of life there is upended with arrival of the “Commission for the Creation of Holiday Camps,” and it’s declared that the grandmother’s house will be divided for the use of “revolutionary veterans, all worn out to a greater or lesser extent by their exploits.” Gulnar, who can’t wait to get married so that she can start taking lovers, is delighted by the male Russians, and soon Banine and Gulnar are eagerly indoctrinated, wear Lenin badges, and join a commission to inventory the contents of neighbouring villas.

In spite of the gravity of events, the memoir is light. I’m used to piles of corpses when reading from this period, but Banine’s privilege, youth, location, and family connections must have shielded her from the atrocities of the times. We hear nothing of the events taking place in Russia or Ukraine. The major problem here is Banine’s desire to run off with a Russian vs her sense of duty towards her father. The intimate look at the family dynamics offers a completely different view of this period.

Impartial observation seems to show that in families where interests diverge, hatred between relatives is constant and widespread; where interests are not divisive, affection sometimes exists. But most often there is only indifference mingled occasionally with a sense of duty towards the clan, which one could, with a little imagination, take to be love. To be honest, indifference appears to me to be the natural state between members of a family. When one thinks of the number of people one must know in order to find some friends, to discover an affinity in the small group that is family would be something of a surprise.

Banine’s relatives wish to marry her off to a cousin as she’s this great heiress, and even when her fortune is lost, one uncle can’t let go.

That memories were all the heiress had left of her fortune did not deter him: the memories were dazzling enough especially since he considered Bolshevism an accident of fate and our impoverishment a temporary phenomenon.

While there are many memorable people here. Banine’s cousin, Gulnar stands out. At one point, Banine, naively tells Gulnar, that life isn’t so bad:

“To be honest, life isn’t too terrible in Baku or Tiflis.”

“That’s because they haven’t had time to deal with us yet.”

Review copy

Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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Sideswipe: Charles Willeford (1987)

“Being without a wife gave a man a whole different way of looking at the world. And it looked even better now that he had a car to drive again. If it came to a toss-up, car or wife, most men, or at least the ones Stanley had known in Detroit, would certainly give up their wives.”

Sideswipe, Charles Willeford’s third Hoke Moseley novel, finds the Miami homicide detective under incredible strain, personally and professionally, and he decides to quit the force. While Hoke’s pals on the force, his very pregnant partner, Sanchez, and Bill Henderson, cover for Hoke and file for medical leave, Hoke decides he wants a simpler life. Yeah, right. He accepts a job managing his father’s apartment complex in Riviera Beach, and while Hoke initially imagines he’ll be on the beach and little troubled by tenants, the job soon turns into one annoying interruption after another.

But Hoke’s life is in the background, and in the foreground is a violent crime, still in the embryonic stages. …

Retired Michigan auto worker Stan and his wife Betsey moved to Florida a few years earlier. Betsey isn’t thrilled with the move and wants to be back in Michigan. There’s not exactly war afoot between them, but Betsey doesn’t like Stan under her feet all day, and the two of them lead separate lives. A terrible misunderstanding involving a neighbourhood child leads to Stan spending the night in jail, and here he meets a glib, smooth-talking career criminal, Troy Louden. Troy gives Stan a few tips, and in exchange, Stan promises to do a ‘favour’ for Louden. When Betsey departs for Michigan, Stan, feeling alone and betrayed by his wife and family, allows Troy to stay. One favour leads to another until Stan becomes an accomplice in a vicious armed robbery. Willeford’s brilliantly conceived creation of the psychopath, Troy Louden, adds a layer of dark humour. Troy is vicious, sick, and twisted–a shitshow about to happen. Using a handful of characters, Willeford shows us how Troy successfully dominates his pathetic criminal crew–a painter, a stripper and finally Stan. Troy Louden isn’t educated, and arguably isn’t that intelligent, but he possesses the psychopath’s understanding of how to manipulate:

I’m a professional criminal, what the shrinks call a criminal psychopath. What it means is, I know the difference between right and wrong and all that, but I don’t give a shit. That’s the official version. Most men in prison are psychopaths like me, and there are times when we don’t give a shit when we act impulsively. Ordinarily, I’m not impulsive because I always think a job out very carefully before I get around to doing it.

While the artist and disfigured stripper (wonder how that happened??) recruited by Troy comply with his demands out of fear, Troy seduces Stan into criminal activity:

I’m a criminal psychopath so I’m not responsible for the things I do.

Does that mean you’re crazy? You don’t look crazy, Troy–I mean John.”

Robert.”

“Robert. Of course, pulling that pistol on that man–“

Let me finish, Pop. I don’t have time to into all the ramifications of my personality, it’s too complex. I’ve been tested again and again, and it always comes out the same: Psychopath. And because I’m a criminal, I’m also a criminal psychopath. You follow me?

Yeah I think so, but if you aren’t crazy, what are you?”

It’s what I told you already. I know the difference between good and bad, but it makes no difference to me. If I see the right thing to do and want to do it, I do it. If I see the wrong thing and want to do it, I do that, too.

You mean you can’t help yourself then?”

Certainly I can. I’ll put it another way. I can help myself, but I don’t give a damn.”

And because you don’t give a damn, you’re a criminal psychopath, is that it?”

You’ve got it.

But why?”–Stanley made a sweeping movement with his arm–“don’t you give a damn?”

Because I’m a criminal pyschopath. Maybe when they give you some tests, you might could be one too.

Sideswipe is a marvellous entry in the Hoke Moseley saga. One of my favourite literary (or film) themes is how someone can lead a perfectly respectable life, never taking a step wrong, but then fate intervenes and suddenly that person, that life, is derailed. And it’s at that point, things always get interesting…. So derailment or sideswipe. … Stan’s moral seduction by Troy Louden is a perfect example of how one staid, retired, older man, once pried loose from his respectable life, spirals into an unfamiliar world. We follow Stan’s increasing, initially naïve involvement with Louden and also Hoke’s attempts to live a civilian life away from Miami Homicide. The violence, when it comes, is explosive and shocking. As I read this, there was one point when I asked myself if I found Stan’s actions credible. My initial response was ‘no,’ but Willeford had very carefully seeded a quirk in Stan’s behaviour which gives a glimpse at a pathological aspect of Stan’s personality. On the surface, we have this highly responsible citizen, an older man who has never put one foot wrong in his life, and yet he meets a career criminal and is so seduced by this man’s rhetoric that he abandons his way of life and goes to the dark side. So in the final assessment, yes, I could accept Stan’s choices and bad judgment–given his wife and son’s rejection, and that nasty quirk.

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Possession: Celia Fremlin (1969)

“Sensitive people always make me see red. They just mean that want special privileges, emotionally speaking.”

In Celia Fremlin’s engaging, and frequently witty, mystery novel, Possession, 19-year-old Sarah Erskine has a history of loser boyfriends. Is she one of those forgiving types or does she just have poor judgement? Well the jury is out on that question, but when Sarah announces that she’s marrying her latest, Mervyn, a 31-year-old accountant who lives with his mummy, Sarah’s mother, Clare, the novel’s spiky narrator, has mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s so much older than Sarah. Then there’s that red flag: still living with mummy… but he does have a decent job and seems the reliable type. This is a clever, multi-layered novel which examines parenthood, the difficulties of remaining clear-eyed about one’s children, and the responsibility parents have towards children. At what point should parents ‘let go’ of their children and watch them make their mistakes? What the hell do you do when a precious child decides to marry a weirdo? Possession has a wonderful gossipy quality, and this is firmly established on page one when Clare’s best friend, Peggy, “always ready to enjoy a crisis,” warns that Mervyn’s possessive mother is “ghastly.”

“You’ve spoilt it all for me,” I complained childishly. “Why did you have to tell me? It’s nothing to do with Sarah, either. She doesn’t have to like her mother-in-law, does she? Nobody does! It’s unnatural.”

Clare is determined to accept Mervyn and overlook any ‘difficulties’ in the match, and while she has major misgivings about Meryvn (still sight unseen at this point) she is determined not to let these doubts surface in front of her younger daughter, Janice, friends and neighbours. Not a brilliant idea then when Clare organizes a party, inviting friends neighbours and relatives, to meet Mervyn. But Mervyn doesn’t show as it “meant leaving his mother on her own.” When Sarah finally brings Mervyn home to meet the family, Clare sets eyes on him and feels “dismay.” But she’s determined to put a brave face on it and focuses on the positive–but apart from the premature balding and not being very attractive, it’s Mervyn’s manner with Sarah that is disconcerting. He infantilizes and patronizes Sarah, and she responds with nauseating “faked idiocy.” Their relationship dynamic makes the age gap stand out in neon.

I began to feel uneasy. Was this to be the pattern of their married life: she acting the part of the silly little girl in order to feed his masculine vanity? Having–perhaps deliberately–chosen a woman so much younger than himself, was he now determined to make sure that she was also sillier?

While Clare has reservations about the match, her feelings become much more confused after meeting Mervyn’s mother:

Our eyes met: we weighed each other up, Mrs. Redmayne and I, like two generals on the eve of battle. On my side were young love, common sense, and popular psychology; on hers I could see nothing but the dank and cloying weapon of emotional blackmail. I thought that there could be only one outcome: I imagined, then, that popular psychology was always bound to win. I did not know, then, how strange would be the terrain over which we would be fighting; how I would soon be stumbling, blind and mapless, into a lurid, unimaginable landscape within which she would be dreadfully horribly, at home.

The plot thickens when Clare learns some ugly things about Mervyn’s past.

Clare is first and foremost a parent, and author Celia Fremlin places Clare firmly in the midst of other parents–all of them with problem children. Some parents brag how great their kids are, but in this book, the focus is the opposite. Clare’s friend Liz moans about her kids:

Not that it matters, when one of them never looks in the mirror at all, and the other spends the whole of her ample allowance on making herself look like the cheapest little tart that ever crawled out from under a hair dryer.

There’s talk of arranged marriages as a less-worrisome alternative to free choice, and then dowries enter the discussion with one mother concluding “there’s no one, now, whom you could pay to take your daughter away at eighteen.” One mother, Liz, had 3 brilliant sons, and she used to lord it over the other women in the neighborhood. Oh be careful who you step on on the way up–you’ll pass them on the way back down, and this is true of Liz whose sons all dropped out of school, all moved back home dragging along a caravan of itinerant girlfriends. Liz and her husband have been shoved into a corner of their own home as their unreasonable sons take over; she wistfully says “But when we used to swear we’d never interfere with the boys’ leading their own lives, it never occurred to us that they’d be leading them here!There’s a marvellous mischievous sense of humour here residing in “the Failed Parents’ Association.”

I knew why, of course, I was being welcomed back into the Failed Parents’ Association, in which poor Liz had been languishing for so long. I knew she would be delighted to have me; we are fond of each other, Liz and I, and she longs to tell me about her problems; but how could she while Sarah and Janice were doing so well and causing no trouble? But now, with Sarah newly jilted and Janice a black thundercloud of mysterious teen-age obstructiveness, she could seize her chance and tell me all about Giles, Pete and Tony. The borrowed money, the chucked jobs, the never-ending breakfast time that goes on in her kitchen like a Mad Hatter’s tea party throughout the daylight hours–all this could now be revealed without reserve; it could fairly be swapped for Sarah’s humiliation and Janice’s bad temper. I saw her point. Indeed–and this is the final, unmistakable sign of having joined the club once more– I felt the same myself. I longed for the comfort of her troubles just as she longed for the comfort of mine; within minutes, it was arranged that I should come straight around.

Celia Fremlin’s tremendous talent lies in her ability to take a mundane situation, a daughter bringing home a boyfriend the mother doesn’t like, and infuse it with horror. The very pedestrian nature of the Erskines’ life make the ‘Mervyn situation’ plausible. No doubt most of us have dealt with the boyfriend/girlfriend of various family members and we have to sit there smiling politely when we really just want to throttle them and throw them out the door. Children grow old enough to make their own choices: good or bad. How much should we intervene? And if we don’t intervene, we live with the shared consequences until we decide otherwise.

And yet it has a fascination of its own, this underworld of parenthood. You can confess to fellow members disasters which you would never dream of admitting to the outside world, and after a while you begin almost to feel, like a bizarre kind of elite with your own secrets, you own special rites and customs. You become adept at recognizing potential fellow sufferers in all sorts of places: in the street, at school medical inspections, at meetings of the parent-teacher association. There is a sort of brightness about these doomed people, an unnatural eagerness to talk about your children instead of their own. The apparently innocent questions they put to you vibrate like an electric drill as they probe desperately to find out if you, too, have Backward Reader or a delinquent fifth-former.

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Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham (1946)

“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.”

William Lindsay Gresham’s powerful, bleak, fate-laden, noir novel Nightmare Alley follows the rise and fall of Stanton Carlisle, a man whose talents take him to the top of his game, but whose character leads him to destruction. When the novel opens, Stanton is a young carny worker. He works as an assistant to the “seeress” Madame Zeena, and while his questions may seem to reveal naivete, in reality Stanton is absorbing his environment, learning the tricks of the trade, grasping the complexities of human nature. At the carnival, there are some talented performers, others that fill a spot, but perhaps the most perplexing ‘act’ is ‘the Geek,’ in a ten-cent “attraction.” The Geek is touted as a man/beast, and to demo this, he crawls around in a pit and bites the heads off of live chickens. Stanley can’t imagine anyone wanting to be a geek, and wonders how the act is created. The owner, who also is ‘the talker’ (announcing the acts to the gullible marks) explains how geeks are ‘made.’

You pick up a guy and he ain’t a geek-he’s a drunk. A bottle-a-day booze fool. You tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.‘ You tell him, ‘You don’t have to do nothing. You’ll have a razor blade in your hand and when you pick up the chicken you give it a nick with the blade and then make like you’re drinking the blood. Same with rats. The marks don’t know no different.‘”

Hoately ran his eye up and down the midway, sizing up the crowd. He turned back to Stan. “Well, he does this for a week and you see to it that he gets his bottle regular and a place to sleep it off in. He likes this fine. This is what he thinks is heaven. So after a week you say to him like this, you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. You’re through.’ He scares up at this because nothing scares a real rummy like the chance of a dry spell and getting the horrors. He says, ‘What’s the matter? Ain’t I doing okay?’ So you say, ‘Like crap you’re doing okay. You can’t draw no crowd faking a geek. Turn in your outfit. You’re through.’ Then you walk away. He comes following you, begging for another chance and you say, ‘Okay. But after tonight out you go.’ But you give him his bottle.

That night you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.

This early powerful scene is emblematic of the entire plot: degradation is a process in a world in which nothing is what it seems; discover a person’s weakness and you have power over them.

“Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. Works with question-answering act. Think out things most people are afraid of and hit them right where they live. Health, Wealth, Love. And Travel and Success. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature. They’re afraid. …”

Stan looked up past the pages to the garish wallpaper and through it into the world. The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they’re afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key. The key!

Madam Zeena, is a good-hearted married woman, who sticks by her drunken sot of a husband, but she’s happy to have young Stanton on the side. The problem is that Stanton, true to his nature, isn’t happy with these occasional trysts. He wants Zeena all the time, and so a maneuver by Stanton leaves Zeena a widow. This is the first awful act that Stanton commits, and while he’s afraid his actions will be discovered, he justifies himself. Yet now that Stanton has Zeena full-time, he casts his eyes on younger prey, and moves on young, malleable Molly, a sort of orphaned carny mascot whose freak show act as Electric Girl involves her, barely dressed, receiving electric shocks.

Stanton’s character, horribly flawed and twisted, is revealed throughout the novel in his subsequent actions and decisions. He steals, he manipulates, he defrauds, and he murders. He’s a terrible person, but yet not wholly unsympathetic. (I counted the decent things he did.) He’s damaged and haunted by his childhood and plagued by nightmares. Life is a Nightmare Alley, we are all pursued by our demons. Ever since he was a kid Stan had a recurring nightmare:

He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

The novel follows Stanton on his path to success. From the carnival’s sideshows, he moves onto mentalism, and then he morphs into the Reverend Carlisle–seeped in spiritualism, he’s ready to conjure up the dead for the grieving wealthy. But Stanton, never satisfied, is restless for more. Stan’s demons both drive him and haunt him throughout the book, yet when he confronts them, he’s so traumatized by the experience, he, in his weakness, seeks out the professional help of succubus Dr. Lilith Ritter.

The 1930s world of Nightmare Alley is a ugly place: as the title implies, it’s a nightmarish place–beginning with the carnival that exploits its employees and its audience, but the real nightmare here is life and human nature. With most of the characters in the book, human flaws gnaw from within. Stanton brings on his own downfall, and it’s inevitable.

The novel, structured in chapters which are represented by Tarot cards, was slow to start. This novel was banned and its sexual frankness and ugly view of the world is shocking for its times. Unforgettable.

“The rest of them drink something else: they drink promises. They drink hope. And I’ve got it to hand them.”

After reading this, I listened to the audiobook version which is marvelously read by Peter Berkrot

Own a copy/review copy

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Barchester Towers: Anthony Trollope

There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel.

Time for a revisit to Barchester Towers. I’m glad I re-read this after recently re-reading The Warden. Many of the characters appear in both novels, so reading Barchester Towers reunites us with those in The Warden. But also in reading the two novels close together, I was struck by issues that appear in both books. The plot of The Warden focuses on the humble, meek Reverend Septimus Harding, a man in his 60s, a widower and father of two daughters, who has the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. Harding lives in a lovely home on the premises of the hospital and receives 800 pounds to boot. All the trouble starts when local reformer, Dr. Bold, takes issue with the amount of Harding’s wages. So the main dilemma in the novel is what is going to happen to Harding and the wardenship. Another issue is whether Harding’s daughter, Eleanor, will marry Bold or not.

In Barchester Towers, the old Bishop dies and although Archdeacon Grantly, the Bishop’s son, and also Harding’s son-in-law expects to be made the new Bishop, that position falls elsewhere. So there’s a new Bishop in Barchester–namely Bishop Proudie, but… wait… is he indeed the Bishop? The Bishop’s fearsome wife, Mrs. Proudie controls the reins and then there’s Mr. Slope, a chaplain who has ingratiated himself into Mrs. Proudie’s good graces but whose ambition dictates that he will run the diocese. Barchester Towers, then is a novel which explores the struggle for ecclesiastical power in the town. Barchester Towers is incredibly funny. Some of the humour resides in the fact that while religion is the profession of many of the main characters, religion has very little to do with what takes place. Try ambition, pride, class and status. And even add a bit of lust.

The book opens with Archdeacon Grantly at his father’s bedside calculating his “chances” of securing the Bishopric, knowing that much depends, for political reasons, on the timing of his father’s death. The Archdeacon was one of the more unappealing characters (IMO) in The Warden, but in Barchester Towers, he seems rather defanged, or at least his more unpleasant characteristics are swamped by Mr. Slope’s queasy obsequiousness. Archdeacon Grantly is obviously bruised when the Bishopric falls to another, but an initial social visit to the Bishop’s palace turns into a verbal skirmish. The vulgar, bossy, “despotic” Mrs. Proudie, with the insufferable Slope as her henchman, is determined to put the Archdeacon into his place and let him know that while her husband may have the title of ‘Bishop,” it is she who rules the palace.

As for the Bishop, he has learned for the sake of peace and sanity, to submit to his wife’s tyranny: “all hope of defending himself has long passed from him.” Mrs Proudie is not a particularly intelligent woman, but her lack of intelligence is compensated by her fierce bossiness and complete absence of manners. So while the Bishop could outmaneuver her in the brains department, he has learned that independence comes with a price he’s not willing to pay. Mr. Slope appears to be Mrs. Proudie’s creature, but he sees his allegiance to her as a stepping stone. His allegiance is temporary and serves only to gain the position of chaplain. Now in Barchester, Slope intends to wield the power. He intends to liberate the Bishop from the thrall of his wife (and place the Bishop under his thrall), but the Bishop must choose domestic comfort over marital liberation. And Mrs. Proudie plays to win.

Mr. Slope is tall and not ill-made. His feet and hands are large as has ever been the case with all his family, but he has a broad chest and wide shoulders to carry off these excrescences, and on the whole his figure is good. His countenance however is not specially prepossessing. His hair is lank and of a dull, pale reddish hue. It is always formed into three straight lumpy masses, each brushed with admirable precision and cemented with much grease, two of them adhere closely to the side of his face and the other lies at right angles above them. He wears no whiskers and is always punctiliously shaven. His face is nearly the same colour as his hair though perhaps a little redder. It is not unlike beef. Beef, however one would say, of a bad quality. His forehead is captious and high but square and heavy and unpleasantly shining.

The whole question of who has the power, Mrs. Proudie or Mr. Slope, erupts over who will get the wardenship of Hiram’s Hospital. So once again who will run Hiram’s hospital is a central plot dilemma.

Trollope seems to have great fun with this novel, and it’s when I read a book such as this, I realise how fantastic it must be to create this hodge-podge of characters, throw them together and then describe what happens. The lines between the characters (the Slope party, the Grantly party) are sharply drawn, and the battle scene seems set, but then Trollope throws the Stanhope family into the fun. Dr. Vesey Stanhope is the prebendary of Barchester cathedral but he’s been living, with his awful family, in Italy for the last 12 years. Mr. Slope advises the Bishop to recall Stanhope and so the Stanhopes reluctantly arrive in Barchester.

Ahhh.. the Stanhopes. What a perfectly dreadful family; yet they are not completely dreadful; some of them have a sort of malicious, toxic, seductive and destructive charm. They move to Barchester and their exoticism sends its warping tendrils into society. Who will emerge unscathed?

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness but this want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature as to make itself but little noticeable to the world. They were so prone to oblige their neighbors that their neighbours failed to see how indifferent to them was the happiness and wellbeing of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness, provided it were not contagious, would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure. Their conduct to each other was the same.

Bon vivant,” Dr. Stanhope’s main concern in his life is his dinner. His well-dressed wife doesn’t appear before three in the afternoon. They have three children: Charlotte, the eldest daughter manages the household. She is the one who appears ‘normal.’ There’s a wastrel “idle” son, Bertie whose lackadaisical pursuit of various careers (poet, art) is secondary to running up huge debts. The younger daughter is Signora Madeline Vesey Neroni, a very beautiful woman, who ran off to marry some ne’er do well, impoverished Italian with “oily manners.” She returned home after having a child and sustaining some sort of crippling accident. In any other woman, such an injury would be a deficit, and yet she manages to turn this injury into a mystery, and the old injury is a powerful weapon in terms of being the centre of attention. She has reinvented her past, and her penniless husband has become the scion of a noble family while her child is “the last of the Neros.”

Madame Neroni, though forced to give all up all motion on the world, had no intention of giving up the world itself. The beauty of her face was uninjured and that beauty was of a peculiar kind. Her copious rich brown hair was worn in Grecian bandeau around her head, displaying as much as possible of her forehead and cheeks. Her forehead, though rather low, was very beautiful from its perfect contour and pearly whiteness. Her eyes were long and large and marvelously bright. Might I venture to say bright as Lucifer’s. I should perhaps express the depth of their brilliancy. They were dreadful eyes to look at such as would deter any man of quiet mind and easy spirit from attempting a passage of arms from such foes. There was talent in them and the fire of passion and the play of wit but there was no love. Cruelty was there instead and courage. A desire of masterhood, cunning and a wish for mischief and yet as eyes they were very beautiful.

Madeline Neroni, now she’s shackled by marriage, and hampered by physical limitations, is left with one hobby: to enchant, seduce and torture her many male admirers. Mr. Slope, whose dominant characteristic is ambition, makes himself a complete idiot for Madeline, and she, like a spider, draws him in, leads him to make overtures and then, when the opportunity is ripe, twists the knife into Slope, delivering the coup de grace But, hell, he deserves it. But since this is Trollope, even the villains have some degree of humanity. While Madeline Neroni, that latter-day Cleopatra, and the nasty Slope steal the show here, I cannot forget the Thornes, siblings violently set in their ways or the desperate Quiverfuls, a large needy family whose poverty is in contrast to the Stanhopes.

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Meet Me at the Morgue: Ross Macdonald (1953)

“The things a man does are always connected in some way.”

In Ross Macdonald’s crime novel, Meet Me at the Morgue, parole officer Howard Cross runs into Fred Miner, a parolee. It’s an insignificant meeting and yet those few moments have serious ramifications. Miner is looking for Cross’s partner, but he’s gone from the office. Since Miner’s business isn’t with Cross, they exchange only a few words, but during that minute or so, Cross notices that Miner is accompanied by his employer’s small son, Jamie. Within hours, it appears that Miner has kidnapped the boy and is demanding a $50,000 ransom. It seems odd that Miner, in the midst of a kidnapping, would take a detour to visit his parole officer–especially in the company of the kidnapped boy.

In Meet Me at the Morgue, Cross assumes a PI role as he investigates the kidnapping. The kidnapped boy is the son of the very wealthy Abel Johnson, and his attractive oh-so-much-younger wife. The plot thickens when it turns out that Miner, a man of otherwise impeccable background, is on parole for vehicular manslaughter, but Miner doesn’t remember a thing about the accident as he was drunk at the time. Another curious fact, the dead man had no ID, and no one stepped forward to claim the body. Add yet another curious fact, Miner’s lawyer, Siefel is also the lawyer for the Johnson family. And apparently Cross’s assistant Ann is dating, Seifel, Johnson’s lawyer… well she’s trying to date him. But mummy gets getting in the way:

Her eyes were on her son like wet, black leeches. “It’s mean and selfish of you to keep me waiting like this. I didn’t devote my life to you in order to be cast aside whenever you feel the whim.”

“I’m sorry mother.”

“Indeed you should be sorry, you forced me to take a public bus down here.”

You could have taken a taxi.”

I can’t afford to pay taxi fare every day. You never think of my sacrifices, of course, but it has cost me an enormous amount of money to set you up in practice with Mr. Sturdyvant.”

“I realise that.” He looked at me miserably. His body seemed to have shrunk and taken on an adolescent awkwardness. “Can we drop the subject for now mother? I’m ready to drive you anywhere you’d like.”

She said with icy boredom, “finish your business, Lawrence. I’m in no hurry. In fact I’ve lost any interest I had in the party. I believe I feel a headache coming on.”

Please mother, don’t be like that.” He fumbled awkwardly reaching for her hand she turned away from him in a movement of disdainful coquetry and walked to the window on high sharp heels. I stepped into the elevator. The last I saw of his face it looked bruised and shapeless as if her Cuban heels had been hammering it.

The Johnsons decide to obey the kidnappers’ demands: not tell the police and hand over the money. The situation presents Cross with a moral dilemma. He knows that he should inform the police but he also feels obligated to respect the Johnsons’ wishes, but when a dead man is found with an ice pick sticking out of his neck, Cross brings in the police.

What’s that old saying, ‘all roads lead to Rome.’ The deeper Cross digs, things just don’t add up, and yet the same names keep connecting in bizarre ways. This fate-laden tale is a hellish journey for Cross, and the investigation is peppered with strong characterizations: unhappy wives, a controlling mother, a disappointed father, and an underage girl who has a great figure but not much in the brains department. Ross Macdonald’s (Kenneth Millar) intense descriptive powers add to this excellent tale, and as Cross continues his labyrinthine investigation, the human landscape yields glimpses of various versions of private hell–the private hell of poisonous relationships.

The car ground to a stop on the cinder shoulder, the shallow ditch was paved with empty cans. A Sulphur stench fouled the the air. On the rim of the plain against the cloudy reflection of the city, the oil derricks stood like watchtowers around a prison camp where nothing lived. I’d come to the wrong place at the wrong time and done the wrong thing.

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