The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 

lovesong

Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.

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In the Garden of the Fugitives: Ceridwen Dovey

“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.

So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.

In the garden of the fugitives

As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?

As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:

We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.

We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.

While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:

In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.

The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn  your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”

I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity  I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.

The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.

This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.

This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.

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Little Disasters: Randall Klein

Randall Klein’s debut novel, Little Disasters, is told through the voices of two men: Michael and Paul. These two very different men are connected by the fact that their wives each gave birth on the same day, at the same Brooklyn hospital. That’s how they met, waiting for the news while their wives were in labour. Furniture maker Michael is married to cookie entrepreneur Rebecca, and actor and paralegal Paul is married to writer, Jenny. Rebecca gives birth to a baby boy, but Jenny’s baby dies. Fast forward to a year later and Michael who is now having an affair with Jenny, receives a text saying she can’t meet him. Both men find themselves stranded in the city, unable to get home, and their stories move back and forth in time.

The four characters, with their careers, and personal tics, are well constructed. When we first see Rebecca, she’s preparing to leave for the hospital, and everything is all perfectly done: bags packed, and even a celebratory flask of bourbon for her husband etc. The married couples are so well drawn that’s it’s easy to see why they are together, and how they work together–each partner compensating and/or complementing the other.

The birth of Michael’s son changes his marriage dramatically: chaos reigns and sex is more or less just a memory, and of course, since Jenny and Paul’s baby died, there’s a layer of grief which has damaged their marriage. But was it that great before the loss of the baby? Paul invites Michael and Rebecca over for dinner, ostensibly to discuss bookshelves, but in reality, it’s a desperate move from Paul to inject some healing into his marriage. Ironically, of course, that plan goes haywire and Michael and Jenny embark on an affair. …

Little disasters

While the premise was good, it was difficult to have sympathy with Michael who moans about how his life has changed, especially since the moaning is in light of the fact that they have a healthy child. Then again, he didn’t really plan on having a child that soon, and he feels a bit betrayed that Rebecca stopped taking the pill without his agreement.

Would be nice to have a beer with someone–I didn’t realize that would stop once my wife pushed out a baby. I didn’t realize that having a child would lead to the immediate death of my social life. I’m not an adolescent and I don’t exist in a sitcom; I knew sacrifices would be made. I knew I wasn’t going to be stumbling home while Rebecca provided the 2:00 am feeding, but I didn’t anticipate the full stop at he end of the sentence. Plug up that release valve and it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

For this reader, the book’s best scene takes place when the two couples meet for dinner for the first time: Rebecca and Michael should have RUN. Rebecca has obviously been drinking and seems determined to embarrass everyone with stories about her sexual past:

She punctuates the story by finally spooning gazpacho between her lips. I give Jennifer an appreciate smirk. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You roped me back in. “What happened to Danny Perlis?” I ask.

“He gave me a lecture that he clearly thought was eviscerating and I thought was directed entirely to my tits. Probably a good thing that we didn’t elope like he wanted . I loved him, but the thing I loved most about him was how much he loved me. I mailed his ring back after graduation. 

Jennifer pushes her virtually untouched bowl of soup forward. She drains another glass of wine and reaches halfway across the table for the bottle but Paul’s arm shoots out and grabs it first. He holds it just out of Jennifer’s reach and the two of them glare at each other. Rebecca has on her no-lipped mortified face, but I cannot imagine a better standoff. Either they will go full George-and-Martha and my wife and I will get home (or to a bar, so long as we have babysitters …) or she’ll wrestle the bottle from his hands and deliver another monologue of her checkered sexual history. Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show. 

While the two marriages were nicely created, and the nuances of the affair (between ‘friends’) well done,  the background setting of the disaster which occurs in NYC was, after a while, a distracting structural device that did not serve the plot.

I recently finished We Don’t live Here Anymore from Andre Dubus (review to follow) which follows  the lives of married couples Hank and Edith & Jack and Terry. The two books, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Little Disasters were read back-to-back, and as it turned out, this was a fortuitous choice. We Don’t Live Here Anymore has a totally different take on infidelity, and comparing the two books was thought provoking. The infidelity writers of several decades ago (Updike, Dubus, Roth) seem fascinated by the act of infidelity itself, while today infidelity seems so much more wrapped around the pressures of commuting, child-rearing, juggling two careers, oversized mortgages, etc. Little Disasters is infidelity of the 21st century. Still the same act, but the view is a little more domestic-centric than its 70s/80s counterparts.

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The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

Michelle de Kretzer’s The Life to Come wasn’t a quick read. I found myself returning to it, reading it slowly. This wasn’t a fault of the book, but rather a need to chew things over, absorb what was happening. The story is broken into five sections which overlap as we follow Pippa Reynolds, an Australian writer, her friend Cassie, Cassie’s boyfriend, Sri-lankan/Scottish Ash, and translator Céleste who lives in Paris.  There are a handful of secondary characters who move in the same circle, people who belong and yet who don’t belong, people who are seeking something they can’t quite define.

This is a novel with multiple strands–a story that flows picking up and dropping off characters whose stories are continued later.  The novel opens in Australia in the late 90s with George who attends university, writes a novel at night and teaches tutorials for extra money. George would appear destined to be a main character (he isn’t), but then the plot circles its way to Pippa, a young woman who’s determined to be a writer.

The Life to Come

I suspect that many of us know Pippas. She’s not a bad person, but she’s shallow and thoughtless, and as the novel continues (where The Life to Come fits in) we see how she’s this nebulous self-construction, but at this point, she’s still young, working on her image:

George thought back to her essays: a stew of passionate opinion, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar; that Credit had been the purest largesse on his part.

Pippa is never shy with her vacuous opinions:

“I love animals,” she went on.

“That must be why you eat so many of them,” said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. “I love India,” she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.

This is a circuitous narrative, with no clear central path (I’m reminded of Ali Smith’s Autumn) a panoramic frieze of various characters who inhabit the borders of Pippa’s life. Pippa’s friend Cassie lives with Ash, and while Cassie tries valiantly to please Ash with various Sri-lankan delights, she only, somewhat clumsily, manages to alienate him. These characters have flashes of insight regarding the future, and also retrospective moments when hazy incidents take on great significance. At one point, for example, Cassie, who loves Ash and works hard to build a life with him, even she “came close to seeing that he was only an instrument in her quest.”

Later in the novel, Pippa, further along in her self-invention project (at one point she sports a carefully angled beret) travels to Paris and meets Australian translator Céleste. Céleste, whose parents became inadvertently embroiled in Algerian politics in the 60s, is having an affair with the married Sabine, but it’s a hopeless affair based on use. But then isn’t that true of most of the relationships in this book?

There’s a quote which hits at the heart of the novel:

It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book. 

This is a novel that savagely bites at its characters while at the same time offering a sort of understanding and acceptance, as if the general human condition seems to be blundering through life, using others as they pass through our boundaries. Céleste notes that “Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved,” but that the world, human nature, isn’t programmed that way.

Just as Pippa decides to become a writer before she has anything to write about, and Cassie ( a more sympathetic character) doesn’t, can’t understand Ash and his Sri Lankan experiences, things are right in front of our characters, and understanding eludes them. Yes, Australian English majors don’t read Australian books; they don’t read the very things that are in front of them, even as they pursue higher education, further knowledge, while that which is right in front of them remains ignored, of little interest, perhaps not worthy of attention. Similarly the characters here live, love and befriend other people, sharing the most intimate moments  and yet understanding eludes them. Even the title suggests looking forward, and while the plot propels us forward through the lives of its characters, there’s also the sense of these people wanting something more, waiting for what is yet to happen.

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo’s novel Macbeth is a departure from the Harry Hole novels, and instead, this is one in the Hogarth Shakespeare series novels. The story is set in the 70s in a grimy unpleasant, town—a dreary port town which has suffered a severe economic downturn–not that the town was ever that great:

The raindrop went from shiny to grey as it penetrated the soot and the poison that lay like a constant lid of mist over the town despite the fact that in recent years the factories had closed one after the other. Despite the fact that the unemployed could no longer afford to light their stoves. In spite of the capricious and stormy wind and the incessant rain that some claimed hadn’t started to fall until the second world world had been ended by two atomic bombs a quarter of a century ago. 

At one time the “country’s second-largest and once most important industrial centre” it’s now a “quagmire of corruption, bankruptcies, crime and chaos.” The former police chief commissioner, now dead, has been replaced by Duncan, and of course, he’s expected to ‘clean up’ the town. The factories may be closed, but the drug trade is booming and the town’s two casinos are more popular than ever.

Macbeth

The dagger-obsessed Inspector Macbeth runs the SWAT team and his wife, known as “lady,” runs a casino. With the stage set (not to mention Shakespeare’s plot) for a power struggle, we know this story is going to be violent and bloody.

The book is at its best with its strong, grim atmosphere, with the glittering Inverness casino and Obelisk, a “twenty-storey glass hotel and casino that stood up like an illuminated index finger from the brownish-black four-storey wretchedness that constituted the rest of the town.” The imagery of these casinos as alluring lighthouses for the desperate depressed is strong, but for this reader, other aspects of the tale did not work:

So that was why Banquo waited until he saw Macbeth reappear on the other side of the square and walk into the light by the entrance to the casino, from which a tall woman with flowing flame-red hair in a long red dress emerged and hugged him, as though a phantom had warned her that her beloved was on his way.

The names alone interfered in the tale with the result that the gritty update seems to be artificially glommed onto Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

Translated by Don Bartlett

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Bats in the Belfry: E. C. R Lorac (1937)

E. C. R. Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry begins with a handful of people gathered together following the funeral of a young Australian. The topic of death holds sway, and then a young woman, Elizabeth, brings up “an intellectual exercise” set for discussion at her club:

If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any liabilities?

A lively discussion ensues with various methods suggested, but oddly, actress Sybilla, the bored, unhappy wife of author Bruce Attleton has the best suggestion. In fact, her method seems to have been refined –almost as though she has given it some thought. Sybilla’s husband, Bruce, notes that one of the guests appears shocked by his wife’s calculated approach towards the disposal of  a body, but notes that his wife is “quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?” Discussing the best way to get rid of a body is hardly polite talk, but it’s a seemingly harmless discussion that has greater significance when a nasty blackmailer appears on the scene and Bruce vanishes …

Bats in the belfry

Bruce’s suitcase and passport are found in an artist’s studio in Notting Hill, and when a headless and handless corpse is found in the same location, it seems probable that Bruce is dead.

The novel’s main characters (and suspects) are introduced right away: Bruce Attleton and his wife Sybilla, friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham, Robert Grenvile and Bruce’s ward Elizabeth. Bruce had more than his share of enemies (including his wife) and so most of the book is devoted to the police procedural with the intrepid Inspector Macdonald at the helm of the investigation and its convoluted solution.

Unfortunately I guessed the villain very early in the novel, so that took away a lot of enjoyment, but I enjoyed the portrayal of Sybilla and her “apparently lazy make-up” (as in character). The novel is also dated with one character who punctuates his sentences with the verbal tic,“what?” a mention of “over-sophisticated, man-hunting pseudo-intellectual females,” and reference to a “queer-looking dago with a pointed beard.” Still I enjoyed the atmosphere of 1930s London and the arty-crowd.

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For Those Who Know the Ending: Malcolm Mackay

“He was a crook, yeah, but there was a limit to that. He took money, but he always left people breathing.”

With a title that has to be the best I’ve come across in years, Malcolm Mackay’s For Those Who Know the Ending opens with Czech transplant, gunman Martin ziptied to a chair in a Glasgow warehouse waiting for a grisly end. The book then takes us back in time to how the laconic Martin, desperate to find serious money in Glasgow, a town full of criminal gangs not interested in working with someone they don’t know, became involved with Usman Kassar. Usman usually works with his older dealer brother, but he also works jobs on the side, and that’s where Martin comes in.  Word is out on the street that Martin is looking for work. Martin doesn’t like the looks of Usman, doesn’t take him seriously and considers him too flashy with “oversized headphones,” and a gangster swagger. Usman is confident that Martin will be desperate enough to take a chance:

Always took men like him a while to realize that their celebrity only burned bright in their own neck of the woods, and now they had left their home city some younger spark would be filling that vacuum. 

Martin left Czechoslovakia under murky, desperate circumstances, and his savings are running out when he meets Joanne, and moves in with her. The pressure is on to start contributing, and so Martin, who’s lived this long because he doesn’t take chances, takes a chance on a job scoped out by Usman Kassar. According to Usman, it’ll be easy: it’s a two-man in-and-out job, hitting a bookie who is a front man for the Jamieson criminal organization. That’s the beauty of the job according to Usman–the fact that it’s dirty money means that the police won’t be involved….

For those who know the ending

The job doesn’t go quite as planned, but Martin is already in deep with Joanne and with bills rolling in, he takes a second job with Usman.

For Those Who Know the Ending reunites us with some of characters we’ve met before: most notably Jamieson ‘security consultant,” Nate Colgan. With Jamieson still in prison, and other criminal organisations always eager to grab Glasgow turf, this is a job that Nate can’t afford to screw up. And when Martin and Usman cross Nate, there will be hell to pay.

The book is written from the criminal view: so while the police are out there somewhere else in Glasgow, they have very little to do with the day-to-day concerns of organised crime. Instead we see the lonely lives of these career criminals (men and a few women) who’ve decided to pass on the complications and exposure of family life. But then there’s also Martin, who would like to be able to afford a family, and Gully, Nate’s ultra calm, aging sidekick whose sad, barren home life is carved by grief. The plot explores the dangers of ego, gangster swagger, and how being a legend in one’s own mind can sabotage clear thinking in an industry in which you survive by keeping quiet and being useful. These men aren’t romanticized; they have no conscience, and killing is just part of the job. Author Malcolm Mackay explores the abyss between robbery, GHB, and the ultimate crime: murder.

Gully knows that you don’t just kill a man and move on from it because you’re making money out of the deal. That isn’t how it works, not for normal people. He’s seen enough in his time, knows they’re not normal people. For men like him, like Nate, and like Usman, killing a man is a step out of the life you know, and there’s no turning back. 

Another marvellous gritty crime novel from Mackay–a writer who continues to dominate Scottish crime fiction.

review copy

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