Low Heights: Pascal Garnier

In Pascal Garnier’s dark, nastily funny novel, Low Heights, curmudgeonly widower Monsieur Lavenant, almost 75, is the patient from hell. A successful, former business man, Lavenant is still spry and was quite healthy until he was struck by a stroke. Now his left arm and hand are useless, and this incapacity hasn’t helped his temperament improve. Thérèse, his long-suffering private, live-in nurse, whose beatific state provokes Lavenant rather than calms him, is the recipient of most of her employer’s abuse. But after a series of jobs in which she nurses the elderly ill, she’s used to it, and her mind resides in a place where Lavenant’s insults can’t reach her.

Low Heights

When the novel opens, Lavenant has decided to leave his hometown of Lyon and relocate to a home in a village in the Rhone-Alps region. They make a pitstop in the beautiful city of Nyons, but to Lavenant the city is just another series of annoyances. Nothing makes him happy, and Thérèse can’t reason with him:

Just look at that! English, Dutch, Germans, Belgians … Do I go and do my shopping in their countries? No! You’d think we were still under the Occupation.

I could easily have done the shopping on my own; you didn’t have to come.

That’s right, you’d like me to stay shut up in my hole like a rat. I do still have the right to go out, you know.

Once at their new home, Lavenant and Thérèse’s relationship starts to shift. Lavenant begins to mellow and he warms to Thérèse. Can it be possible that all that wonderful mountain air and the peace and quiet of the countryside will improve Lavenant’s temperament? Things are looking up, and then they are surprised by a visit from a young man who claims to be Lavenant’s son.

As is usual with Garnier, expect the unexpected. Low Heights is morbidly, darkly funny with the author’s signature putrid descriptions of people and nature.

It was nice on the terrace. There was a cool breeze from the lake. The fillets of perch were excellent, the service impeccable. yet it was if something like an imperceptible odour of putrefaction hung over this perfect world, accompanied by a worrying ticking sound. 

Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge explores what happens when people move away from the suburbs, and The Islanders explores a Folie à Deux. There are elements of those themes in Low Heights; Lavenant, hardly a reasonable man at the best of times, becomes increasingly eccentric and irascible as he and Thérèse move away from civilization. Garnier seems to argue that any internal moral compass that keeps us in check when we live in cities, disintegrates and disappears the closer we go to nature–nature makes us revert to our animal selves.  The relationship between Lavenant and his nurse becomes increasingly twisted, so much so that Thérèse, a seemingly fairly normal woman (if too bovine) begins to enter Lavenant’s psychosis.

In Low Heights Garnier cynically explores how old people can get away with stuff–rudeness for example. Lavenant exploits his age mercilessly, and his behavior is constantly excused by others. Also examined here is how we bring our personalities to disease, so thoughtless, impatient people who may be barely tolerable when healthy become monstrous when ill.

I liked Low Heights a lot, but it’s still nowhere near my favourite Garnier. For those interested here’s an order of preference. Not that I expect anyone to agree, but there may be a reader out there who wants to try Garnier:

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Low Heights

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Translated by Melanie Florence

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Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

“Leave, that’s what Papa knew how to do best.”

Rodrigo Hasbún’s novella Affections concerns the real-life Hans Ertl and his family of three daughters. Ertl was a cinematographer who worked for Leni Riefenstahl, the German filmmaker whose most notorious work is Triumph of the Will. While the author chose the word Affections for the title of his book, the two main people in the story, Hans and his daughter Monika, are driven by strong, overriding passions, and while the novel is based on real events, the plot illustrates how the sins of the father are delivered upon the heads of his children.

Affections

Affections follows the relocation of Hans Ertl, his wife Aurelia and their three daughters in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s 1955, and Hans Ertl, a restless egomanic, photographer/explorer comes and goes into the lives of these women, his neglected chain-smoking wife and the three girls: Monika, Heidi and Trixi who are all quite different from one another. When the book begins, Hans returns only to plan his next departure:

Man’s communion with nature is what really matters,” he went on, his beard longer than ever and as dark as his faintly deranged eyes. “The chance to reach places God himself has forsaken is what matters. No, not forsaken,” he corrected himself at the start of one of his interminable monologues, the ones he always gave when he got back, before the silence grew again, and with it the desire to set off on a new adventure.

Heidi is the first narrator, and she sees how, when their father speaks, Monika and Trixi “hung on his every word, transfixed, Mama too, naturally. We were his clan, the women who waited for him.

And as is usual for women who wait for men … they are inevitably disappointed, but that’s still off in the future. Ertl arrives home only to announce his next trip “in search of Paititi” an Inca city “buried deep in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.” This time he takes Monika, who suffers from panic attacks, and Heidi along for the ride. One of Ertl’s grand schemes is to set the rainforest on fire with the oil they carried with them while he films the carnage:

Very quickly the flames began to give off a dark smoke, and you could hear the animals’ cries. A flock of parrots took flight and several vultures appeared. They circled us from above and dived down into the fire, reemerging with animals clutched in their talons. Chaos reigned.

The story moves ahead in time through multiple narrators (the sisters, Monika’s lover and Monika’s brother-in-law) and while Hans drops off the page after he abandons his family, the story is then picked up by narrators. The episodic narration shows the disintegration of the Ertl family as they disperse and their connections become tenous. Monika becomes the trophy wife in a loveless marriage; it’s an ill-fitting role which serves to deepen her unhappiness and estrangement from her own life.

Monika eventually becomes a guerrilla, and … the rest is history.

At one point, Monika tells herself that “phantom fathers don’t get a say in the fates of their children,” and while there’s no argument there, it can be argued that his abandonment led to other, significant events. For Monika to take such steps, to embark on such a path, she must have been influenced by her father’s connections. I’m thinking of the documentary Hitler’s Children and its argument that the activities of the parents burdened their children–sometimes so much so that they took drastic action.

Affections is episodic in nature, fragmented; reading the novel can be compared to flipping through a photograph album. I never quite got a handle on the Ertl daughters–except to say they were troubled in various ways, haunted by displacement and their father’s legacy.  They seemed to be lost souls without an anchor.

If you’ve never seen the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, then do yourself a favour and watch it. This deconstruction style film is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen

Jacqui’s review

Review copy

Translated by Sophie Hughes

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Browse : The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings

“It is on our own bookshelves, packed with our purchases, that we find the archives of our desires, enthusiasms and madnesses.” (Henry Hitchings)

In Pushkin Press’s Browse: The World in Bookshops I expected a collection of essays about bookshops from around the globe, but the book is far richer than that; it’s a celebration of the glory of reading. Anyone who reads and loves books, anyone who cannot imagine a life without books, will dip into these essays and find a great deal to love and chew over, even as we reminisce about the great bookshops in our own lives.

Browse

The introduction from Henry Hitchings takes a predictable, yet interesting stand as he takes us through various bookshops at various stages of his life. The word ‘predictable’ is not to be taken negatively as all readers can most likely recall the watershed book moments in their lives. Hitchings leads the reader into themes which appear in the other essays–bookshops where readers hang out, booksellers who jealously guard their stock, the hunt for the unknown, the quest for the impossible find.

There are 15 essays:

Bookshop Time: Ali Smith (Scotland)

Something that Doesn’t Exist: Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine)

The Pillars of Hercules: Ian Sansom (UK)

A Tale of Two Bookshops: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia)

Leitner and I: Saša Stanišić (Bosnia)

All that Offers a Happy Ending is a Fairy Tale: Yiyun Li (China)

If You Wound a Snake: Alaa Al Aswany (Egypt)

Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya)

Snow Day: Michael Dirda (USA)

Dussmann: A Conversation: Daniel Kehlmann (Germany)

La Palmaverde: Stefano Benni (Italy)

A Bookshop in the Age of Progress: Pankaj Mishra (India)

Intimacy: Dorthe Nors (Denmark)

Bohemia Road: Iain Sinclair (Wales)

My Homeland is Storyland: Elif Shafak (Turkey)

Ali Smith talks about the “detritus” we find in books while the essay from Dorthe Nors is arguably the most personal. The essay involves a troubling incident with a nasty bookseller (Dorthe, if you read this, she was probably a frustrated writer). In Elif Shafak’s essay My Homeland is Storyland, she recalls her grandmother being an “amazing storyteller” with the stories all beginning “once there was, once there wasn’t.”  This opening line matches the contradictions in the author’s childhood.

A few essays illustrate how politics can impact bookshops. While much of Andrey Kurkov’s essay focuses on Bukinist in Ukraine, he gives us a different vision of the ever-topical subject of bookshop survival:

I can clearly remember the time of transition to a new order: in 1991, the stark contrast between grocery shops, with their empty shelves and arrogant, ill-mannered employees, and bookshops, where the bewildered staff stood before shelves full of Soviet literature which was of no use to anyone anymore. Bookshops were the first victims of the crisis. They closed meekly and without protest, without even trying to fight for their survival.

In Alaa Al Aswany’s essay If You Wound a Snake, it’s the twilight of Mubarak’s rule in Egypt, and the author attends a book signing attended by readers and a few Agent Provocateurs minglers.  In Desiderium: The Accidental Bookshop of Nairobi, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor describes returning to Nairobi which is in a period of “delirium of reconstructive surgery” and the hunt for a much-loved bookshop from childhood.

Yiyun Li grew up unaware that “there was such a thing as a bookshop.” Later comes the chaos of Beijing and books kept behind counters or in glass cases.  Finally in a bookshop, Yiyun Li encounters a great mystery behind a sign: “Foreign Visitors Not Allowed.”  This essay reinforces how lucky we are to have libraries, bookshops or just the ways and means to buy books.

In Pankaj Mishra’s essay A Bookshop in the Age of Progress, he notes that the word ‘bookshop’ meant a place you could buy school textbooks with “some variety offered by mobile bookshops subsidized by the Soviet Union.” When the author finally visits a real bookshop, he longs to be the sort of customer who can afford the wonderful books he sees stocked on the shelves.

One of my favourites in the collection is The Pillars of Hercules from Ian Sansom, and this essay focuses on the author’s two years spent working at Foyle’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road. While he notes that “working at Foyles was not really a career choice; it was supposed to be a stop-gap,” he lingered there while the shop became his “own personal library.

I was initially a little bothered by Michael Dirda’s essay Snow Day. The author’s wife is safely out of the picture, and so he takes a day to prowl through Second Story Books, a shop the author confirms will remain open until the snow falls. If you’re wondering why I was bothered by the essay, well it’s because the author frequently tells us how much everything costs (and how much it’s worth). This is explained by his admission “bear in mind that I grew up the son of a working-class, shopaholic mother who loved bargains.” Gradually, no that’s not true, rapidly, I began to warm to Dirda when he mentions that he rents a storage unit for books (which may amount to 15,000-20,000 books). Finally someone worse than me!

Yet, am I, in fact, a collector? Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for them.

Dirda admits he’s learned the “prudence of sneaking any newly acquired treasures into the house as covertly as possible. There’s nothing like a baleful glance from one’s beloved spouse to ruin a good day’s booking.” I laughed out loud when he said he’s only in top form in the bookshop for the first 4-5 hours. We readers know that no one else can match our stamina. Well for looking at books, at least.

Snow Day and Iain Sinclair’s Bohemia Road, are in the final judgment, my favorites in the collection. The former because I identified so much with the author, and the latter because the author catalogues the history of a great bookshop in the context of the history of its location and the rising value of real estate. Iain Sinclair tells the story of Bookmans Halt bought by a new owner in 1980 and closed in 2016. The bookshop survived “Thatcherite economics”  but by the time of its demise was a haven for those who used the shop as a baseline to price online.

Bohemia Road was the perfect address for a functioning used-book pit that represented everything now amputated from the good life in the imaginary state we call England. 

By presenting the history of the bookshop’s address, Sinclair presents a history of economic trends. Finally free of the shop (a “pygmy kingdom”), the owner seems liberated and “revived.”  The end of Bookmans Halt is a sign of the shifting times. We all tend to moan about the loss of bookshops, but is this just the sound of progress–the machinery of the figurative backhoe?

After finishing the last essay, I found myself wondering what makes some people such avid readers. Some of the writers in this collection were book-deprived as children (as I was) and were certainly not encouraged to read. Conclusively, all of the essay writers were attracted to books early in life, some in spite of deprivation, in spite of a lack of encouragement and in spite of, sometimes, the lack of means to get books.  In other words, with all the indications to encourage avid readership absent, a love of books and reading still broke through.

Review copy

 

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For Isabel: A Mandala by Antonio Tabucchi

A mandala, a colourful circular design, represents unity, the idea that life is never-ending. Definitions include the idea that a mandala reinforces one’s relationship to infinity, and can also symbolise a journey through life. Taking these definitions, Antonio Tabucchi’s novel: For Isabel: A Mandala is the narrator’s search for a woman he knew long ago.

For Isabel

Tadeus, a writer over age 50, says he’s travelled to Lisbon to search for Isabel, a woman from his past. While he’s driven by “private obsessions, personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river,”  we never quite know what his relationship was with Isabel–although there’s a clue early on. As he seeks the truth, he instead finds conflicting stories about Isabel. The book presents nine interview-style chapters, called “circles,” as various people give their stories of Isabel, or their version of events. Those who offer Tadeus information include Mónica, a school friend of Isabel,  Isabel’s old nurse, Beatriz Teixeira, a photographer, a female saxophonist, a prison guard named Uncle Tom, and a dying poet called “The Ghost Who Walks.”

Over the course of Tadeus’s journey, he discovers that Isabel, who “came from an old Portuguese family that had nothing to do with Salazarism, a family in decline,” was radicalized in university. Mónica claims that Isabel had a great love affair that “was the ruin of her,” and that she was mixed up in triangular affair with a Spaniard and a Polish writer (possibly the narrator?). While Mónica says that Isabel, who lived an “underground existence,” hiding from the secret police, was pregnant and subsequently died, Isabel’s old nanny thinks she is still alive. ..

In this esoteric mystery, while the big question seems to be: will Tadeus find Isabel, other questions emerge. Narrative strands offer multiple versions of Isabel and her life. What is the truth? The narrator sets out on a journey to find Isabel, but in the end, while the journey, which becomes increasingly surreal, involves travel, it’s essentially a spiritual journey towards a central truth.

Tadeus’s search for Isabel is complicated by the fact that she became a communist and was hunted by the secret police. Was she “disappeared” while incarcerated? Now the political times have changed, but Tadeus still has to find and question former subversives who are suspicious of his motives. In the “fifth circle,” for example, Tadeus questions a photographer named Tiago who asks Tadeus what he hopes to achieve in trying to discover what happened to Isabel:

I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center,

To what end? he asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

The photographer doesn’t answer directly, but instead shuffles around some photos. Then he has an enigmatic reply:

Do the photographs of a lifetime represent time divided among several people or one person divided into different times?

It takes a while to ‘break into’ this thoughtful, dreamlike novel, but I found myself being submerged by its elusive mystery. The conclusion is stunning, brilliant and well worth the read.

Translated by Elizabeth Harris

review copy

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The King of Fools: Frédéric Dard (1952)

“Poor Ivanhoe,” she sighed. “You have no idea what fools heroes can be.”

In Frédéric Dard’s novel of nightmarish obsession, The King of Fools, Jean-Marie Valaise is on a solo holiday in Juan-les-Pins. It was a holiday he’d intended to take with his long-term girlfriend, the elegant, self-contained and uber self controlled Denise:

I should have been with Denise. but we had broken off just two days before leaving, on some petty pretext. For a moment, I had considered cancelling my trip, but then decided the Côte d’Azur would be a timely distraction, and left anyway. I regretted it now. Holiday resorts are best approached in a happy frame of mind, or they can seem more depressing than all the rest. Truth be told, my sorrow was not acute. Rather, I experienced a feeling of intense disenchantment that left me weak and vulnerable. I felt the nagging torment of physical regret too. With Denise, the act of love had been easy, and reassuring. 

One day, Jean-Marie sees a woman getting into his car. The incident turns out to have been a mistake, but the woman, who didn’t leave a wholly favorable impression, left a bag with a thousand francs inside. That night, Jean-Marie spots the woman at a local casino. She seems, for this second meeting, to be almost a totally different person, elegant, beautiful and cultured. Jean-Marie, normally a cautious man when it comes to money, throws discretion to the winds, gambles and loses, but no matter, soon he’s chatting and half in love with Marjorie Faulks, the Englishwoman he met earlier that day.

King of Fools

Jean-Marie meets Marjorie a third time when she invites herself into his hotel room while he’s in the shower. While Jean-Marie’s awkwardness is smooched over by Marjorie, still the incident seems bizarre. She breaks the news that she’s married, but Jean-Marie, who’s decided that Marjorie is bitterly unhappy, pulls her in his arms for a kiss. They part, but promise to write….

Denise shortly shows up at the resort and quickly sniffs out Jean-Marie’s mood. After all they’ve been together for years, and they have a strong commitment to each other as friends but not as lovers. They break up a couple of times every year, and yet always get back together. Jean-Marie’s feelings for Marjorie are different: it’s intense, an obsession he can’t control.

After a letter from Marjorie, Jean-Marie dashes off to Scotland where he sinks into an abyss of deception, but not before Denise warns him that he thinks he’s some sort of hero leaving to ‘rescue’ Marjorie, and that it will end badly.

While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the character of Marjorie (she’s a cipher), I was convinced that Jean-Marie, a man whose passions up to this moment had been tepid and controlled, could totally lose it on holiday. Passion unexpectedly overwhelms him; it’s a new feeling, and although there are plenty of warning signs, he doesn’t pay attention. Jean-Marie’s life, a life in which passion takes a back seat to common sense, is completely derailed when he meets Marjorie. This largely happens because his guard is down, and Marjorie has a sly way of trespassing without seeming to do so.

Most of the action takes place in a dreary Edinburgh, with the weather matching the atmosphere of the novel. There’s a large cat-and-mouse section, and Jean-Marie’s life descends into an almost surreal kind of hell, with the novel’s great, ironic twist, in common with many titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, arriving at the end.

For those interested, here’s a list of Dard books read so far in order of preference

The Executioner Weeps

The Wicked Go to Hell

Bird in a Cage

Crush

The King of Fools

Review copy

Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

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Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon

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

Fay Weldon’s book Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen takes the epistolary form from the author to her niece, Alice. I knew with the glorious combo of Jane Austen and Fay Weldon, two authors (and women) I admire, I couldn’t go wrong. And I was correct; this is delightful, humorous read, and yes while it’s about Jane Austen, the book is about a lot more than that. Weldon gives us her take on what it means to be a writer, what is means to be a reader, as well as sundry tips to Alice, poor girl, who seems, seen through this one-sided correspondence, to be a bit overwhelmed by … life. And who better to set this young woman straight than her Aunt Fay?

letters to alice

The 16 letters from Aunt Fay (inspired by letters written by Austen to her niece) appear to have started with 18-year-old Alice having a crisis. She’s at university and finds Jane Austen “boring, petty and irrelevant.” Not only does Fay Weldon urge Alice to continue reading, separating entertainment from enlightenment, but argues for the importance of reading literature as perhaps the one thing that can save in us in this life. And thus begins a marvellous description of The City of Invention:

Those who founded it, who built it, house by house, are the novelists, the writers, the poets. And it is to this city that the readers come, to admire, to learn, to marvel and explore. 

Let us look around the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed in parts, others grumble that Shakespeare never built it anyway, and a few say the whole thing ought to be pulled down to make way for the newer and more relevant, and this prime building site released for younger talent: but the Castle keeps standing through the centuries, and build as others may they can never achieve the same grandeur. 

Fay Weldon argues that “books can be dangerous,” and there’s the example of Alice’s mother who suffered “an overdose of Georgette Heyer” which led to her marriage to Alice’s father. There’s friction between Fay, her sister and brother-in-law, and disapproval of Aunt Fay’s relationship with Alice seeps through the pages. Over the course of the letters, we see slivers of this disapproval as well as extremely witty glimpses of Alice’s life as she converts her love affair with a married professor into writing a book.

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

Using Jane Austen as an example, the author also discusses the importance of audience, and argues that while “the life and personality of writers” are not “particularly pertinent to their work,” that writers cannot be separated from “the times” in which they live. Of course, Jane Austen is a wonderful example of that argument. Some of the letters contain some fascinating information about marriage and birth rates during Austen’s lifetime, and just the few succinct statistics really hammer home societal expectations that Austen faced.

The letters also discuss the modern writer’s life as compared to that of Austen. Whereas a modern, published writer may attend book readings and be prepared to “have your own view on everything” it wasn’t so for Austen:

Jane Austen and her contemporaries, of course, did none of this. They saved their public and their private energies for writing. They were not sent in to bat by their publishers in the interest of increased sales, nor did they feel obliged to present themselves upon public platforms as living vindication of their right to make up stories which others are expected to read.

This book of letters is typical Fay Weldon fare: lots of energy, lots of opinions (and some of those opinions are most definitely and refreshingly not PC), and bucketloads of wit. This is a delightful read for fans of Austen, fans of Weldon or those who are considering writing, which is, as Weldon argues “not a profession, it is an activity, an essential amateur occupation. It is what you do when you are not living.”

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Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

Review copy

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The Locals: Jonathan Dee

“There was no earthly specimen more out of touch with reality than a New Yorker. People who lived on an island and paid a million dollars for a bedroom.”

The Locals from Jonathan Dee is a remarkable novel which captures American life in the decade following 9-11: the shock, the aftermath, economic stagnation, the real estate boom and subsequent bust. All of this is seen through a handful of characters who live in Howland, a town in the Southern Berkshires of Massachusetts.  Regular readers know that I groan at appearances of 9-11 in novels, but here, in The Locals, Jonathan Dee hits just the right note.

The novel begins on 9-11 with a rather nasty narrator, a lab worker, who subsequently drops out of the novel. He’s on his way to see a lawyer to seek recompense from an investor who fleeced him of over 200K. Also in New York that day is contractor Mark Firth, who has traveled from Howland to see the same lawyer, for the same reason.  This early section sets the scene for the stratification, the money and class divides–of American society–a theme that lies at the heart of the novel.

the locals

Mark Firth returns home to Howland, only to find that he’s welcomed like a surviving hero. And this is one of the things I loved about this novel-the way Dee captures the 9-11 feeling in the country. For a brief moment, everyone in the country seemed to come together in collective grief.

Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next. That’s true I guess–when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good–but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you . 

Mark returns home to face a bleak future. Contracting work has dried up, and as for getting his stolen money back, there’s not much hope of that. Mark’s wife Karen, who hasn’t forgiven him for losing all their savings to a con man, temporarily puts her grievances on hold in light of 9-11, and, as she sees it, her husband’s close call with terrorism.

When billionaire Philip Hadi decides to make his summer Howland home his permanent residence, things begin to improve for Mark. Hadi, who has left New York following 9-11, is obsessed with making his house ‘safe.’ He hires Mark for various security jobs, and then settles into the town taking up local politics. After a comment from Hadi, Mark decides to stop building and improving houses, and instead begins picking up houses at auction and then flipping them for profit. He’s joined in this venture by his brother Gerry.

Most of the novel is concerned with Mark’s family and that includes his aging parents who haven’t saved enough for retirement, Mark’s single sister, vice principal Candace, and Mark’s brother, Gerry, whose work at a real estate company comes to an abrupt end following a corrosive affair with a married coworker.

Hadi’s presence in town begins to sharply divide residents. Hadi, who takes up political office, begins to suck up the town’s deficit , but that comes at a cost, and Gerry in particular, who has extreme libertarian views, sees Hadi’s generosity as what it is–a benevolent dictatorship. Using the anonymity of his blog, Gerry tries to flail citizens into action, but most people are far too happy taking Hadi’s handouts to complain or question Hadi’s decisions.

As the plot continues, Mark’s daughter, Haley, who serves as the battleground for her parents’ toxic marriage, grows up in a new America–an America in which the one-percent live in their own stratosphere while city budgets face shortfalls, small businesses fold, libraries close and homes across America fall into foreclosure at unprecedented rates. Howland has its year-round residents, the locals, who, in many cases, depend on income from the wealthy second home residents. Some of the businesses that spring up for the wealthy are totally inaccessible to the average local: the phenomenally expensive yoga retreat centre that’s booked up for almost a year in advance:

Rich people who led lives full of manufactured stress. Women who worked harder than they needed to, or women who didn’t work at all. Their hyper-refined problems expanded to fill the shape of expensive solutions.

Or the pretentious destination restaurant that serves 16 or 17 course meals, so expensive that the locals who can scrape up the money can come for a “special occasion.” Diners are given a booklet and a “small pencil, in case they want to record, for memory’s sake any details or impressions.”

Mark Firth tries to rise in American society in the shadow of Hadi, and we see Hadi, a man who has no emotional investment in the community, try to transform Howland into a personal fiefdom. In spite of the fact that Hadi is a prominent figure in the plot, his motives remain cloudy. The wealth he drops into Howland improves life, but there’s a cost that some of the locals are unwilling to pay. Hadi states that “democracy doesn’t really work anymore,” and then consciously or unconsciously proves he’s right.  The novel takes the town of Howland as its crucible and asks some important moral questions about the sustainability and future of American society. This is a story that begins in collective grief, purpose and cooperation and ends in divisiveness and an unsettling, uncertain future

Review copy.

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Filed under Dee Jonathan, Fiction

Get Well Soon: Marie-Sabine Roger

“Maybe if you spend all day hanging out with crackpots you end up a little cracked yourself.”

In Get Well Soon, a novel from Marie-Sabine Roger, Jean-Pierre, a widower in his late 60s finds himself in hospital. He has no memory of what he was doing out late at night, and no memory of how he managed to land in the Seine. Luckily, Camille, a rent boy, loitering under the bridge, heard the splash as Jean-Pierre fell in, and although he couldn’t swim, he managed to hook the drowning man with a boat hook and reel him in. When Jean-Pierre wakes up in the hospital, he has a number of injuries, including a broken pelvis.

Get well soon

Forced to stay in bed, “zonked out by various drugs,” Jean-Pierre reminisces about his life, his career in the merchant navy, his marriage, his youth and friendships. There’s a lot that is pleasant to remember, and a lot he’d rather not think about. The latter includes his relationship with his wife–a woman he neglected for 31 years while he sailed the world in the merchant navy.  Now stuck in bed with nothing much to do, he decides to write his memoirs on his laptop, and the laptop acts as a beacon to a sulky teen who hangs about hoping to update her Facebook account.

I’ve always found it a strange idea, writing memoirs. There’s something pathetic about it. Like writing your own funeral eulogy, because you’re already bitching that if you want something done properly, do it yourself. Before exiting the building you polish what you can, dust off everything and sweep the cat shit under the rug. 

One of Jean-Pierre’s visitors is his brother Hervé and his sister-in-law, Claudine, a couple who:

don’t have much in common any more. Like a couple of knackered old dray horses, they’re pulling in different directions. He suffers from irritable bowel syndrome because she makes his life shit. She suffers from migraine because he does her head in. 

Another one of Jean-Pierre’s frequent visitors is policeman Maxime, who initially visits because he’s investigating how Jean-Pierre fell in the Seine, but after a while, Maxime’s visits cannot no longer be excused by policework. He visits Jean-Pierre for another, unspoken reason. The nursing aides like Maxime and his “brooding good looks,” and Jean-Pierre speculates that “when he leaves, they probably follow him down the corridor like a shoal of cod.”

Get Well Soon, a tale that argues that it’s never too late to change and learn from our mistakes is, in some ways, rather predictable, but the delightful story still manages to hold some surprises and insights. The novel works mainly because the narrator is a crusty (not idealized), intelligent widower who eschews company, and now, forced into bed rest and forced to form some relationships, he learns that life still has a lot to offer.  He mulls over his childhood and the incongruous nature of a hospital stay where staff either talk over you or address Jean-Pierre with a question such as ‘how are we today’ and whether or not he has passed wind. This short light, optimistic novel could so easily have been saccharine but it isn’t. Recommended.

Translated by Frank Wynne

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Roger Marie Sabine

Happy Birthday, Turk!: Jakob Arjouni

If you’re looking for a humourous, low-rent PI story, then you can’t go wrong with Jakob Arjouni’s Kemal Kayankaya series. There’s a total of five books, and sadly there won’t be any more as author Jakob Arjouni died, aged 48, of pancreatic cancer, in 2013.

Happy Birthday, Turk!

More Beer

One Man, One Murder

Kismet

Brother Kemal

Humour and crime fiction can be an uneasy blend, and if the humour is misplaced, the reader can be left feeling a little queasy, but Arjouni hits just the right mix of crime and dark sardonic humour. Kemal Kayankaya, a Turkish immigrant, in common with other great fictional PIs, doesn’t seek to impress. Personally, he’s a trainwreck, but he’s the type of character who inspires affection, simply because he’s a flawed human being with no pretense of being anything else.

Happy Birthday Turk

It’s Kemal Kayankaya’s birthday, and he wakes up in his apartment, shakes off a hangover from his early (pathetic) celebration the night before, and begins his day with a beer and a cigarette. Hardly the Breakfast of Champions, but Kemal shuffles off to work.  Once in his office, he looks out of his window and “kept an eye out for wealthy, good-looking female clients.” His wish only comes partly true when a Turkish woman arrives at Kemal’s office and hires him to discover who knifed her husband in the back outside of a brothel. The case takes Kemal to Frankfurt’s sordid red light district near the railway station.

Bright juicy neon and posters depicting two-hundred-pound bosoms, orgiastically grunting women, and glowing pink mountains of pink buttocks covered the facades of buildings on both sides of the street. In front of the purple plush curtains of various clubs stood men with pale and rancid faces, urging the passing throng to pay a visit to their establishments. Small but powerful loudspeakers transmitted groans resembling those of slaughtered animals, enhanced by luke-warm disco noise into the street. In groups of three of four, horny farm boys from the surrounding countryside jostled their way down the street, mouths and eyes open wide; retirees peered into the flaking entrance halls, licking the drool out of their wrinkles. Married men cast wary glances up and down the street before emerging from the pink swinging doors of a “Love Inn” and hurrying off. I stood there a while and smoked a cigarette. 

Kemal’s investigation bounces between the red light district, the murdered man’s mostly hostile family, and the local cop shop. Humour makes this book a light, entertaining and pleasant read. We see incidents of racism which Kemal (and the author) use to show the depth of human folly.  At one point Kemal’s foot touches a beer can on the street, and the can makes contact with someone’s leg:

“Now wait a minute!” The leg’s fat owner stopped and executed a cumbersome turn to face me. “Let me tell you something.”

I gave him a smile.

“Oh I see! No speaka da lingo, eh?”

He turned to establish eye contact with his three companions. They stood there with big grins on their porcine mugs. 

“This Germany! This no Turkey! Here beer cans go in garbage. And Turk fellow drive garbage truck!”

This was accompanied by loud appreciative whinnies. Their potbellies wobbled like jelly. 

The red light district is seedy. Prostitution is a business which involves a high degree of fantasy, but here the fantasy is stripped away, and we see the reality of an industry in which the women work hard, and end up as hard and leathery as Milly, an aging, former prostitute who now runs a bar/brothel that promises “Fun till 4 AM.”  Kemal is perfectly comfortable and confident there as he watches how the “tanned pimps in white sports coats were entertaining their present and future employees with tales of high adventure.”

Highly recommended for those who like foreign crime with lots of humour and without the gore.

Translated by Anshelm Hollo

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Filed under Arjouni Jakob, Fiction