Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

A few years later, Jozef said that I could make my life whatever I wanted, but I didn’t believe him. I thought he was simply repeating words that other people had said to him, words of consolation. I sometimes think most consolation comes to that, repeating things we know are unlikely to be true, and will almost certainly never be true for us, because otherwise everything we have lived through will be meaningless.

First the backstory to the review: Last year I won a copy of Charles Lambert’s novel Any Human Face from The Fiction Desk and enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to read the author’s first novel Little Monsters which came highly recommended by Kevin. Unfortunately and annoyingly Little Monsters is now OOP. A trek through several bookshops yielded a big zero, but I finally found a copy and meant to read it in 2010. Fast forward to 2011.

Little Monsters is an intriguing book and certainly one I can’t neatly slot into some genre category. This is an intensely readable book, and part of that readability is due to the fact I had no idea where the book was taking me. Another reason that  Little Monsters is such a good read is explained by the explosive plot bombs dropped on the pages. More of that later. Here’s the book’s first line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

How’s that for a grabber first-line?

The novel’s narrator is Carol. After her mother’s murder and her father’s arrest, she’s sent to live with an aunt, her mother’s sister, Aunt Margot–a cold, bitter, unpleasant woman who runs a pub, rather romantically called The Mermaid. Under better circumstances, perhaps Carol would see life at The Mermaid as an adventure, but when she arrives there, hustled through the procedure by strangers who drop her off with a hastily packed suitcase, Carol is really too numbed to feel much at all. She heard her parents’ last fight–one of many as it turns out, and feels partially responsible for what happened. When she first arrives, she’s in a state of shock and cannot really grasp the direction her life is about to take.

Aunt Margot doesn’t exactly welcome Carol with open arms, and Carol’s first days at The Mermaid are painful. Margot is married to a Polish man named Jozef, and it’s an arrangement of convenience. Margot’s husband was killed in WWII, and as a single woman she’s not allowed to run a pub. She marries Jozef, and he has an underling role in the relationship. Margot also has a son, Nicholas–a boy about Carol’s age who’s obsessed with the army and can’t wait to sign up.  Margot introduces Carol to Jozef, “Uncle Joey,” and then follows up the politeness with curt work orders. This clever scene signifies Margot’s utilitarian attitude to relationships and also lets the newcomer (Carol in this case) know just how Jozef rates in the scheme of things. If there’s any doubt about Jozef’s lowly status, it’s further clarified by Nicholas who describes Jozef : “He’s nothing. He’s a bloody Pole.” Margot’s bald, unemotional approach to her relationships sets the tone for the novel, and while it appears that the relationships between the main characters are clearly and bleakly defined by impenetrable demarcations, as the story unfolds, there’s a dark eerie undercurrent of things not known and not fully understood running beneath this splendid, unsettling story.

There are some people who are so unpleasant, they dominate and set the tone for the household, and this is true of Aunt Margot. She shows no tenderness to anyone, and she directs her acidic, critical comments to her family while her sly smiles and well-worn flirtations are reserved for male customers. Jozef responds by hiding out in the basement and working on gliders. Nicholas’s refuge is his dream of escape & promise of masculinity through enlistment in the army, and no one in the family seems to find the fact that Nicholas covers his walls with pictures of Churchill, Stalin & Hitler in the least bit disturbing.

Life at the pub is contaminated by the toxic atmosphere of resentments, anger, and disappointments.  There are no emotional bonds between the people who live there, and their relationships function solely to run the pub:

Nowhere was worth staying in for more than a few moments; nowhere held me. I though at the time that it was the bareness, the shabbiness, the way the furniture was pushed up against the walls. But now I think it was because the pub took over everything. Boxes of crisps in the corner of the living room, which was never used except for storing things; crates filled with ginger beer and tonic water behind the kitchen door; even when The Mermaid was closed you could smell the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke. before long my clothes were permeated with it, although I didn’t realize this until I was outside and suddenly smelt myself, shocked.

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know that we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

At 13, Carol is dropped into a household where she has no place–no defined role. Carol isn’t ready to accede to her aunt’s dominance, and that’s partly because the dominance includes a very nasty view of Carol’s mother. Sensing Nicholas’s loneliness, she strikes up a tepid friendship with him, but the relationship between Carol and Jozef is that of equals. Margot directs her taut, bitter disappointments towards Carol, and while Carol doesn’t set out to defy Margot, the two inevitably clash. To Margot, Carol is a “little monster.” Here’s a rather terrifying portrait of Margot tarted up for a night in the pub flirting with the male customers who are passing through:

The first time she walked downstairs I didn’t recognize her. She had piled her hair on top of her head and sprayed it with lacquer. With the light of the landing behind her, it shone like candyfloss. She wore a lot of make-up, more than anyone wears today, green eyeshadow, thick mascara and pale pink lipstick. She had on what she called a cocktail dress, stiff shiny material that reached to her knees, with lacy white stockings beneath, but nothing on her feet. I found out later that she kept a pair of slippers behind the bar and a pair of white patent high heels by the flap that led to the other side, so she could put them on when she had to go out into the lounge and collect glasses, or join a customer for a drink. She often did that, sitting on a stool with her legs crossed at the thigh, letting a shoe swing from her foot.

 Little Monsters taps into 60s Britain, and in this well-crafted, multilayered novel, nothing occurs without a reason. The insertion of the seminal film Whistle Down the Wind, for example, is no chance selection. Is there a better film that portrays children caught up in events beyond their moral comprehension?

I don’t care for a child-narrator, but in this case the story is told by a now-adult Carol who’s living in Italy with Jozef (yes, one of those plot bombs I mentioned earlier). The novel goes back forth between Carol’s life at The Mermaid and decades later when she meets her own “little monster,” a 13-year-old refugee named Kakuna. Unfortunately Carol’s childhood experiences have created a void of vulnerability, and in an effort to repair her own childhood, she’s unable to deal with Kakuna objectively. Author Charles Lambert asks whether we ever completely heal from our darkest & most tragic experiences:

Sometimes I think there in only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.

The plot-bombs planted in the story render this tale a great deal of its power, and the fact that the author does not feel compelled to connect all the dots only increases the novel’s readability and subtle air of mystery. This powerful, quietly disturbing tale of displacement is forgivably marred only by the last few pages, but apart from that, this really is an excellent novel.

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31 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lambert Charles

31 responses to “Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

  1. Great review and tempting book but unfortunately OOP (now that I know what it means)
    The first line is one of those that makes you want to read the rest of the book at once. I don’t know why it made me think of the first line of L’Etranger by Camus. “Aujourd’hui maman est morte”. And there’s a feeling of déjà vu in this sentece but I can’t grab the memory.

    There’s a bit of Jane Eyre in this, isn’t it?

    Your quote about the life in a pub recalls how strange it is to live in such an environment. I have a friend whose parents used to run a café. That’s what he describes from his childhood : knowing the customers, hearing the music from the juke-box in his room at night, the smoke. He’s had a happy childhood but in a particular atmosphere.
    I have another friend whose parents run a hotel. It’s even stranger as customers stay at night — by definition. The hotel is almost their first house: they’re there the whole day, take their meals from the restaurant…Their home has no soul as they seldom live in it.

    The opinion of the writer about how a first pain will determine the way we handle pain later is desperating but probably true. What hope is there? It makes me think of these people who seem to never go out of their spiral of misery. They will choose the man who drinks or plays the horses, have a child with a rare disease, make the wrong decision about their work… Like they have a personal cloud of misery staying above their heads. Perhaps it comes from this, this imprinted pattern of reaction towards events, that makes them do the wrong choices. That’s utterly depressing and it increases our responsabilities as parents and adults towards children: the later the pain comes, the better chance we have they become strong adults.

    • The author taps a mythic/archetypal vein somehow in this narrative. Can’t quite put my finger on it.

      Freud (paraphrasing here) says something along the lines that we often ‘correct’, or try to correct, our childhoods in our adulthood. There’s that sense here in the novel–that Carol is just a bit too desperate to love Kakuna as though this will somehow complete–or make sense out of Carol’s dreadful experiences.

      I thought about Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn with the arrival at The Mermaid.

      • I’ve read this book by Daphne du Maurier but I don’t remember it. (I remember Rebecca, but not this one)
        When reading your review I was also thinking of the concept of resilience. The writer doesn’t seem to believe resilience is possible, which is depressing because it retrieves the possibility to break a pattern. It’s the ideas that children beaten by their parents will beat their own children later.

  2. Very intriguing review, indeed. It does sound like something I would like to read and I am happy to report that it can be ordered at amazon (de/co.uk). I didn’t check amazon.fr but am sure you can get. Only not in the US, I suppose.
    I was thinking of the memoir Tender Bar that I wanted to read since it came out. But maybe the connection stops at the fact that a bar is in the center.

  3. A very thoughtful review that brings back some very sharp memories of the book. Just as Carol is a “little” monster, the evils in the book are “little”, almost casual — except in their consequences. I think that contrast between initiation (so minor) and impact (so understandable, in hindsight) is the reason that Lambert can set off his plot bombs so effectively.

    Your reference to Jamaica Inn is quite appropriate. I was also reminded of this novel when I read Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment — both authors have a way of taking abrupt turns in the narrative and heading off in a completely unexpected direction.

  4. I’m not sure about the etiquette of this, and at the risk of sounding like someone who’s just won an Oscar, but I wanted to thank you for such a thoughtful (and positive!) review. I also wanted to thank Kevin for recommending it in the first place and for comparing the book to Nourishment – Woodward’s a great favourite of mine. I should add that all the other comparisons that have been made – in the review and the comments – are deeply gratifying!

    • You probably get sick of this question, but is there another novel in the works?

      • Well, there are two completed to-be-polished novels, currently stacking above my agent’s head and waiting to land, both of them connected in one way or another with the two already published. I know you’re a Zola fan and I’m fascinated too by the way fictional worlds can be created piecemeal, book by book, though I don’t share his slightly odd notions about heredity. But both the books are set in Rome and deal with issues of power, like ANY HUMAN FACE, and one of them also features Carol from LITTLE MONSTERS. This may be too much information, but a fifth novel is in preparation to complete what Wikipedia tells me is a pentalogy…

        • Excellent! When I finish an author’s work and there’s nothing on the horizon, well…..it’s bleak. At the same time I feel like an ingrate burning through books that someone slaved & agonized over and then looking for the next. So good news. I shan’t ask (since the word pentalogy came up) if all the books connect somehow, but I’m more than a bit curious.

          Yes, poor Zola went overboard at a few points. Somebody should have told him….

  5. leroyhunter

    I like the idea of and quote about a life lived in the grip of the people, sounds and manky smells of the pub. The rooms taken up with piles of stock etc. When I was a kid I briefly (one summer) worked for a family who owned a large suburban pub nearby; they were all without exception tempermental, frustrated by the constant demands of running the place, suspicious of anything outside their area of (considerable) expertise and yet in thrall to the unceasing demands of the business. There were 11 siblings in the family I think, and 5 of them worked in the pub in an uneasy hierarchy above us wage-slaves. The rows between them were spectacular and had all sorts of collateral effects (sackings, customers barred etc). Over all of this was their father, a bow-legged ogre ex-army officer who (looking back) they were caught between fear of and deperate need to imitate or emulate.

    • I’ve known a few people who cherished the dream of one day owning a pub. Of course, they only had the bucolic version–chummy nights with customers, ‘free’ booze, be-your-own-boss, etc. I’ve never owned/ran a pub and wouldn’t want to, but your post brings all my doubts and skepticism to the surface: who’d want to hang out (night after night) with people you can’t stand?

      I would imagine a hotel or a B&B would be along the same lines. You can’t escape….

      That must have been a hell of an experience. Did it shape your later decisions (about life) in any way?

      • leroyhunter

        Well, they treated their staff like dirt and paid us buttons so it was an early pointer that life in the “service industry” was potentially tough to the point of not being worth it. Fascinating dynamic to be thrown into, but nice to be able to walk away from it (and quit altogether when school started again).

        I remember being quite taken aback by the customers who (this was all in summer) would bring their kids to the pub and let them run riot while they drank for hours. On at least one occasion the (presumably pissed) parents left without a child, who the staff then had to deal with until someone remembered and came back (pre-mobiles).

        I think a lot of people have that idyllic idea: it overlooks the tedium, physicality, repetitiveness of it all. Plus drink itself introduces a rogue factor that can blow up in all kinds of ways.

        • Leroy: I’ve been thinking about what your insider’s view on pub life on & off for most of the day. I expect the people who brought their children along & then promptly forgot them organised the trip in the spirit of a family outing.

          • leroyhunter

            Possibly Guy, but what I tended to see was parents having their fun, and children (at best) being left to their own devices or (at worst) being neglected and becoming a nuisance for someone else to deal with. Something minor but untoward would happen (a spilled drink, a grazed knee) but when the parent was yanked out of their session to take responsibility the response was generally to yell at the kid or yell at the person bringing it to their attention.

            • Leroy: My sarcasm didn’t survive through my post. I should have added a couple of words–perhaps the “auspices of a family outing which is an excuse for a booze up” or something like that.

              I can imagine a scenario where you saw this sort of situation coming.

  6. Nice quotes.

    My wife grew up in a pub. Her family were a family who lived in a pub. The sort of people the character can’t understand. Even so, neither she nor her brother drink beer and they all hate the smell of cigarette smoke.

    This quote “the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke” reminded me of that. Emma’s described the smell of the carpets in the morning. It looks like Lambert’s captured it (it seems odd referring to him like that now he’s in the thread, but first names seems too chummy when you’re talking about someone’s work). Very nice.

    I’m absolutely bloated with books at the moment, but I’ll take a note of this one for later.

    • The exclusive use of last names brings back that oh-so-chummy feel of school days.

      Good to know that the pub details hit the point from someone who experienced it first hand. This makes me think that a pub memoir would be good. Caroline mentioned one: “Tender Bar” but I want something nasty and not nostalgic.

  7. I’m from a very left wing and then trendy Comprehensive. First names were pretty much required.

    Patrick Hamilton’s the man for pubs isn’t he? Though I admit he never describes growing up in one.

    • leroyhunter

      I’m always dragging him into things, but Flann O’Brien is another great pub man. Again, not from the point of view of growing up in one, but he seems to have spent the majority of his adult life in one of several Dublin pubs he favoured.

      • I must read him. It’ll be a while though.

        It turns out this is available on Kindle in the UK. I’ve downloaded a sample to check out. It’ll be a while before I have a chance to read it, but it’s handy given the hardcopy is out of print (plus where there’s a choice I tend to prefer to get stuff on the Kindle these days – saves space at home).

      • I haven’t heard that name, Leroy, so will check him out.

    • There’s The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells. That’s a idyllic version.

  8. Just read the first page on my Kindle. Very nicely written. Thanks for bringing it to my attention Guy.

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