Author Archives: Guy Savage

Bodily Secrets: William Trevor

William Trevor’s Bodily Secrets is a collection of 5 short stories in Penguin’s Great Loves series. As you’d expect, the topic is love, but the selection here offers a wide range of aspects on this complicated topic. We see the end of love, a love that cannot endure poverty, compromises in love, and a love that is destroyed by shame.

Bodily Secrets

In The Day We Got Drunk On Cake, Mike is persuaded to spend a night out on the town with a disreputable acquaintance:

Garbed in a crushed tweed coat, fingering the ragged end of a tie that might have already done a year’s service around his waist, Swann de Lisle uttered a convivial obscenity in the four hundred cubic feet of air they euphemistically called my office. I had not seen him for some years: he is the kind of person who is often, for no reason one can deduce, out of the country. In passing, one may assume that his lengthy absences are due in some way to the element of disaster that features so commandingly in his make-up.  

That’s the opening paragraph of the story. “Swann is a great one for getting the best out of life,” and he persuades Mike to ditch work and join him in a pub for the afternoon. Swann has arranged to meet two women, “Margo and Jo, a smart pair who drew pictures for magazines.” Margo starts complaining about her husband Nigel who keeps bringing home gangs of elderly women, and somehow or another, Mike is strong-armed into becoming involved. During the hours that pass, Mike is supposed to call Nigel and harass him about his old ladies, but instead, at first at least, he calls a woman named Lucy. He’s in love with Lucy and finds any excuse he can to pester her on the phone, but she’s clearly moved on…

This is one of my two favourite stories in the book. It’s a funny story but bitter-sweet. Mike realises that in this precious moment in time, he still loves Lucy, but he knows that time will eventually blur those feelings.

Lovers Of Their Time concerns a married travel agent, Norman Britt who begins an affair with Marie, a girl who works at the chemists. I won’t say anything much more about the story, but I will mention his marriage to Hilda, a woman who works at home making jewelry. Hilda is a bit of a dark horse:

‘All right then?’ she said when he carried his tray of food into the sitting-room and sat down in front of the television set. ‘Want some V.P., eh?’

Her eyes continued to watch the figures on the screen as she spoke. He knew she’d prefer to be in the Fowlers’ house or at the Club, although now that they’d acquired a Tv set the evenings passed easier when they were alone together.

‘No, thanks,’ he said in reply to her offer of wine and he began to eat something that appeared to be a rissole. There were two of them, round and brown in a tin-foil container that also contained gravy. He hoped she wasn’t going to be demanding in their bedroom. He eyed her, for sometimes he could tell.

‘Hi,’ she said, noticing the glance.’Feeling fruity, dear?’ She laughed and winked, her suggestive voice seeming odd as it issued from her thin, rather dried-up face. 

Lovers of Their Time explores the idea that the 60s intoxicated the behaviour of the middle-aged–not just the young. A sort of Pandora’s Box of possibilities, and one that Norman opens. This is an affair, like most affairs, that has a glamour that’s removed from the details of day-to-day life, such as dried out rissoles from the oven. What’s also fun here is Norman’s assumption that he’s the only one with longings.

The next two stories are nicely contrasted. Bodily Secrets is the story of a middle-aged, wealthy widow who flouts convention when she decides to marry one of the family’s employees. Honeymoon in Tramore concerns a young couple who get married–she’s pregnant by someone else, and her new husband is an employee on the family farm.

In Love With Ariadne is the story of a young medical student who falls in love with the daughter of his landlady. This is another bittersweet story of a love that’s nursed for years and that survives in memory.

If you’ve never read Irish author William Trevor before, Bodily Secrets is a wonderful introduction. The gentle humour tinged with bittersweet poignancy, it’s all here.

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The Dyehouse: Mena Calthorpe

Australian Mena Calthorpe wrote just three novels in her lifetime; The Dyehouse was her first novel, and I’ll tag it a ‘social conscience’  novel. But while the novel centres on working life in a Sydney textile factory, it’s also about the trials of the people who work there: their poverty, loves, and struggles. So while we see the structure of the factory with its workers, and how humanity is sacrificed for profit, we also see the private lives of those workers beyond the dyehouse.

The Dyehouse

It’s 1956, and a very calm, prim Miss Merton arrives at the Southern Textiles Dye Works to apply for a job. The factory is run by Mr Renshaw, and when the novel opens, the biggest dilemmas facing the factory are the drop in production and the sudden popularity of nylon. Behind Mr Renshaw is the Chairman of Directors, the General Manager, and the Company Secretary who each approach the factory differently.  Through the plot we see the layers of management, upper, middle and all the way down to the workers who struggle with various problems, personal and professional.

One of Miss Merton’s tasks is to process the necessary forms in order to give the employees sick pay. The term “personal illness” has to be redefined

“Cuthbert says that personal illness could be the personal illness of wife or child. Sick-pay applies only to the personal illness of the employee.”

“I suppose he means Barney Monahan.” said Miss Merton.

“Oh, well,” said Renshaw, “we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Some of these blokes know a thing or two.”

“Yes.” Miss Merton pressed her lips together.

“Don’t need to take it to heart,” said Renshaw. “Just watch them for that ‘my personal illness ‘ angle, and the rest is up to them.”

Miss Merton sat tapping her pen on her desk.

“It seems heartless,” she said. “Wife sick. Everything at odds. And this form waiting for ‘due to my personal illness.’ There’s not much margin for the joys and tragedies in people’s lives, is there?”

Working at the dyehouse isn’t morally easy for Miss Merton, and Renshaw can tell that she disapproves of policies. To him she’s a “sentimentalist,” and if that means she sees that workers as part of a factory ‘family,’ then she’s guilty as charged. Miss Merton also observes Renshaw’s predatory behaviour towards the female factory workers. Patty, Renshaw’s flavour of the week, is foolish enough to believe Renshaw’s tin promises that he’ll marry her. Everyone else in the factory knows that Patty is being used, but she’s the last one to get it.  My favorite character is Oliver, a man who sees the bigger picture.

Author Mena Calthorpe was a communist and worked in a textile factory, so both her beliefs and her experiences are engaged here. Over the course of a year, we see how the factory runs and the lives of a handful of characters: Hughie Marshall “Leading Hand on the vats.” Hughie is a stellar worker but lacks credentials, and Renshaw intends to replace him in spite of the devotion he’s shown to the company. Then there’s Patty who lives with her invalid mother, a young woman who doesn’t need the trouble that a relationship with Renshaw will bring. We also follow the story of Barney, whose youthful enthusiasm is lost in the “treadmill” of work. It’s easy to tell the author’s politics here, but she doesn’t sacrifice characterization for message, and that’s what makes The Dyehouse an engaging read.

For some reason, Australia in the 50s holds a special fascination.

Lisa’s review

Gummie’s review

Review copy

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A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

“What we should realize is, death comes for us all eventually.”

Louise Welsh’s novel, A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of the Plague Times Trilogy. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the book, as dystopian novels which depict a breakdown of society in a post apocalyptic world aren’t my favourite–mainly because I don’t like to think about how quickly civilization would melt down after some sort of global calamity.  That said, for me,  A Lovely Way to Burn was a riveting read which is primarily a crime novel set against a pandemic flu and the subsequent collapse of civilization.

It’s a hot summer, and London “had a hint of yellow to it,” but it’s not a sunny yellow, it’s a “septic” tint. The scene hints at a toxic, polluted world with dirty air, tainted water, and who knows what else. There are hints of sickness in the streets, and several people are coughing. Shopping channel hostess, Stevie Flint mingles with the crowds on her way to a date by her boyfriend of just a few months, the dashing Dr Simon Sharkey. When he doesn’t show, at first Stevie is just pissed off, and when there’s no apology or excuse forthcoming from Simon, she decides to go over to his flat, gather up the few personal belongings she left there, and drop off the keys.

A lovely way to burn

Stevie finds Simon dead in bed, supposedly of natural causes, and when she goes home she vomits. When she showers, she discovers a widespread rash:

Stevie dropped her bathrobe beside the shower, and stepped naked into the spray. Her body was covered in an angry, red rash that was starting to blister. She remembered radiation victims she had glimpsed in a documentary about Japan. The stained gown lay at her feet, like a dead thing. The atomic bomb had vaporized people leaving their shadows fixed to the wall. 

This is the beginning of a disease known as “the Sweats,” and Stevie is one of the early sufferers and a rare survivor. When she recovers, it’s to discover that the Sweats is ravaging London (and the rest of the world) with an ever rising death toll. Post sickness she is visited by Simon’s sister who gives Stevie a letter she found in Simon’s apartment. The letter tells Stevie that he’s hidden a laptop in her attic, and she has instructions to hand the laptop over to a work colleague and no one else….

From this point on, Stevie stubbornly pursues the truth of Simon’s death, but her quest is set against a pandemic flu, so with the police force severely undermanned, the death of one doctor is of no interest. Stevie is on her own.

Louise Welsh builds pulsing suspense with an expert hand. As Stevie tries to discover the truth, she’s swimming against the tide. Everyone is supposed to stay inside their homes in the futile hopes of avoiding infection, but Stevie travels to question people she’s never met before. The meltdown of society is swift and brutal–from people who attempt to lure Stevie from her car to the man she speeds off from when he tries to wave her down. We see society in freefall: lines of car lights at night as people flee the city, a body hanging from a railway bridge, looters, drug users unleashed at unguarded hospitals, a pub that’s taken over by drunks, whole blocks barricaded against outsiders. “The sweats is a call to all the scum of the earth to crawl out of their holes.

Suddenly she felt as if the wakening streets around her were an illusion that might be peeled back any time, to reveal another, shadow world that could suddenly drag you under without a word of warning.

And perhaps the penultimate frightening scene: the hospital that can no longer find a place to pile the dead:

The dead were everywhere. They were slumped on waiting-room chairs, like a Tory indictment against NHS inefficiency, stretched out on beds, sprawled across desks, or lay where they had fallen, limbs tangled in positions impossible to hold in life. 

I liked the character of Stevie–someone who’s relied on her looks to get things in life, and I liked the way Stevie abandoned this mechanism and instead opted for cropping her hair and donning Simon’s suit. Her looks are a way of opening doors when the book begins, but her looks lost their power as the Sweats gained hold. With death in everyone’s faces, people revert to who they ‘really’ are under the social veneer. We see selfish people, violent people, angry people, and Stevie who has survived, but may be a carrier of death, sheds that old faithful crutch of beauty and relies on her intelligence and tenacity instead.

Ultimately, Welsh shows effectively that when death stalks an entire civilisation, nothing matters anymore: not that promotion you’ve stressed about, money problems, tensions at work: all of that means nothing. Survival becomes paramount. It’s just that everyone has a different idea of how that can be achieved. And when death seems inevitable, people become single-mindedly focused on distractions: drugs, looting, booze, and isolation. It’s not a pretty scenario. The anger of one character who knows she’s going to die seems very real.

A Lovely Way to Burn was a fantastic riveting read that created an intense pandemic scenario I hope we never have to experience. This is a pageturner I finished in a day, and a book that makes my-best-of-year list.

I’ll be reading book 2: Death is a Welcome Guest soon, and book 3 No Dominion is due out next month. I took a look at the synopsis and Stevie is back in book 3.

Max’s review is here

 

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The Last Hack: Christopher Brookmyre

“Who I really am is the person that exists online.”

Last year I arrived late to the Jack Parlabane series from Christopher Brookmyre with Black Widow, the seventh in the series. The series has followed the trials and tribulations of investigative reporter Parlabane, and in Black Widow Parlabane’s career is in the toilet. In The Last Hack, Parlabane, whose personal life is non existent, is hoping to revive his career. This thriller/crime novel presciently tackles hacktivism and corporate malfeasance.

The Last Hack

The Last Hack is partly the story of a young girl named Samantha Morpeth who, following the incarceration of her mother, is forced by circumstances to care for and support her sister, Lilly, who has Down’s Syndrome. Samantha is a powerless young girl whose life-path has been dictated by her drug addicted mother. Living in poverty,  bullied at school, rejected by the government agencies that are supposed to help her, Samantha is prey to her mother’s dealers who loot her home to make up for lost payment. It’s no wonder that Samantha, who is so powerless in life should turn to the internet to reverse her lowly position.

After Parlabane comes up with a story on hacktivism of a major bank, he is hired by Broadwave, “a burgeoning cross-media entity that has evolved from a completely new perspective upon news and technology.” Chances are he would have been passed over for the job were it not for his inside scoop from a hacktivist named Buzzkill. But when Buzzkill ends up in trouble, the hacker turns to Parlabane for help.  The job with Broadwave offers Parlabane a chance to get his career back on track but helping the hacker may jeopardize everything he stands to gain.

Unfortunately the plot of The Last Hack is quite convoluted. The book starts with a short prologue in which someone is “suffering the after-effects” of an electroshock device, and then the novel shifts to Samantha Morpeth who is sitting in a waiting room of a government agency. Then comes a section with someone calling around to a few different employees at the RSGN Bank. Then we switch back to Parlabane interviewing with Broadwave, and then it’s an internet chat between hackers. This is a group of hackvists known as Uninvited, and their next hack, against a major bank, is organised over chat. The chat is difficult to follow–not only the abbreviated computer-speak exchanges but again it’s a handful of characters who exist in cyberspace and have no other grounding. These strands connect, of course, but it takes an overly long time to connect the dots.

Free-floating prologues seem popular these days but when they’re followed by other seemingly unconnected strands, the book, instead of pulling the reader in, keeps the reader dancing on the periphery wondering what the hell is going on.  With the various strands packing the beginning of the book, it took me about 1/5 of the way through before I had a handle on what was happening. Once I got through the first 1/5, the plot took off. Of the two Parlabane novels I’ve read, I much preferred Black Widow.

Review copy

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Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from French author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.

monsieur

The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert

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The Confusion of Languages: Siobhan Fallon

“You become friends with someone you wouldn’t be able to stand if you actually had options.”

Siobhan Fallon’s richly textured novel The Confusion of Languages is set during 2011 in the American ex-pat community of the US embassy in Jordan. The story centres on the relationship between two of the wives, Cassandra Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw, both married to career military men, and both, due to their roles in a foreign country, shoved into an ill-fitting friendship. The novel examines conflicts between vastly contrasting cultures, the treacherous friendships between women, and the chasms between husbands and wives.

When the novel opens, Margaret Brickshaw has left her toddler, Mather, in the care of Cassandra Hugo in order to attend to the aftermath of a traffic accident. But as the hours tick away, and there’s no word from Margaret, Cassandra, bored and annoyed that she’s stranded with the baby, turns to Margaret’s journal, and there she learns some unpleasant truths about herself and possible clues to Margaret’s extended absence.

The confusion of languages

Cassandra and her husband, Dan, have already been in Jordan for a couple of years when Dan signs up to sponsor newcomers Margaret and Crick Brickshaw. Margaret, mother of a young baby, is new to military life. She doesn’t ‘get’ the rules of contact with locals, and her desire to see the ‘real’ Jordan and to be friendly infuriates Cassandra, but then again, Cassandra is annoyed with Margaret before she sets eyes on her. Margaret’s apartment is much better, but that’s not all, Margaret “blond and Brahmin thin” has “the sort of body that denotes an entire class system in America, its own regal title regardless of bank account or upbringing, Mayflower ancestors or cabbage soup diet. As long as the thinness comes with a decent set of teeth, the bearer of such luck has it made.” Plus Margaret has a sexually-charged husband and the child that Cassandra is unable to conceive. To Cassandra, Margaret “had it all,”

All this because biology favored the Brickshaws with a child. As if that’s fair. As if lucking out and being able to conceive isn’t enough, then the US government gives you extra bedrooms to pat your propagation of the species on the back 

Cassandra is a tricky character. She does things that no one can actually point to as meanness or sabotage, but her actions have that result nonetheless. Cassandra had another friend before, Rebecca Eisenberg, and while Cassandra says she was just being “helpful” setting up Google alerts to be sent to Rebecca about violence in the region, what was she really playing at? We first see Margaret through Cassandra’s eyes, and Margaret seems possibly, subtly bitchy, and yet when we read Margaret’s words through her journal, we see a very troubled naive young woman who feels guilt about her mother and is unsure of her husband’s love. Beyond that, we also see the country through Margaret’s eyes: Children “trying to sell eggs, eggs! arranged in a little pyramid on a handkerchief.”

We passed a park and I saw two girls swinging, hijabs fluttering over their heads, sneakered feet kicking at the the sky.

Crick and especially Dan remain mostly in the background here, but there are scenes that take place between husbands and wives that illustrate the sex divide. In one scene for example, Crick carelessly knocks papers off the bed without a thought that his wife will be the one who picks them up, and while Margaret acknowledges that “men rule the world,” (at least they do in the world of women married to career military men) she chafes against that. Of course, there’s a time when the men deploy. …

While a sense of impending tragedy gathers like a storm cloud on the horizon, the plot concentrates on the relationship between Cassandra and Margaret and their relationship to the local population. Cassandra follows the embassy guidelines to a fault, but she also holds any of the local help at arm’s length, occasionally dipping into abuse if she feels that they are slacking or becoming too familiar. Meanwhile Margaret “a force of minor collisions, setting off small earthquakes, never thinking about what her tremors might rearrange or crack,” stops at all the street vendors buying “things she doesn’t need.” When “fallen women and widows” pass from car window to car window begging, Margaret throws money:

Margaret in her breathable, no -wrinkle cotton-blouses, her three-hundred-dollar car seat in the back. Can’t she feel how much they hate her?

Margaret doesn’t recognize that the line between us and them is real. She’s infected with our great American hubris of assuming that deep down every single person wants the same thing: autonomy, freedom, democracy, independence. I try to tell Margaret things here are different, that our American tolerance, even veneration, of the rule-breaker is not shared in a place where the literal translation of the name of the faith, Islam, means ‘submission.’ 

Margaret is open to friendships with Jordanians, but is this appropriate? Does her attitude, openness and naivete make her a better human being or a foolish one?

Years ago, I worked with someone who firmly believed that while most of us are too ‘small’ and insignificant to make a difference in the world, we can bring about change in our little corner of the planet. That question of making a difference in the world stayed with me throughout the book as I read about Margaret. Cassandra knows that no good can come from Margaret’s attempts to battle the culture–an idea Edith Wharton also explored in The Age of Innocence. Here’s an example: Margaret feeds the stray cats in her neighbourhood, but ultimately does she help the cats? To twist that question even further, what would ignoring the cats say about what kind of human being Margaret is? Ultimately does Margaret make her ‘corner’ a better place? We know we should adjust our behaviour depending on where we live, should we also adjust our morality according to location? Those questions stay with me after turning the last page.

Unusual, insightful and thoughtful, The Confusion of Languages will make my best-of year list.
review copy

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Our Tiny, Useless Hearts: Toni Jordan

“You should be locked up.”

Toni Jordan’s novel Our Tiny Useless Hearts is a frenetic domestic farce which focuses on the ugly breakup between Caroline and her husband Henry. The entire debacle is monitored and commented upon by Caroline’s younger divorced sister, Janice. As Caroline and Henry’s marriage spectacularly combusts, Janice recalls how her mother was disappointed in Caroline’s choice:

this big, blond rugby player with thighs like legs of ham and sharp blue eyes and a degree in electrical engineering who drove a fourth-hand red BMW with enough dents to make it ironic instead of pretentious. 

Caroline and Henry’s marriage is now 15 years old, and Henry is soft, flabby, and “the blond hair is mostly a memory.” Our first sight of Henry is his clumsy attempt to break it to his two daughters that he’s running off with their teacher, Martha.

“Marriage, girls, is hard time, that’s what it is. Monogamy, monotony. Mangoes. They sound the same, right? That’s no coincidence.”

“Henry,” I say.

“Seeing the same face every morning, every single morning, day in, day bleeding out. If I took a sawn-off shotgun down to the 7-eleven and waved it in Raju’s face and spent the contents of the cash drawer on crack and hookers I’d get less than fifteen years.”

We hope, of course, that real fathers don’t talk quite that way to their children, but that should give the reader a sense of the over-the-top quality of this book. It’s a farce. As a play, this would probably sit better, but since it’s a book, there are times when the comedy is too much.

Our tiny useless hearts

Henry leaves for Noosa with his paramour, and wife Caroline (after mutilating Henry’s trousers) follows in hot pursuit. Meanwhile annoying neighbours Lesley and Craig jump into the action with their opinions. Sometime in the middle of the night, Craig sneaks into bed with Caroline, only to find her sister instead. And just at that moment, Janice’s ex shows up. ….

From the plot description, you should be able to see what I mean about this making a good play: the setting (a house) and just a handful of characters. The domestic farce and over the top speeches became too much at times, although there were some good comic moments. But far more interesting than the comedy are the thoughtful moments from Janice, and it’s in these sentences that we see the author’s quieter, more reflective voice:

And then it’s all over Henry’s face, the expectations of how middle age would unfurl. How much money he imagines he’d have, how he thought he’d spend his free time, the places he’s always wanted to see. Perhaps he dreamed of a cycling holiday around France or a handicap under thirty. As I watch, Henry’s best imagining float before him in that tiny space between an inhalation and an exhalation. How tenuous our plans are. How heavily we rest on something so gossamer-thin. 

Lisa’s review

Review copy

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The Portrait: Antoine Laurain

“Had I made a mistake with my life? What was I doing as a lawyer?”

In Antoine Lauren’s witty novella The Portrait, a Paris lawyer is given the chance to reinvent himself, and through a seemingly simple act of impersonation he becomes the sort of man he believes he was intended to be.

The Portrait

Married lawyer Pierre-Franςois Chaumont has been a ‘collector’ since the age of nine. He started with an eraser collection, but over the years, encouraged by the words of a flamboyant uncle, his collection has become, at least in his wife Charlotte’s eyes, unmanageable. When The Portrait opens, “Charlotte had succeeded in exiling” the “fabulous collections to one room” of their Paris apartment, but the placement of Chaumont’s treasures continues to be an ongoing battle between the married couple.

When it comes to buying antiques, Chaumont compares himself to a gambler and has a fantasy that he’s banned from entering his favourite auction house (50 metres away from his office) even as he attempts to slip inside wearing various disguises.  This question of identity raises its head one afternoon when Chaumont buys a portrait of a 18th century nobleman. Chaumont thinks the portrait looks just like him, but no one else sees the resemblance. Chaumont enters an existential crisis, referring to the portrait as:

That portrait of me, painted two and a half centuries ago. 

When Charlotte can’t see the resemblance, her husband interprets this as a moral failing on her part, and after reading aloud to Charlotte a passage from Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas,  things go downhill:

The distant coldness that existed between us over the next few days reached its height at bedtime. I no longer desired her in any way at all. I now considered her nothing but a rival, a soul that had always refused to be in tune with mine. An enemy, in fact. As if she were aware of how I now viewed her, Charlotte rallied her troops, drawn from amongst our close friends. 

Alienated from his wife and their friends, Chaumont, a man who appreciates the past much more than the present, begins to question the validity of his existence; he becomes obsessed with the portrait and tries to track down the coat of arms on the right hand corner. …

I’ve passed over other books by this author as they sounded too sticky sweet and whimsical for my tastes. The Portrait is primarily ironically funny, a story of identity and how far we will go to get what we want, and how far some will go to ignore the facts. There are venom bombs throughout the story, so we get a very funny bedroom scene with Chaumont and Charlotte who, rejecting his mistimed advances is “totally hostile, an icy, frigid mermaid.”

But then, had everything we had lived through together just been a misunderstanding? Like an antique that you buy, love and cherish, and which for years makes you think of all the troubled times it has passed through-the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, the Siege of Moscow-but which you notice one morning is nothing but a vulgar fake made ten years ago?

The Portrait asks what would happen if we were given a chance to walk away from a life we found tedious, crude, and worthless. Would we take that chance?

Delightful.

review copy

Translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

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The Birdwatcher: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Breen and Tozer series ( She’s Leaving Home, The Kings of London, A Song for the Brokenhearted ) series is notable for its intense 60s setting, so it’s not too surprising that Shaw’s standalone, The Birdwatcher presents an equally compelling atmospheric novel, this time set on the Kentish coast. Grounded against a stark unfriendly landscape, The Birdwatcher is the story of police sergeant William South, a solitary man who plugs away at his job and spends his time …. bird-watching. And he’s picked a great place for it, a marshy area on a remote shingled promontory, a perfect area for shore birds and its nuclear reactors don’t exactly attract tourists:

Behind the black tower of the old lighthouse, the metal and concrete blocks that surrounded the two reactors rose, unnaturally massive in the flat land. These colossal shapes were surrounded by rows of razor-wire fences. 

William South’s paced, orderly, quiet life begins to unravel when he’s assigned to “hand holding” the new DS, Alexandra Cupidi who’s transferred, as it turns out, under a cloud from the Met. A single parent with a troubled teenage daughter, Cupidi’s just arrived and she’s already caught a murder case. South tries to beg off the assignment, he’d “always avoided murder,” and to make matters worse, the victim is his neighbour, friend and fellow birder, Robert Rayner.

Rayner has been savagely beaten to death over a period of time. Cupidi feels that the murder is very personal, a result of rage. As she investigates, with South reluctantly by her side, it becomes clear that Rayner lied about his past.

The Birdwatcher

In spite of the fact that South did not want to become involved in the murder case, soon his entire life, private and professional, is taken over by DS Cupidi. There’s a sign of things to come when he sits in the car she’s had for a day, and already has to move crumbs and food wrappers aside in order to sit. South valiantly sends out hermit vibes which Cupidi blithely ignores. Soon she sets up headquarters, for convenience, at South’s house, violating his carefully established privacy.

Where South is methodical, Cupidi seems to embrace chaos. It would be easy to underestimate Cupidi, but South realises that would be a mistake when they discuss the victim’s private life:

“To be honest, now I think about it, he never talked that much about anything else.”

She stood, looked at her watch. “Because he didn’t have anything to say? Or because he had something to hide?”

He would have to watch her, he thought.

The investigation of Rayner’s murder is alternated with chapters which reveal South’s past in Ireland. We know from page one, that South has something to hide (which explains his lifestyle), and we also know that the past will inevitably catch up to the present.

The police procedural is not my favourite type of crime novel, as all too often this form can bog down in detail. Not so with The Birdwatcher, and while I wasn’t entirely convinced by the ending, the compelling narrative, along with the idea of the futility of trying to escape one’s fate, make for a gripping read. Shaw convincingly makes the argument that bird-watching and policework, at least for William South, go hand in hand. Bird-watching has made South a better policeman, or perhaps it’s vice versa. As with Breen and Tozer, Shaw has created a fascinating dynamic between South and Cupidi, and Shaw fans will be pleased.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

The Skating Rink: Roberto Bolaño

I’m late to the party on this one: Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink has sat unread on a shelf for many years. While the story centres on a crime that occurs in Z, a small Spanish resort town, the plot essentially concerns a handful of local individuals who are locked into various relationships. Obsession rules more than one character, and conflicting desires send them on a collision course. The plot unfolds through three alternating narratives: writer turned businessman Remo Morán, itinerant Mexican poet Gaspar Heredia, and Enrique Rosquelles, a lonely, unattractive civil servant.  We know almost immediately that a murder has occurred, but, tantalizingly it takes almost the entire book for the identity of the victim to be revealed.

The alternating narratives are short–almost as if each of the men is being interviewed about the events that took place. Businessman Remo Morán has his fingers in several pies: he owns the local bar with its very heavy tourist trade, and he also owns a campground. Due to their old friendship, Remo gives the destitute Gaspar a loosely- defined job at the campground where he performs various tasks as a handyman/manager/night watchman of sorts.

Skating rink

While Gaspar becomes attached to one of the transient, damaged women at the campground, civil servant Enrique worships the beautiful, talented and devoted athlete: Nuria, the town’s skating star. According to Enrique: “all the world’s adjectives fell short of Nuria’s luminous form.” In his role as a civil servant, Enrique is able to approach Nuria and gradually build a relationship with her. When her grant from the Spanish Olympic Committee is cut, Enrique begins embezzling money from government funds, and he arranges for an ice skating rink to be built at the deserted Palacio Beningut mansion on the outskirts of town. So night after night, Enrique watches Nuria as she practices endlessly on the ice rink, nourishing his unrequited love, as he watches the woman he adores circling the ice:

Then it struck me that the Palacio Benvingut was an island of a sort, and I took Nuria there. I took her to my island. A large part of the facade is covered with blue tiles and so are the two towers that rise from the annexes. Navy blue at the bottom and sky blue at the top of both towers. When the sun shines on them, people driving by glimpse a blue flash, a blue staircase climbing the hills. First we observed the shining palace from the car, on a bend in the road, then I invited her in. How did I come to have the keys? Simple: the palace belonged to the Z city council for years. Nervously, I asked Nuria what she thought. She thought it was fabulous, all of it, fabulous. As pretty as Brooke Shields’ island? Much, much prettier! I thought I was going to faint. Nuria danced up and down the salon, saluted the statues and couldn’t stop laughing. We extended our tour of the building and soon discovered in the gigantic shed housing Joan Benvingut’s legendary swimming pool. Covered with filth like a tramp, the legendary swimming pool, which had once been white, seemed to recognize and greet me. Struck dumb, unable to break the spell, I stood there while Nuria ran off through other rooms. I couldn’t breathe. The project was born, I would say, there and then, at least in essence, although I always knew I would be found out in the end. 

However, unbeknownst to Enrique, while he may think he’s created an isolated private world for just him and Nuria, they’re not as alone as they think….

There were two elements to The Skating Rink that I really enjoyed: 1) Bolaño shows readers one again how much can be done with the subject of crime (and more than one crime occurs here). 2) Enrique is seen as a rather unattractive character–especially through the eyes of Remo, and yet.. when we read Enrique’s narrative, we see a much more sympathetic view of a lonely man who lives with his mother. He asks nothing of Nuria except to be in her presence. Ultimately he was my favourite character in the book. The obsessed are imprisoned by their single minded drive, and that’s made very clear by this novel.

And what of the elusive, intriguing Nuria? She’s the candle that two moths circle; men want to be around her and yet she’s single-minded in her devotion to her sport. There’s a lot to admire there: determination, dedication, willpower, and yet there’s also something missing or at least very deeply buried. Perhaps she’s spent too long twirling on the ice. Is she using Enrique or doesn’t she even notice his devotion?

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Filed under Bolano Roberto, Fiction