Author Archives: Guy Savage

A Working Mother: Agnes Owens

“You never realise how much you detest your kids until you take them somewhere.”

When A Working Mother opens, mother-of-two, Betty decides to return to work. It’s a decision based on need, and as Betty tells her husband Adam, “we need money. The kids need clothes, apart from the fact that we like to eat.” For the record, Adam doesn’t work and seems to be maladjusted, according to Betty, from his war experiences. Betty’s decision to get a job, while practical, just becomes another weapon in the arsenal of marital skirmishes. Their bitter marriage is full of recriminations, but there’s one thing Adam and Betty agree on: Booze. Drinking is their only shared interest, and their social life is composed of ditching the kids, going to the pub and boozing it up with Adam’s best friend, Brendan. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to learn that a great deal of Betty’s wages go towards alcohol.

a working mother

But back to Betty’s search for work. … She contacts the mysterious Mrs Rossi, the fortune-telling owner of an employment agency, and in spite of having no experience in the legal field, Betty is temporarily employed by an elderly lawyer, Mr Robson. Although there are several women in the typing pool, he favours Betty–perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he fondles her and discusses his book which is a study of “human behaviour in animals.” Mr Robson soon wants to know how the war affected Adam sexually, and then he offers Betty a permanent job. She’s invited to his home to do extra typing on the weekends.

Betty’s life (and story) is split between work where she hits Mr Robson up for money, her home life: fighting with Adam and ignoring the children, spending time with workmate Mai, and Betty’s surreptitious trysts with Brendan. Yes, he may be “backwards,” and have greasy hair, but Betty has chosen him for a lover. Perhaps access is the main reason for her choice. Betty is the driving force in this relationship, and naturally Mr Robson is fascinated by this aspect of Betty’s private life:

“Sorry I’m late,” I said to Mr. Robson, smoothing down my crumpled blouse. “I’ve had a terrible weekend.”

“Dear, dear,” he said. He was reaching up for a book on one of the sleeves called The Joys and Fears of Extra-marital Bliss.”

Gradually we see Betty is an unreliable narrator. On one hand, Adam is supposedly damaged by the war, but then she admits at one point, they married right after he was released from prison. Mai certainly seems to have a different opinion of Adam. And what about Mr Robson? Is he getting his thrills at Betty’s expense or is he being exploited?

The activities of this deluded old man made me want to puke. It seemed I had displayed my soul to him for a few paltry pounds. On the way home I calmed down. There was no harm done really. I would display a lot more than that if the price was right.

I’ve read a few books by Agnes Owens and thoroughly enjoyed them all. Betty is a wonderful narrator: tart, bitter, self-promoting–this is a woman who is having sex with her husband’s best friend, a youth with diminished capacity. She’s a neglectful, disinterested mother, a backstabbing, false friend, a worker who extorts from her employer, and as the story develops, she sinks into a seedy, possibly fabricated, version of events. Is she a victim or the instigator?

As for Mr. Robson, I have done nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that anyone can prove anyway, and as for Brendan, if I’ve done anything to be ashamed of it was more out of pity than anything else. Surely it is only fair that I leave all this confusion for a better life. After all, we’re only here for a few fleeting moments, as Adam often says. 

Darkly funny, this is a twisted look at subversive female behaviour. A Working Mother should appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Filed under Fiction, Owens Agnes

Late in the Day: Tessa Hadley

“Isn’t it impossible, though, anyway, to love someone all the time?”

When Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day opens, Alexandr is married to Christine. They have an adult daughter together, Isobel, and Alexandr has a son, Sandy, from a previous marriage. Lydia and husband Zachary have a daughter, Grace, who is an art student in Glasgow. Alexandr and Zachary are long-time friends, and Christine and Lydia, in spite of being polar opposites, are also girlhood friends, but to add to the entanglement of these two couples. Lydia and Christine also babysat Alex’s son when he was married to his former wife.

Ok, so now we have that straight.

Late in the Day opens with the sudden, unexpected death of Zachary. Christine receives a phone call from Lydia and she dashes off to the hospital, scoops up Lydia and brings her home. We all grieve in different ways, and Lydia is in a state of shock when she makes the call to Christine, and yet … there’s something about Lydia that rings warning bells. Does Christine hear? Christine’s first instinct is to guess that Lydia “would be made more domineering somehow by the blow of Zachary’s death.”

Gregarious art gallery owner Zachary is dead when the book begins, but as the novel delves into the past, tangled relationships of these four people, we see him as a rather larger-than-life personality, so his death leaves a hole behind in the lives of the survivors.  Grace acknowledges that “of all of us, he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.”  With Zachary’s sudden death, Lydia seems at a loss to move on, and while this is perfectly natural given the circumstances, there’s something not quite right going on here. We learn how Lydia, as a young girl was fixated on Alex, but how he barely noticed her.  Eventually Alex married Christine while Zachary fell for Lydia.

While funeral arrangements are made, Lydia stays with Christine, and an uncomfortable sensation begins to build which begins with Lydia taking over so much space with her make-up. Lydia appears to be a high maintenance person which probably explains why Alex avoided her years earlier, but now there are undercurrents in Alex and Christine’s marriage, perhaps fueled by frustrated career ambitions, that open the way for turbulence.

Now Lydia set out her brushes and mirror and all the apparatus of her make-up and skin care on top of the chest of drawers: pots and tubes of cream, lipsticks and eye-shadows spilling from bags that were pretty curiosities in themselves, embroidered and patterned zip-bags, or pouches with tasselled silk drawstrings. She draped the mirror and the chair backs with her jewellery and scarves, and the room began to smell of her perfumes. Soon all the surfaces and the floor space were cluttered. 

I liked the premise of the novel, and it’s certainly well-written, but found it hard to care for the characters who seem uninteresting in spite of tantalizing details. Alex, for example, was a poet who gave up and went into teaching. He eventually made headmaster but decided to return to the classroom. Then there’s Christine who keeps her workroom locked and the key hidden. As the history of these four people is gradually revealed I found myself saying wondering what on earth Christine expected. But then perhaps the outcome wasn’t so ‘accidental’ after all.

The novel is strongest in its portrayal of marriage as a shifting, organic entity, and the trickiness of female friendship which seems to be laced with undercurrents of competition. Christine and Lydia have a shared history but little else in common. Lydia is a bird-of-paradise, and Christine is “used to being bruised by Lydia.” Here’s Christine talking to Lydia about marriage. Christine’s daughter, Isobel is about to leave for university and she anticipates the emptiness created by her daughter’s absence.

-Something’s over, though. I didn’t think it would be over so quickly. It felt so monumental and permanent, when it began. You’d think this was something a woman would feel, wouldn’t you, who had no life of her own and had invested too much in her children. But there it is. 

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Hadley Tessa

Midnight All Day: Hanif Kureishi

When it comes to writing about relationships, author Hanif Kureishi is unsparing.  Some of us might add the description cynical, but others might add pragmatic. Midnight All Day is a collection of short stories in which troubled relationships are at the fore. Some relationships are dying, some are just beginning, but regardless where the relationships place on the longevity scale, nothing is ever simple. Here’s a list of the stories:

Strangers When We Meet

Four Blue Chairs

That Was Then

Girl

Sucking Stones

A Meeting, At Last

Midnight All Day

The Umbrella

Morning in the Bowl of Night

The Penis

In Strangers When We Meet, Rob, an actor, is supposed to go on holiday with his older married mistress, Florence, but when her husband inconveniently (and at the last minute) decides to take the trip with her, all the plans are ruined. Rob finds himself in a small seaside town, booked into the same hotel as Florence and her husband. In fact Florence and Archie are in the room next door, and when the story opens, Rob has his ear to the wall trying to hear what is going on between Florence and her husband. It’s rather funny in a dark, twisted way, as Rob feels that the husband is the usurper, not him. Rob is, at first, really upset that his holiday is ruined, but seeing Florence with her husband somehow places her in a different light.

midnight all day

In Four Blue Chairs, a man and a woman who had an affair and subsequently left their partners decide to host their first dinner guest as a couple. Their decision to buy new chairs throws their relationship into question and also serves to show how the relationship will be conducted moving forward.

In That Was Then, Nick, a former pop journalist, now a married, respectable writer agrees to meet his former lover, Natasha. Nick is a bit worried about the meeting as Natasha is from his wild past:

We are unerring on our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something–to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead, or, worst of all, give us the impressions that they are not inappropriate, but almost right, thus hanging us in love’s limbo.

If you are a writer and yearn to be published, then Sucking Stones may be a difficult story to read. This is the tale of middle-aged, divorced Marcia, a teacher, who fits writing in with everything else–raising a child as a single parent, working, cooking, etc. After getting a short story published, she started a writers’ group, and its members are “all, somehow, thwarted,” in their writing careers. Marcia thinks that the other writers in the group make “crass mistakes” yet are “astonished and sour” when this is brought to their attention. Marcia “didn’t believe she was such a fool.”

One day Marcia meets a popular author at a book signing. The author invites Marcia to her home, so things are looking up for Marcia. Is someone finally taking her seriously?  It’s a painful encounter, but it’s worse when the author pops into Marcia’s home:

Marcia and Alec were having fish fingers and baked beans. Aurelia must have been close; Marcia had hardly cleaned the table, and Alec hadn’t finished throwing his toys behind the sofa, when Aurelia’s car drew up outside. 

At the door she handed Marcia another signed copy of her new novel, came in, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

What a beautiful boy,’ she said of Alec. ‘Fine hair–almost white.’

‘And how are you?’ asked Marcia

‘Tired. I’ve been doing readings and giving interviews, not only here but in Berlin and Barcelona. The French are making a film about me, and the Americans want me to make a film about my London.’

While Marcia struggles to find time to write, she wants her mother to pitch in caring for Alec. The contentious meetings between Marcia and her mother highlight their opposing needs:

‘What about me?’ said mother. ‘I haven’t even had a cup of tea today. Don’t I need time too?’

Marcia also has a strangely complicated yet no-strings relationship with Sandor, an underemployed Bulgarian who works as a porter. He’s content and happy with his circumstances, happy to read, drink and sleep with women. His contentment is in contrast to Marcia’s rather frazzled desires to write.

While I didn’t care for a couple of the stories: Girl and The Penis, I enjoyed the others immensely, and the collection is a good reminder of how much I like reading this author. In these stories we see how people are part of our lives but then we (or they) move on. Phases might be a better way of putting it–people are in certain phases of our lives but then things change.  Do we change? Do our tastes change? Do our needs change?  In Strangers When We Meet, for example, the story moves forward in time. Rob is now successful  and when he meets Florence again, she’s … a bit desperate. Ex spouses, ex lovers, yes they may hold a place in our past, but life is in a continual state of flux. Nothing is static.

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Filed under Fiction, Kureishi, Hanif

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy

The Belting Inheritance: Julian Symons (1964)

In The Belting Inheritance from Julian Symons, a long-lost son, thought killed in WWII returns years later to the family mansion to claim his estate. But is he an imposter?

The book’s plot is not original, but it’s the way this story is told which makes The Belting Inheritance so entertaining. The narrator is Christopher, who is orphaned at age twelve and subsequently taken in by his mother’s aunt, the autocratic Lady Wainwright. Lady Wainwright had four sons: Hugh, David, Stephen and Miles. The two eldest boys, Hugh and David were killed in the war, but the younger two–although well into middle-age, still live with their mother. The house is vast, gloomy, and it’s ruled completely by Lady Wainwright. She dominates her sons and brooks no one else’s opinions on any matters.

The story, which is told in retrospect, has a Victorian feel to it, and this is partially due to the Victorian matriarch who supports unemployed sons (of nobility) who can lounge and enjoy lives of leisure. The plot itself, a lost heir who arrives to claim his fortune seems Victorian. Author Julian Symons wisely notes this fact several times in the novel, and even makes a comment about “what Wilkie Collins calls detective fever.” The massive house, Belting, which is marvelously described, seems an edifice from a long-past era, but then Lady Wainwright runs her establishment with old fashioned rules:

But the thing I hated the most was the prevailing gloom. The house was dark, Lady W was mean in small matters, and at the same time in the past she had been told that daytime lamps were better for the eyes than ordinary yellow electric light. The hall and all the corridors, both upstairs and down, were bathed in a funerael blue glow. 

Uncle Stephen, a rather petty-minded nasty character lives at Belting with his tweed-sporting, dog-breeder wife Clarissa who bemoans “the impossibility of getting a decent kennel maid.” Since Lady Wainwright’s sons only escaped her in death, Uncle Miles also lives at the house. Lady Wainwright becomes terminally ill and lo and behold a man shows up claiming to be the long-lost David. He has a plausible sounding story and knows facts about Belting and its inhabitants that only a family intimate could possibly know. Stephen and Miles are hostile to David’s claim as they stand to lose a great deal of money, and Clarissa goes as far as to threaten to set her dogs on the man who claims to be David. But Christopher, at first, believes that David is not an imposter.

Family politics are often messy and the plot makes good use of the idea that Christopher may be a Wainwright but he’s still an outsider. When a murder occurs, Christopher becomes more curious about the man who claims to be David, so he begins an investigation of his own which alters his rather protected, privileged world: he discovers that the Wainwrights are not universally liked.

While the story gets to the root of the claimant’s authenticity it’s also a story of a controlling mother who hobbles and isolates her sons by encouraging their artistic pretensions which are supported by remaining at Belting. As the plot develops, Christopher becomes his own person, gains objectivity about his family, and has a romantic adventure. The Belting Inheritance is very entertaining and for crime fans, it’s well-worth reading. It’s marvelous in its characterizations of a fading, privileged family who cling to tradition, brook no criticism, are close knit, but loathe each other:

There was something about the passion with which Stephen tore a bread roll into pieces, the savage loving care with which he dissected a piece of fish, that remains with me still.

Review copy

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A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

“Marriage is such a sordid, morbid relationship.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s dark novel A Wreath of Roses explores the relationships between three women–relationships which cause them to question the choices they have made. Each of these women: Frances, Liza and Camilla, have chosen different paths in life with varied success. Frances, at one time, was Liz’s governess, but since retirement, she’s concentrated on painting. Liz married a vicar while her childhood friend Camilla, a school secretary, damaged from a long-ago relationship slides into spinsterhood. Camilla travels, as she does every year, to the country home of Frances, where she will spend the summer with Liz, but this year is different. Frances is ill. Liz now has a baby, and for the first time, Camilla is shut out from experiences she has not had, cannot understand, and professes to reject.

A wreath of roses

A Wreath of Roses opens ominously. Camilla has reached a point in her life where she realises that life has passed her by. Being in Liz’s company serves to reinforce Camilla’s unhappiness: yet her observations about Liz are not black and white, not simple. On one hand, she can’t understand why Liz chose to marry a self-absorbed vicar, and the demanding presence of Liz’s baby has served to place a distance between the two childhood friends. Camilla is independent and can please herself while Liz frets about her baby’s health and her husband’s wandering attention.

Frances, who is ill, contemplates death, the meaningless of life and now paints from “an inner darkness.”  She has maintained a long-time correspondence with Mr Beddoes,  a rather lonely bachelor whose “spiritual” relationship with Frances is about to change when he travels to meet her for the first time. As a film director and an ardent observer of human nature, he’s the first person to recognise that Camilla is heading into danger through her relationship with Richard Elton, an enigmatic man, a charmer, also on holiday. Richard claims to be writing a book about his war experiences. ….

Camilla, who wants to return to her boring employment with memories to help fill her sterile life, finds herself attracted to Richard in spite of several warning signs and in spite of the fact that he’s not her ‘type’ at all. He has the “conventional good-looks of the kind that she, Camilla, believed she despised,” and Richard, for his part, dismisses Camilla as a “schoolmistress.”  A terrible event brings them into each other’s orbit, and once there, Richard and Camilla sense a need that can be fulfilled.  But they need different things:

“And women. Love.” he went on impatiently. “Where does it lead to, I wondered.”

“Must it lead somewhere?” She smiled.

“For a few days it didn’t need to. Then it would all seem like a play I was acting in. Been acting in a long time. A long run, and I knew all my lines too well and was stale and boring everyone. But most of all myself. Then I tried death.”

“Death?”

“In the war,” he said lightly. “I went up very close to it. My own and other people’s. And there it was. Unlike all the other things, it never changed. It was always real. I seem to carry the thought of it about with me.”

“You mustn’t.”

“Oh … I shan’t … it’s just that people are like doors. They lead you into empty rooms. You pass through and are left with yourself. Only death goes through ahead of you.”

Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the darkest undercurrent in this novel, and the novel’s tone is lightened by the gossip borne by Mrs Parsons, the cleaning lady, and by Liz fretting about her relationship with her husband. Liz acknowledges that her husband being a clergyman added to his initial attraction, and hinted at “inner mystery.” Liz is beginning to wonder if she made a mistake:

“I did think, though,” she continued, at once disregarding her own instructions, “that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered there was even less.”

Liz finds she is irritated by her husband’s almost continual presence at home and that she “is left with a rather cold and greedy man sitting at his desk writing notes to other women–casual-seeming little notes which take him hours and hours to scribble off.” This summer is a period of adjustment for Liz: she must adjust to married life, motherhood, and her responsibilities (and sacrifices) as a vicar’s wife.

A Wreath of Roses examines the lives of three women who all wonder if they made the right choices. There’s Frances who “assumed” the act of being an old maid while her dark view of life and unexpressed passion erupt in her art. Acknowledging that she threw herself into raising Liz, Frances admits that she also “evaded the pain and the delight of human-relationships.” Frances sees Camilla making the same choices that she did and even at one point says that “even Liz’s marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 

“We go on for years at a jog-trot,” Frances said, “and then suddenly we are beset by doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone, all at once that we must grope our way forward for we cannot retrace our footsteps.”

While Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the novel’s darkest point, another dark undercurrent flows from Frances’s nihilistic view of life.

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.”

She sat down on a kitchen-chair and looked at the lamp burning; her clenched hand beat nervously against her thigh.

“The only thing that makes sense of it all is looking up at the sky at night and knowing that even the burden of cruelty we’ve laid upon the earth, scarcely exists; must fly away into dust, is nothing, too infinitesimal to matter. All the time, the house is falling into ruin, and I run to the walls  and tack my pretty pictures to them as they collapse.”

Caroline’s Review is here.

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Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

Newcomer: Keigo Higashino

Keigo Higsahino’s Newcomer is a police procedural featuring Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department. Kaga has just been transferred to Nihonbashi area of Tokyo and he’s assigned to the murder case of a woman.

Newcomer

Newcomer is a slow burn novel. Residents of the Nihonbashi area are slowly introduced as individuals within their settings, and since this is a business district, we see people in the context of their employment.  In the first chapter, for example, we meet the three generations of one family who run a rice cracker shop. It’s been run by one generation or another for the past 50 years, and while the members of this family become dragged into the investigation (their part is to whether or not they can verify the alibi of a suspect), their tiny role in the murder investigation expands into family dynamics and the shifting role of the rice cracker business.

As the investigation begins, we know very little about the victim or the murder. These details are very gradually added as Detective Kaga makes his way through various businesses in the district. His investigation is hampered by the fact that everyone seems to have something to hide. The big question is whether or not these individuals are hiding personal problems or information relating to the murder.

The structure of Newcomer reminds me of TV series police procedurals in which the detectives glom onto one person at a time, one suspect per episode. Broadchurch (series 1) had this sort of structure, for example, and with each episode, you thought DI Alex Hardy and DS Ellie Miller had their killer–after all the actions of the suspects made them seem as guilty as hell. Newcomer is subtler and more focused on the sociological aspects of the Nihonbashi district, but it’s the same structure–minus the pressure. Kaga almost savours the case:

“That’s not how police investigations work. We have to sift through every little detail, asking ourselves why such and such a thing occurred. That will eventually lead us to the truth, even if all those individual things have no direct connection to one another.”

This is not an action-packed novel by any means and requires patience (and interest in Japanese life) to read. I was somewhat frustrated by knowing next to nothing about the murder which begins almost as a rumour which subsequently echoes around the district and then begins to touch the lives of its residents. The book, however, seems to be appreciated by fans of the author. I preferred Malice, but then police procedurals are not my favourite sub genre when it comes to crime

Review copy.

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Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

“How am I to know you’re not some criminal lunatic?”

Ingrid Noll’s Hell Hath No Fury is a darkly funny tale of obsession, murder, and female competition for a worthless man. The tale, told by an insane stalker who sees her actions as perfectly reasonable and granting her a new enthusiasm for life, examines two questions: how far would someone go to get what they want and do they really want it anyway?

52 -year-old dowdy spinster Rosemarie Hirte leads a quiet life; she’s a good, reliable employee, and she’s only had a couple of romantic relationships. After being dumped by a fellow law student in her youth, she never managed to finish her degree, but instead moved into the insurance business. Now she lives in an apartment in Mannheim, and she has a friend, Beate, a woman she first knew in school. Beate, at one point, had everything that Rosemarie didn’t: a husband, a home, a family, and a social life. “Deep down” Rosemarie is “consumed with hostility towards so much sunshine,” but when Beate’s marriage ends, the two women become closer.

Hell hath no fury

Due to Beate’s drive towards self-improvement and new experiences, Rosemarie first sets eyes on middle-aged academic Rainer Witold Engstern. She becomes obsessed with him, has her hair cut, begins wearing clothes that are “romantically frivolous,” and begins stalking him.

Throughout this tale, the figure of Frau Romer, an older woman who works with Rosemarie, flits in and out of the narrative. With significant health issues, she lodges her elderly dog with Rosemarie, and the dog becomes a prop in Rosemarie’s twisted schemes to be with Witold.

Now I had a crazy idea. I thumbed through the telephone directory. Where did my Rainer Witold Engstern live? Or should I just call him Witold? My first flick through produced nothing, but at last I struck oil. R. Engstern, Ladenburg–got him! Good grief, with no rush-hour traffic, I could drive there in fifteen minutes. I even dug out a street plan of Ladenburg and found his street too, a little way outside the old town. The dog was giving me questioning looks. I felt young, thirsting for adventure. I still had a jogging outfit from my last day at the spa in Bad Sassbach, although I never wore it. So, on with that, dog on its lead, down the stairs, into the car and off we go!

A few trips, later spying on Witold’s house, Rosemarie decides the mess in his home is due to his “slovenly bitch” wife, who is conspicuously absent. It’s the appearance of Witold’s wife that sets a macabre chain of events into motion, and as Rosemarie wheedles her way into Witold’s world, the women in his life don’t realize that they have a rival who will stop at nothing to win the prize. Such as it is…

Hell Hath No Fury is brilliantly and unreliably narrated by Rosemarie. She tends to see what she wants to see, and this twisted vision leads down the path to murder. Rosemarie is the sort of woman people don’t notice, a woman defined by her status and not by the bitter, seething, buried cauldron of repressed desire and emotion bubbling away just under the surface. She lives the life of a “martinet,” keeping her spleen to herself when parents wax on about their children and their love lives. Rosemarie loathes the parent-child bond, hates other women, especially if they are attractive and can cook, and she knows she is one of the “leftovers sat on the fringes like fossils.” She’s always been hiding in plain sight, but it’s her desire for Witold that unleashes her true nature.

As the story progresses, Witold is clueless, and being in his self-centered, not particularly bright orbit, Rosemarie begins to wonder if the prize is worth all the effort, but by this point, she’s narcotized by “an addictive urge,” the power of wielding life and death.

The dark humour springs from the incongruity of Rosemarie as a serial killer and the tart, spiteful inner dialogue about the people she socialises with. Most of Witold’s friends include her as a form of kindness which is rather wasted on Rosemarie. Rosemarie’s thought processes seem so very reasonable, but juxtaposed with her actions, the story takes on a macabre comic tone. She toys with the idea of whether or not to kill someone with the lightness of tone that’s more appropriate to deciding which shirt to wear.  At one point she experiments with poison and decides: “No I told myself, poisoning is not my thing.”

And when I arrived at the last page, I laughed out loud.

Highly, highly recommended

Translated by Ian Mitchell

(This is one of my picks for German literature month, and many thanks to Caroline for pointing me towards this author. )

 

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The Count of 9: Erle Stanley Gardner (1958) Writing as A. A. Fair

“Double lives are simple. It’s triple lives and quadruple lives that give you the excitement.”

I’ve read earlier Cool and Lam novels: The Knife Slipped and Turn on the Heat. The Count of 9 hasn’t been published in over 50 years, and since it’s classic Erle Stanley Gardner, it’s also a refreshing change from the standard PI novel. Witty, snappy dialogue helps of course, but the heroes here, Donald and to a lesser degree his partner, Bertha, shape this gumshoe novel into a lively, engaging romp.

The count of 9

Donald Lam has finally made partner in the private detective company owned by Bertha Cool. He’s always done most of the leg work with Bertha arranging the jobs and spending most of the money while Donald is kept on a shoestring budget. The novel opens with Bertha landing a job to guard a society party from gatecrashers. This may sound like a strange assignment but the wealthy eccentric throwing the party, Dean Crockett II, threw a party three weeks earlier which resulted in the theft of a valuable carved Jade Buddha.

The job seems simple enough: Crockett, who is serious about his privacy and his security, lives on the twentieth floor of an apartment building. First all visitors check with the front desk, and then, if a visitor is approved, Crockett gives the green light which sends the elevator to the guest. This is “special elevator” which only travels to Crockett’s penthouse. For the night of the party, visitors must request permission for the elevator from the desk staff on the ground floor, and then Bertha’s job is to check the invitations against the guest list, but in spite of all these precautions a blowgun, poison darts, and a Jade Buddha, which matches the one that was already stolen, disappear from the Crockett apartment.

Crockett is furious, but his third wife, a former beauty queen, is a calming force. Since Donald and Bertha are already familiar with the case, they are hired to track the thief. Donald applies some basic logic and is soon hot on the trail of a very clever thief. But the case is complicated by murder. …

While Donald certainly has no small success with women, the novel places Donald on the opposite side of a lecherous photographer. There’s a very funny conversation between Donald and the photographer with the latter bragging about how he tricks women. Donald responds by pretending admiration which is covered with a patina of dislike. We get it, but the photographer, who is enamored with himself, misses the signals:

He opened another drawer, took out the usual eight-by-ten professional portraits, then some full-length shots with legs and bathing suits.

“Nice looker,” I said.

He hesitated a moment, then took an envelope out of the drawer. “You look like a good egg, he said.” “Maybe you’d be interested in these.”

I opened the envelope. It had a dozen five-by-seven shots of the same girl. This time she was posing for pictures I was certain had been suggested by the photographer. Clothes were absent. 

“How do you like that number?”

“Class,” I said.

“Lots of them are like that. I won’t monkey with them unless they’re real class.”

Donald Lam is an interesting protagonist. There are many references to his diminutive stature (made by the beefy Bertha Cool), and while Donald is capable and intelligent, he doesn’t come across as hyper-masculine. That said, he doesn’t need to prove anything. He’s always a sucker for a damsel in distress and Bertha can never quite understand his success with women. One of the funnier aspects of the book is Bertha’s attitude towards her own sex. She sees, and resents, how lookers get away with a great deal, and since it’s suspected that the person responsible for the theft of the first jade Buddha was a woman who hid the statue in her dress, Bertha states that she would “have picked her up by her heels, stood her on her head and shaken the damn thing out.

review copy.

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Family Trust: Kathy Wang

At 74 Stanley Huang is active, dapper and a picture of good health. Back in San Jose from his latest all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise, Stanley is very proud that he has actually lost weight in spite of loading himself with unlimited desserts. But then Stanley begins to have a nagging doubt about weight loss after “twelve days of gastronomic Bacchanalia over international waters. “ A trip to the doctor eventually leads to a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

Family trustStanley’s illness is the starting point for this story which explores fractured family dynamics in the face of a terminal diagnosis. Stanley has a much younger second wife, Mary Zhu (ex-waitress/massage therapist ) a still pissed-off first wife, Linda and children Fred and Kate. A huge question looms over the family. Does Stanley have any money and who will inherit it?

Stanley’s ex-wife, Linda isn’t particularly concerned about Stanley’s diagnosis. She’s “annoyed” by the “revisionist history her children had indulged in ever since Stanley’s diagnosis.” She’s far more concerned with the financial aspect of things. To Linda, Stanley never came through with his promises, and was “lazy and incompetent,” plus terminally unfaithful while she slaved to earn the money for the family.

Even thirtysomething years later, when she’d finally located her courage, had gone and left him, told him that they were going to divorce, leaving him openmouthed and speechless, helplessly steaming in his armchair-even then, he’d managed to come out ahead. Stanley had recovered quickly enough from his brief period of depression, sighing up for a series of elite gym memberships a month after he’d moved out, rebounding shortly after with a sequence of increasingly younger girlfriends. A series of events he’d then capped off by getting remarried with undignified speed. A marriage he couldn’t help but publicize by braying to everyone how happy he was, making it appear as if he was the one who’d left her. Because she was still alone, of course. 

Unbeknownst to her children, Linda was the real breadwinner of the family and gave Stanley a generous divorce settlement when his philandering became too much for her to tolerate. Stanley’s assurances of a large inheritance and a family trust do nothing to assuage Linda’s concerns that her feckless ex will prove true to his character—even in his last months. Plus then there’s the second wife who, in spite of her enthusiastic efforts to find miracle cures for her much-older husband, seems almost delighted to hasten him into the grave. Will she get the money or will Stanley leave it all to his children as promised? Here’s Linda taking charge at a dreaded family meeting:

She clicked the pen impatiently. “I want to write the numbers down, so that there’s no confusion. It should be very simple. First you determine your net worth. Then you define a token–that means small, Stanley–amount you give to Mary. Everything else goes to the children.”

“I have to take care of Mary,” Stanley said. “I am everything to her.” 

Both of Stanley’s children have considerable problems of their own. Harvard Business School graduate Fred has never made good on his early promise. Former classmates have soared into the company of the 1% but Fred, divorced by his dissatisfied wife, lingers in his profession’s “swampy bottom.” He’s dating Saks saleswoman, Hungarian immigrant Erika. Part of his attraction to Erika is her avarice, but it’s naive avarice. In other words, given his job title and income (over 300K a year) he can snow Erika into thinking he’s far more affluent than he really is.

Stanley’s daughter Kate is struggling with some serious personal problems. She is the sole breadwinner while her husband, Denny, hides out with “the majority of his daylight hours unaccounted for, lazing about in a cozily furnished attic” supposedly gathering investors for his start-up which has yet to materialize.

Linda, Stanley’s ex, has always been the sensible one when it comes to money, and yet, she begins to plunge into the murky waters of internet dating after a conversation with ‘friend’ Shirley, a woman Linda dislikes:

She’d undertaken a through redecoration of both herself and her house after her husband,  Alfred, had passed, and each now reflected the Versailles-lite sensibilities of a provincial government official.

This is a tale of Chinese Americans whose lives are driven by status markers. Given the subject matter, death in the face of a terminal diagnosis, it’s bold indeed for this first time author to take a spiky humorous approach. We follow Linda, Fred and Kate’s lives as Stanley’s diagnosis becomes all too real. He grows frailer and frailer while the question of money grows stronger. And as we all know, people are at their worst when money enters the picture.

The back stories of each character were overly detailed and I wanted the story to propel forwards–not backwards, but the moments between the family members were perfect. Here’s Mary Zhu, elevated to nurse status:

“Last week they brought in a special tree bark I ordered; it had to be sent from Hong Kong. I’ve been brewing it into a tea for Stanley. It’s supposed to be very powerful against cancer. For many people, it is a near-instant cure.” She prattled on, detailing all the various acupuncturist, healers, and meditation gurus whose skills were being summoned. Next to her, Stanley preened, lapping it up.

Linda decided she’d had enough. “Please inform your wife that I am a full supporter of Western medicine,” she said to Stanley in English. To her left she heard Kate sigh. But she didn’t care. Lunch was over. 

The novel has a lot of energy, and the author clearly has a complex story to tell. I am fascinated by inheritance plots, and if you are too, then you will enjoy this novel that takes a irreverent, humorous look at the question of assets that may or may exist and may or may not be passed to the next generation My attraction to inheritance stories may be a Balzac thing, and/or it may be the fact that I have seen many inheritance scenarios go horribly wrong.

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Wang Kathy