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The 22 Murders of Madison May: Max Barry

Last year, Max Barry’s novel Providence made my best-of-year list. Providence, a science fiction novel, follows a ship’s crew as it heads into the Violet Zone, deep space, as the battleship, on a search and destroy mission, hunts for Salamanders, a hostile race locked into a war in space with humans. Providence tackles big questions such as AI vs. human intelligence–both come with flaws. It’s been over a year since I read Providence and I still think about the book almost daily. Roll onto 2021, and it’s The 22 Murders of Madison May. When I first saw the name of Barry’s latest, the title seemed to have a playfulness to it–and I thought about that. ‘Murder’ isn’t playful at all, so the playful aspect comes from the name Madison May. The name is a bit stripper-ish, a bit actress-y.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is also science-fiction, a parallel universe novel. When the story opens, Madison May, a sweet, young real estate agent is about to show a home, a “dump.” Since she’s meeting the buyer, a man named Clay, alone, she takes his photo for “security.” Clay seems more interested in Madison than the house, and she begins to get bad vibes. There are horrible bite wounds on his arms, all in various stages of healing. He locks the doors, takes Madison’s phone and asks her to come into the bedroom to talk. Madison, who is a naturally perky person, decides that the best course of action is to humour Clay, at least until she can run, and after all, her office has Clay’s photo and all his information so “it would be crazy for Clay to do anything.

Once in the bedroom, Clay tells Madison that he’s traveled from another world just to see her.

“All this …” He gestured to … the room, the curtains? No, no: the world of course. “It’s a drop in the ocean. There are more worlds. More than you can count. They look the same but they’re not, not if you pay attention. And you’re in all of them. Everywhere I go, you’re doing different things. Every time I leave, it’s to find you again.”

That day, reporter Felicity Staples is asked to cover a murder. That’s not her usual beat, but since Levi, the paper’s crime reporter is out, Felicity goes to the crime scene. Real estate agent, Madison May is the murder victim, and outside of the taped crime scene a man and a woman stand watching. The crime scene is bloody, and “the drywall had been carved open with thick slashes. There were five angled prongs crossing a circle.” What do the marks mean?

Felicity discovers that the “insignia” carved into the wall is the same insignia on a cap worn by man who was outside of the crime scene when Felicity arrives, but the police don’t seem interested in her tip. A little amateur detective work on logos leads her to The Soft Horizon Juice Company. From this point, things don’t add up: there’s a man, named Hugo, who should be in Sing Sing for murdering his wife, walking the streets of Manhattan. Just what is The Soft Horizon Juice Company and how is it connected to Madison’s murder? After being shoved off of a subway platform, Felicity returns home but there’s something off…. . She’s still a reporter, her boyfriend is still tried-and-true Gavin, but there’s something not quite right:

She felt off-balance. There was something wrong and she couldn’t figure out what.

Felicity inadvertently becomes mixed up in the hunt for a serial killer, but unlike most serial killers, Clay travels to parallel universes to kill the same woman. Over and over again.

So that’s enough of the plot. Max Barry’s entertaining novel is mind-blowing for those of us who love or believe in parallel universe theory. This could be a grim read, but the author seeds this with light touches. Felicity’s boyfriend is slightly different in each universe; sometimes better, sometimes not. As Felicity steps into and adjusts to, her subsequent new lives, parallel universe travel brings up some moral questions.

“There’s no time travel. You’re in a physically different place. It shares an ancestor with where you’re from, but at some point it split. Since then, it evolved independently.”

“You’re saying there are two worlds? A real one and a … a secret–?”

“Many worlds. Detaching and refolding all the time. Nothing makes one more real than the other.”

“Parallel dimensions?she said, groping for a concept. “Is that what you’re saying?”

Another winner from Max Barry

review copy

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A Dark Corner: Celia Dale (1971)

Why don’t we keep him, dear?”

Celia Dale (1912-2011) and Celia Fremlin (1914-2009), both authors of British crime novels (and both named Celia!) excel at establishing the ordinary, the domestic, the mundane, and then weaving in terror. Celia Dale’s A Dark Corner is a perfect example of the author’s favourite themes: Imagine then , it’s a dark, London evening, pouring with rain when Mrs. Didcot, a woman whose poor health and limited mobility keep her at home, hears someone at the front door. It’s a young black man, Errol, soaked to the skin, bent over with a terrible cough. He says he’s “come about the room,” but there must be some sort of mistake. The Didcots, a quiet couple who keep to themselves, aren’t looking for a lodger, let alone advertising for one. But Mrs. Didcot, feeling sorry for Errol, allows him into the house, puts him in front of the fire to dry off and awaits her husband’s return. …

Arthur Didcot, a methodical man who is “as neat as a cat,” decides to let Errol stay, but though he makes the decision, he’s still very cautious about Errol. Arthur checks out Errol’s story, and even rifles through his meagre belongings. Satisfied, Arthur allows Errol to stay and given the attic to sleep in, and Errol is warned not to ‘wander’ about. The idea is that Errol will keep Mrs. Didcot company in the evenings when Mr. Didcot leaves, and while this happens, it soon becomes apparent, Mr. Didcot “cultivated” Errol on Sundays.

The Didcots seem fascinated by Errol “as though he were some rare but domesticated creature whose ways were marvellous.” These are the times of Enoch Powell, and Errol’s quiet demeanor challenges the Didcots’ racial attitudes. Errol’s race plays a twist in this tale, and it’s a devilish twist, breathtaking in its evil.

The Didcots, who address each other as ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ are a joyless couple. Their only child died in an accident many years before, and now Mr. Didcot dominates his wife house-bound wife, Nelly. While he ‘takes care of her,’ the degree of control and dominance are unhealthy. It’s easy to control and dominate the infirm, and this behaviour, which would be screamingly repellent towards the healthy, isn’t quite so obvious when dealing with those with limited mobility. But just what do the Didcots want from Errol? Companionship? Or something more? As Mr. Didcot tells Errol, “you add something, something bizarre.”

There’s a marvellous description of the Didcots’ neighbourhood. It’s over a page long and it evokes a creepiness in its details of houses, mostly neglected:

Some of them were coming up a little; they have pink front doors and a carriage lamp beside it, window boxes and the walls in front of the basement windows have been taken away. Some of them are going down and await development; pale corrugated iron masks their doors and lower windows, their paths are cracked, their gates gone, rubbish is scattered among the sour grass of their gardens, and even to the topmost floor someone has broken their windows.

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Lady in the Lake: Laura Lippman

Once again set in Baltimore, Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is a crime novel inspired by the 1969 death of Shirley Parker, a woman who worked at Baltimore’s Sphinx Club. Turning to fiction, the Lady in the Lake is Cleo, a black woman with a chequered past, who is initially a missing person until she turns up dead in a fountain in Druid Hill Park.

At the heart of the story is Maddie Schwartz, a well-to-do married woman in her 30s who leaves her husband, Milton, son, Seth, and affluent lifestyle to start a new life. There’s nothing really wrong with the marriage, but Maddie feels “as if she had been living in one of those shoebox dioramas” children build. It’s a ‘perfect’ life in many ways; it’s certainly the type of life that’s expected of her, but Maddie wants more. After leaving Milton and her comfortable life, Maddie receives a small allowance from her husband, sets up in a grotty flat, and she quickly discovers that “post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.” She tries to sell a ring to raise cash, and this act leads to her illicit relationship with black patrol cop, Ferdie.

When Maddie finds a murdered child during a search, she capitalizes on her social skills and inside knowledge of the case in order to get a start in journalism. Having gained some exclusive information (bedroom talk) she trades this for a minor job assisting the Helpline columnist of the Baltimore Star, a man named Don Heath. Once in this job, Maddie becomes involved in the Cleo Sherwood case, and ambition drives Maddie onward.

The story is told through a host of characters. With any crime, stories narrow down to victim and perpetrator. We tend to forget that many lives are irrevocably altered by a murder. Sweeping in all the people impacted by Cleo’s death (as well as sundry others) Lippman captures the sensation of the ripples from Cleo’s death. However, while some voices added a great deal to the story, others seemed superfluous. I liked seeing Maddie through the eyes of other characters, and while I was never quite convinced by Maddie’s drive to leave her cocooned life with Milton, other characters’ impressions of Maddie helped fill out her character. Maddie is a privileged woman whose social position opens doors, and she seems to be a bit on the powder puff side, yet the stunt she pulls with her ring reveals a hard side, and it’s clear that Maddie is going to have a career, a good career as she’s extremely ambitious. Maddie’s ambition is nicely contrasted against many other characters whose lives are sad and disappointing. There’s reporter Bob Bauer who compares his private life to a Baltimore version of Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball, yet Bauer’s wife is severely incapacitated by MS. Then there’s Don Heath who knows that he cannot outrun dementia.

I don’t think anyone lives long enough to imagine his next decade accurately. You get to thirty and you think you know what forty will be like, but you don’t, then comes fifty and boy does forty look good. I’m fifty-eight now and I’m not going to pretend I have a clue what my seventh decade will be, other than disappointing. Because every decade so far has been less than I hoped; why should the next one be different?

Not Lippman’s best; the story is too fragmented for that, but Lady in the Lake breathes life into the Baltimore world of the 60s, rife with racism and sexism.

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Marshlands: André Gide

Marshlands will never bore anyone as much as it bored me.”

I did not expect to find André Gide’s novel Marshlands witty and entertaining, but mix together a dilettante writer, an unhappy girlfriend, and a budding novel that sounds awful, and the result is a Metafictional romp. Marshlands is narrated by a young writer who explains his novel, Marshlands is:

inspired by two lines from Virgil: There’s a shepherd talking to another shepherd, and he tells him his field may be stony and swampy but it’s good enough for him, and being satisfied with it makes him very happy. Marshlands, then, is the story of someone who cannot travel. I shall name him Tityrus, after Virgil. Marshlands is the story of a man, who, possessing the field of Tityrus, does not strive to leave it, but rather contents himself with it.

Reminds me of Rasselas. …. So in other words, Tityrus is content with his lot–even though that ‘lot’ isn’t perfect. The narrator, at several points in the novel, says “I am Tityrus,” and states that what he’s “trying to express is the emotion I get from my life: boredom, vanity, monotony.” But Virgil’s Tityrus is happy with his lot. He apparently doesn’t experience boredom or monotony. So the narrator is a bit of a puzzle; on one hand he’s writing a novel about a man who’s content with his life, and yet even though he identifies with Tityrus, the narrator/author is far from content with his lot.

Marshlands depicts a life of frustration with our narrator believing only he can see how awful, boring and monotonous life is with everyone else in a state of blindness or delusion. On the very first page, the writer is visited by a friend, Hubert, and the novel, Marshlands immediately comes up for discussion. Hubert, a trapped audience, is subjected to a tedious synopsis of the plot. While it’s clear that Marshlands bores Hubert, he tells the narrator “you certainly know how to write.” And when the narrator reads sections of his budding novel to his friends, he’s told it’s boring (it is) and “both useless and unpleasant.”

Angela, the narrator’s girlfriend attempts to encourage her lover with his novel, and asks him to read some to her. He peevishly agrees:

“If you insist. I have precisely four or five pages of it here in my pocket.” Taking them out, I read to her as listlessly and monotonously as I could.

Angela declares the novel “might be the least little bit boring,” and the narrator blithely tells Angela:

And as for you and me. Angela, I promise you, our own prospects are even duller and more mediocre.”

“That’s not how I feel about it,” Angela said. “That’s because you don’t think about it. Precisely the subject of my book! Tityrus is not unhappy with his life, he likes contemplating the marshes, the changes in the weather impart to them a pleasant variety. But look at yourself, look at your own story! How much variety do you find there? How long have you lived in this apartment? I know, low rent. Low rent!-And it’s not just you! These windows, looking out on the street, or on backyards, and looking out you see walls or other people looking back at you … Must I go on? Your dresses, must I make you ashamed of them, too? And do you think we have ever really loved each other?”

“Nine o’clock,” she said. “I have to go. Hubert is giving his reading tonight.”

“What is he reading?” I asked, in spite of myself.

“Not Marshlands, that’s for sure!” And she left.

According to the narrator, Angela is not unhappy because she is “unaware of her condition,” and if her were to “open her eyes,” she “would no longer be satisfied.” If she became “aware” and then unhappy as a consequence of her new knowledge, then the narrator thinks “that would be much more interesting.”

The narrator’s fussiness, mostly seen through his journal entries and notes for his novel, add to the fun. He writes in his ‘daily planner,’ he admits, “a week in advance, so that I have time to forget what I wrote; surprises are always lying in wait, which are indispensable, given my of life.” In one section, he writes what he’s “going to do,” and then another section is devoted to what he actually did. Along the way he writes notes such as “devastate Hubert, (important),” “go explain to Magloire why I think he’s such as jerk,” and “be stunned at not having received a letter from Jules.” Deciding his life with Angela is lacking adventure, he declares that they take a spontaneous trip. Yet the trip is prefaced by the narrator’s “resolution” not to get up before 11, and then the trip is cut short when he hustles back to attend church. So much for spontaneity. There’s a sliver of Dostoevsky here in the narrator’s neurotic nature.

Translated by Damion Searls

Review copy

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The Moving Target: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 1:1949)

“You can’t blame money for what it does to people, the evil is in people and money is the peg they hang it on.”

Southern California millionaire, Ralph Sampson may be loaded, but he’s hanging out with all the wrong people. PI Lew Archer is hired by Sampson’s disaffected, much younger second wife to find her husband. Not that Mrs. Sampson really cares what Ralph is doing or who he’s with, just as long as he’s not giving away any more money. In spite of a crippling injury, Mrs. Sampson expects to outlive her husband and intends to inherit the whole enchilada.

There was a wheelchair standing beside her but she didn’t look like an invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark, her flesh seemed hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as a figure carved from mahogany.

According to Mrs. Sampson, her errant husband is “not missing exactly, just gone off by himself.” She wants to know where Ralph is and who he’s with. On the eccentric side, Ralph has gone off on a bender before. Ralph’s sexually precocious daughter, Miranda, is very concerned about her father, but she’s still got time to dangle herself in front of Ralph’s hunky pilot, Alan. Meanwhile, Ralph’s lawyer and family friend Albert Graves is desperately in love with Miranda. It would be a somewhat incongruous match due to their tremendous age gap, and Albert knows he’s outgunned by Alan.

Archer takes the case, noting that Ralph may not even be ‘missing’ or in danger. It’s thought that Ralph may be in Los Angeles, and according to Albert Graves, Los Angeles “isn’t safe for an elderly lush.” Graves notes that Mrs. Sampson has “dominant motives like greed and vanity,” but he’s there more to give Miranda his support and keep an eye on his rival, Alan. The search takes Archer to Los Angeles, seedy clubs, and a religious retreat run by a corrupt guru. Mingling with Hollywood has-beens, Archer finds himself getting an aging actress drunk. He despises himself for it; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. Ross Macdonald is an incredibly descriptive writer, a master of inventive similes, and in this novel, he creates the tawdry, cheap glamour of the low side of Hollywood. Archer is a man we want to hang out with. Who could refuse to ride shotgun?

“I used to think the world was divided into good people and bad people, that you could pin responsibility for evil on certain, definite people and punish the guilty. I’m still going through the motions. And talking too much.

Don’t stop.”

“I’m fouled up, why should I foul you up?”

“I am already. And I don’t understand what you said.

“I’ll take it from the beginning. When I went into police work in 1935, I believed that evil was a quality some people were born with, like a harelip. A cop’s job was to find those people and put them away. But evil isn’t so simple. Everybody has it in him and whether it comes out in his actions depends on a number of things: environment, opportunity, economic pressure, a piece of bad luck, a wrong friend. The trouble is a cop has to go on judging people by rule of thumb and acting on the judgment.”

“Do you judge people?”

“Everybody I meet. The graduates of the police schools make a big thing of scientific detection, and that has its place, but most of my work is watching people and judging them.”

“And you find evil in everybody?”

“Just about. Either I’m getting sharper or people are getting worse. And that could be. War and inflation always raise a crop of stinkers, and a lot of them have settled in California.”

That quote–the motives behind evil actions–is certainly true here. Archer is a marvelous creation, a terrific narrator: world weary and sardonic, the nature of his cases takes into the very heart of toxic, twisted family relationships. He’s seen a lot, and in spite of this, he maintains his humanity–possibly because he maintains his independence. He seems to be self-composed and yet Miranda sniffs, there’s a edge of self-destruction there under the surface, and this emerges as they talk about driving at high speeds.

“Do you drive fast?”

“I’ve done 105 on this road in the caddie.”

The rules of the game we were playing weren’t clear yet. But I felt outplayed. “And what’s your reason.”

I do it when I’m bored pretend to myself that I’m going to meet something. Something utterly new. Something naked and bright. A moving target in the road.”

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What Was She Thinking: Zoe Heller

“You never appreciate what a compost your memory is until you start trying to smooth past events into a rational sequence.”

Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking, a tale of how Sheba, a married woman, a teacher, has a sexual relationship with Steven, a 15 year old pupil could have been ripped from the headlines, so perhaps, then, it’s not too surprising to discover that the author was inspired by a real-life case. The absolute brilliant aspect of the book is the unreliable narrator, Barbara, a bitter, caustic, lonely single woman, who works with Sheba. Barbara’s version is, in her words, “her own account of Sheba’s downfall” in which she played a “minor role.” In a sense, there are three people in this sordid relationship: Sheba, Steven and Barbara. Media opinion swirling around this case declares that Steven is the victim and that Sheba is the predator. But it’s also arguable that Barbara, who played a critical role in this mess, is the supreme predator. Barbara, possibly a closeted lesbian (I’d argue against that) or then again possibly just lonely, is a long term history teacher when Sheba arrives as the new pottery teacher in the art department at an appalling London school. At first Barbara dislikes Sheba, but in common with many teachers at the school, she quickly falls under Sheba’s spell. There’s something about Sheba that’s magical: she’s disingenuous, and just … nice. But as nice as she may well be, she’s fresh meat for the school delinquents. When Barbara steps in to help Sheba with a discipline problem, the two women strike up a relationship, and soon Barbara is visiting Sheba’s home where she meets Sheba’s daughter, Polly, Ben, her Down’s syndrome son, and Richard, her much older, egotistical husband.

“You’re Barbara,” a voice said. I looked up and saw a tall man with a lot of crazy grey hair standing in the doorway, peering at me through thick spectacles. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Richard.” Sheba had mentioned that her husband was older than her; I was taken aback to discover by how much. Richard was not yet what you could call elderly, but middle age was no longer a plausible category for him either. His shoulders had begun to slope in the manner of overburdened coat hangers. The backs of his hands had a shiny, yellowish look.

Sheba is infantilized by her pedantic husband. He “condescended to Sheba, as he condescended to everyone. And whenever he got a little tired, or felt the spotlight shift momentarily from himself, or had one of his opinions challenged too vigorously, he tended to lapse into petulant babyness.” By looking at Sheba’s family life, it’s easy to see that Steven was a reaction to her life and marriage. Sheba admits that with Richard, she’d “been allowed to stay a child.” That’s one way of looking at it. Barbara who understands Sheba’s childhood notes that it came instinctively to Sheba to step in the role of “handmaiden to a great, pompous man.”

So onto Steven, the grubby, grotty 15 year-old who is so attractive in Sheba’s eyes, that she’s weak at the knees and drops her knickers. Steven is boorish, coarse, not particularly intelligent, and let’s face it … throughly uninteresting. Of course this is not a relationship that is going to last. Sheba is an intelligent, yet oddly naive woman who puts her life, her career, her reputation into the hands of a yobo. As for Steven… he’s mad about Sheba until she bores him.

What Was She Thinking is a perfect illustration of one of my pet theories: it matters not what or who the love object is, the love object is a vessel for the lover’s needs.

Barbara’s unreliable narration is as wickedly sharp as anything written by Muriel Spark. If we were to interview Sheba, we would probably get some sobby soppy version of her great “amour,” and Steven would probably present his own version of events (he does this later in the book), so how perfect that the narrator should deliver the tale with her own twisted, unreliable agenda. Barbara is a very lonely woman–a woman with resentments when it comes to the lives of others, and she’s spent a lifetime being left outside of the social sphere. While Barbara seems to love Sheba, there’s also a deep layer of resentment towards her. There are hints of another female friendship that turned rancid, and then when a male teacher appears to offer a hand of friendship, it opens the door to treachery. Barbara is content to take crumbs from Sheba, even as she circles around her, warding off a rival teacher, weaving a web of intrigue and dependency. But it’s when Sheba shows her lack of concern for Barbara’s cat (her sole companion) that Barbara’s claws come out. ….

This was a reread for me and I enjoyed the book with its deliciously wicked sense of humour even more the second time around. Here’s a final quote thrown in for fun. Oh the road to hell is paved with good intentions:

Such do-gooding fantasies are not uncommon in comprehensive schools these days. Many of the younger teachers harbour secrets hopes of “making a difference.” They have all seen the American films in which lovely young women tame inner-city thugs with recitations of Dylan Thomas. They, too, want to to conquer their little charges’ hearts with poetry and compassion.

And look where good intentions (or smokescreen?) led Sheba…. There’s more than one way to blow up your life.

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Doctor Thorne: Anthony Trollope

You lawyers never like to give an opinion without money.”

Doctor Thorne, the third novel in the Barsetshire series, follows on the heels on the marvellous, Barchester Towers. While the first two novels in the series focused on the ecclesiastical “aristocracy” of Barsetshire, Doctor Thorne is a complete change of pace. In Barchester Towers, we met the Thornes of Ullathorne, an elderly brother and sister who are unwilling to be dragged into the nineteenth century. The Thornes pride themselves on their breeding, and although the hero of this novel, Doctor Thorne is a “lesser cousin” of the wealthy branch of the family, he is, nonetheless, very proud of his blood. In the first chapter, Trollope gives the background of the Gresham family, and explains how Frank Gresham, a heir with 14,000 pounds a year, married Lady Arabella de Courcy and became seduced by the grandeur of his snooty in-laws. He ploughed money into politics and lost big-time. Then tragedy struck the Gresham nursery repeatedly, which brings Doctor Thorne into the picture as he attends the sickly children.

There’s a back story with Doctor Thorne. Doctor Thorne’s brother, Henry, seduced the beautiful Mary Scatcherd, and she became pregnant. When Roger Scatcherd, a stonemason, with a teensy drinking problem discovers his sister is pregnant, he kills Henry in a drunken rage. Roger goes to prison and Mary gives birth to a girl. A local man offers to marry Mary and whisk her off to America, but only if she will leave her child behind. The doctor offers to raise the child, also named Mary, but he keeps her parentage secret. Roger is told by his sister that the child is dead. Poor Roger’s wife lives in horrendous poverty while her husband is in jail, but later, Doctor Thorne recommends her as a wet nurse for the sickly Gresham heir. So we have connections between The Greshams, the Scatcherds and the Thornes.

So that’s the back plot. Fast forward … Mary has grown up, lives with her uncle Doctor Thorne, and is a frequent companion to the Gresham children at Greshamsbury Hall. Squire Gresham inherited a fortune but managed to lose most of it, and this has resulted in debt gradually built up against the estate. Doctor Thorne, who attends the squire’s wife, Lady Arabella, is in the awkward position of helping the squire broker loans, and these loans are held by … none other than Sir Roger Scatcherd, who is now, post prison, a phenomenally wealthy railway tycoon. Problems arise when Mary and Frank Gresham fall in love. Since the estate is heavily in debt, Lady de Courcy, Frank’s snobbish aunt, declares that Frank “must marry money,” and Lady Arabella leaps eagerly into the scheme. Soon Frank is invited to Courcy Castle to meet Martha Dunstable, “the oil of Lebanon” heiress, a woman who is considerably older than Frank. Snobbery and pride are rife in these pages: it’s perfectly acceptable to marry a person of ‘low birth’ as long as here’s a high bank balance in view. So it’s acceptable for the nauseating Mr Moffat to marry Lady Augusta Gresham, but Frank must not cast his eyes towards Mary. Frank isn’t much of a hero. He chases too many women to carry much weight as a earnest lover.

Trollope asserts that Doctor Thorne is the hero of this story, and he is indeed. While this is essentially a love story between Mary Thorne, Doctor Thorne’s niece and Frank Gresham, the focus here is on the actions of Doctor Thorne, a man of principle. Mary and Frank, must, according to his mother and aunt, be kept apart, and Mary bears the burden of blame–and she doesn’t deserve it.

At several points in the novel, Doctor Thorne makes moral choices, and he does this regardless of other incentives. There is some humour here in the rivalry between the local doctors. Doctor Thorne is disapproved of by other members of his profession as he is also an apothecary, and this ‘taints’ him with the stain of trade rather than a profession. Thorne is not well-off at all, and although his fees are much lower than those of Dr. Fillgrave, nonetheless, Thorne is seen as:

always thinking of his money, like an apothecary. […] A physician should take his fee without letting the left hand know what his right hand was doing; it should be taken without a thought, without a look, without a move of the facial muscles; the true physician should hardly be aware that the last friendly grasp of the hand had been made more precious by the touch of gold. Whereas that fellow Thorne would lug out half a crown from his breeches pocket and give it in change for a ten-shilling piece. And then it was clear that this man had no appreciation of the dignity of a learned profession.

In spite of the fact that the plot forms around a love story (and a rather drippy one at that) I enjoyed this tale a great deal. IMO, it does not match the quality of Barchester Towers, but there are some great characters and many wonderful scenes: the riotous elections, the snobby De Courcy family and their dreary, pretentious ‘castle,’ the larger-than-life Roger Scatcherd (“When money’s been made, the next thing is to spend it. Now the man who makes it has not the heart to do that.”), Louis the drunkard Scatcherd son and heir, Joe, Louis Scatcherd’s dreadful valet who meets his comeuppance at the end of a rolling pin, and the hilarious dinner party scene at Greshamsbury in which Louis Scatcherd gets drunk. Trollope recreates this robust period and shows the reader how industrialization changed not only the face of commerce, but also the ‘gentry.’ Trade is marrying into the landed gentry: Mr. Moffat, the son of a tailor is considered a good match for Lady Augusta Gresham, Martha Dunstable’s wealth from the ‘Oil of Lebanon’ guarantees she will be welcomed in the ‘best’ homes, and then there’s Louis Scatcherd… whose money was made by his railway building tycoon father murderer/baronet. Yet… with all these inroads of the trade classes into the gentry, they are still expected to behave, and Louis Scatcherd’s dinner invitation to Greshamsbury is ill-conceived and therefore great entertainment.

While there’s a lot drama and various romantic relationships, the book is also a character study of Doctor Thorne, a man “who had within him an inner, stubborn, self-admiring pride, which made him believe himself to be better and higher than those around him.” While this sounds unpleasant, this pride mainly manifests itself in setting a certain standard of behaviour and sticking to it. In Trollope’s autobiography, he said this was “the most popular book that I have written.” The love affair between Mary and Frank goes on a bit too long and with many bumps along the way. Trollope presents a rather rosy, generous view of human nature, but that’s part of Trollope’s great, enduring charm.

How frequent it is that men on their road to ruin feel elation such as this! A man signs away a moiety of his substance; nay, that were nothing; but a moiety of the substance of his children; he puts pen to the paper that ruins him and them; but in doing so he frees himself from a score of immediate little pestering, stinging troubles: and therefore, feels as though fortune had been almost kind to him.

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Under the Sun: Lottie Moggach

This cautionary tale, set in the British ex-pat community in Spain 2008/9, follows the failed dreams of graphic designer, Anna. Anna’s London career was just taking off when she met dickhead artist Michael. But Michael “declared he’d had enough of London,” and suggests a move to Spain. Anna is initially reluctant, but she flies out, finds a finca, and buys it. Naturally she has to sell her flat, but Michael can’t sell his as it turns out his “mum’s company” owns it. So Anna plonks all of HER money, and later an inheritance, into this money-pit finca.

When the novel opens, Anna and Michael are living in the finca and entertaining two snotty houseguests, old chums of Michael’s from his Oxford uni days. The visit serves to illustrate to Anna just how she and Michael have grown apart.

As Anna’s savings were being converted into septic tanks and concrete underlay and eyelet curtains, his feelings towards her had changed. There were no huge rows, nothing to grasp onto; but his disdain could be felt like a drop in temperature.

Poor Anna, who didn’t realise that the relationship had an expiration date, wakes up one morning and finds a note from Michael telling her he’s back off to London and where to find the car in the airport’s long-term parking. Charming. Anna isn’t doing well after the break-up. For one thing, she’s been dumped, but she’s been dumped after jettisoning her career, and ploughing all her savings into a remote money pit in Spain. To top if off, the financial crisis means she can’t sell; she’s stuck–along with an entire desperate ex-pat community who see their dream lives being flushed down the toilet as the bottom falls out of the real estate market. It’s probably no wonder that Anna turns to drink….

2009 finds Anna running a bar, but it’s more that’s she’s ‘minding’ a bar as there’s no real tourism, and members of the British ex-pat community are skint. So when a man appears and offers to rent Anna’s finca for 600 Euros a month, she jumps at it, no questions asked. …

Under the Sun shows the inherent unhealthiness of the British ex-pat community. They mingle only with each other, don’t speak the lingo, and don’t like the locals (a mutual feeling). The entire area is overrun with illegal African immigrants who are smuggled in and then harnessed into servitude through debt to their smugglers. The desperation of the British ex pats, who feel that the Africans don’t belong, rises from them like a bad smell. The ex-pats juggle throwing more money into these properties to attract buyers in this competitive market against … why bother? But then who has extra money to spend? They collectively, eagerly, anticipate someone coming along to buy their Spanish properties so that they can escape.

She hadn’t cleaned up since the last time she had customers in, three days before Christmas, when the expats had gathered to watch the Spanish national lottery on TV. They’d all entered as a group, with a single ticket, and expectations were high. This, they were sure, would be the thing that saved them, that would wipe out the problem of their houses being worthless and the effects of the rotten euro on their pensions.

In their wake, ex-pats leave behind their abandoned, houses, animals and possessions. Those who remain, mostly over 50, have car boot sales, and even while desperate to sell their homes, they maintain the fiction that they ‘are living the life’ and to talk about wanting to return to the UK is treason. Under the Sun explores the inherent unhealthiness within the insular community. The ex-pats have no idea what is going on under their noses. They have no clue about local politics. They have no clue how the locals dislike them. Wrapped in their own warped little world, they somehow think they have brought the UK with them, and while they have imported their culture, that’s about the extent of it. Anna, who is in a muddled affair, doesn’t grasp the delicacy of her position. This is a very entertaining read. IMO Anna’s behaviour was ill-advised and in real life, she probably would have ended up dead. But the value here is in the remarkable sense of atmosphere–all these dreams turned to the worst possible outcome.

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Days in the Caucasus: Banine

“‘The champagne flowed freely’ to use that classic phrase. Thus our world marched towards disaster.

Memoirs potentially offer valuable eye-witness accounts, and, unlike non-fiction, are unmoored from facts, figures and extensive research, yet with that ‘insider’s view,’ they can illuminate great moments in history. Banine’s Days in the Caucasus is a great example of the niche-memoir. Born in 1905, into a large oil merchant’s family made rich when a peasant grandfather struck oil, Banine (real name Ummulbanu Asadullayeva) was caught between two worlds. On one hand, her wealthy father fostered western ways (a devoted Baltic German governess, Miss Anna), but she was also a member of a Muslim family, and her relatives expected Banine and her sisters to conform to Muslim ways. It didn’t help that Banine’s grandmother, “a fat, authoritarian woman,” had been abandoned by her husband for a Russian, so that from that time on, all things Russian were despised. When the memoir opens, life is good for Banine. Her father is a widower who places the care of his many daughters into the gentle, loving hands of Miss Anna. The politics on the horizon are strictly family politics–and those focus on marriage. Banine spends a great deal of the memoir describing her early life; it’s certainly colorful, but in spite of growing up in luxury, there’s always the distant threat of marriage.

Banine’s childhood includes the ethic troubles between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis. Banine and her two nasty male cousins “played at massacring Armenians, a game we loved above all others.” While the children ‘play’ at torture and disembowelment, the 2 males cousins, without Banine’s knowledge, ‘play’ “rape the Armenian.” The malicious tendencies of these two dreadful cousins appear later in the memoir.

By 1914, the Caucasus becomes “full of Russians,” and this brings changes to Banine’s family. At first, the biggest ‘threat’ is Russian men carrying off Muslim girls, and Banine’s older sister turns those fears into reality. But suddenly, after the Tsar abdicated, the Armenian population “managed to install a military dictatorship,” and Banine’s family was forced to flee. There was a brief period in which the family managed to move back to Baku, but ironically just as her grandfather died leaving Banine a “a multimillionaire at the age of thirteen,” the Red Army soldiers arrived. So much for the inheritance. ….

After her father’s arrest, Banine retreats to her grandmother’s countryside house where she is reunited with her libidinous cousin, Gulnar. Their way of life there is upended with arrival of the “Commission for the Creation of Holiday Camps,” and it’s declared that the grandmother’s house will be divided for the use of “revolutionary veterans, all worn out to a greater or lesser extent by their exploits.” Gulnar, who can’t wait to get married so that she can start taking lovers, is delighted by the male Russians, and soon Banine and Gulnar are eagerly indoctrinated, wear Lenin badges, and join a commission to inventory the contents of neighbouring villas.

In spite of the gravity of events, the memoir is light. I’m used to piles of corpses when reading from this period, but Banine’s privilege, youth, location, and family connections must have shielded her from the atrocities of the times. We hear nothing of the events taking place in Russia or Ukraine. The major problem here is Banine’s desire to run off with a Russian vs her sense of duty towards her father. The intimate look at the family dynamics offers a completely different view of this period.

Impartial observation seems to show that in families where interests diverge, hatred between relatives is constant and widespread; where interests are not divisive, affection sometimes exists. But most often there is only indifference mingled occasionally with a sense of duty towards the clan, which one could, with a little imagination, take to be love. To be honest, indifference appears to me to be the natural state between members of a family. When one thinks of the number of people one must know in order to find some friends, to discover an affinity in the small group that is family would be something of a surprise.

Banine’s relatives wish to marry her off to a cousin as she’s this great heiress, and even when her fortune is lost, one uncle can’t let go.

That memories were all the heiress had left of her fortune did not deter him: the memories were dazzling enough especially since he considered Bolshevism an accident of fate and our impoverishment a temporary phenomenon.

While there are many memorable people here. Banine’s cousin, Gulnar stands out. At one point, Banine, naively tells Gulnar, that life isn’t so bad:

“To be honest, life isn’t too terrible in Baku or Tiflis.”

“That’s because they haven’t had time to deal with us yet.”

Review copy

Translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova

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King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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