Category Archives: Fiction

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Turn on the Heat: Erle Stanley Gardner (1940)

“I walked out and piloted the agency heap out to my rooming house, feeling like the tail end of a misspent life.”

Almost a year ago, I reviewed The Knife Slipped, the first second Cool and Lam novel written by Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A. A Fair). Turn on the Heat is the second third in the series (see JJ’s comment below), and what a treat it is to see this novel back in print.

Turn on the heat

A Mr. ‘Smith’ employs Bertha Cool Confidential Investigations to find a missing woman. Decades earlier a Dr and Mrs Lintig lived in the small town of Oakview.  According to Mr Smith, who doesn’t explain his interest in the case, a scandal took place, and Mrs Lintig disappeared back in 1918. Obviously there’s a lot more to the case than Mr. Smith is willing to explain, and when Bertha Cool’s operative, Donald Lam arrives in Oakview, he finds out that he’s not the only person who’s looking for Mrs. Lintig.

Digging through old newspapers, Lam discovers that Dr. Lintig sued for divorce in 1918 citing mental cruelty. Then accusations followed from Mrs. Lintig that her husband was having an affair. Dr. Lintig signed over all his property to his wife, and then they both … disappeared. The judge and the lawyers involved in the case are all now dead, but questions remain: where did Dr. Lintig and Mrs Lintig disappear to? Who is Mr Smith and why is he so interested in tracking down a woman who disappeared decades earlier? And who else is looking for Mrs. Lintig?

Blackmail, adultery, political corruption and murder tangle the Lintig case in knots, and Donald Lam, on his usual shoestring budget from his boss, Bertha Cool, must solve the case without finding himself in the electric chair.

While the case under scrutiny in this fast-paced crime novel makes for entertaining reading, the real fun here lies in the toxic, sinewy relationship between Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. Bertha Cool “profane, massive, belligerent and bulldog,” is a woman who’s used to getting what she wants, but in Donald she’s met her match. He likes his independence, and she likes to keep control of the reins. There’s no glamour here in the PI business, and Donald Lam, who gets beaten up more than once, can’t be described as a tough guy. Bertha Cool, who talks about herself in the third person, mostly emasculates Lam, describing him as a “half-pint runt,”  handing him the bare minimum to run his case while she, a gigantic, majestic battleship, may well be eating all the profits.

Of course, there’s a beautiful reporter, and a visit to a strip joint:

I found a table back in a corner and ordered a drink. An entertainer was putting on an expurgated version of a chemically pure strip tease. She had more clothes on when she’d finished than most of the performers had when they started, but it was the manner in which she took them off that appealed to the audience: a surreptitious be-sure-the-doors-and-windows-are-closed-boys attitude that made the customers feel partners in something very, very naughty.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Gardner Erle Stanley

Fear: Dirk Kurbjuweit

German Literature Month 2017

We always live at least two lives, especially after a big decision: the life we decided on and the life we decided against.”

Yes! It’s German Literature Month, and I may be off to a slow start, but at least it’s a good start. My first pick for this month is Dirk Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, and while this novel can be classified as crime, it’s much more than that.

The novel opens with our narrator, Randolph Tiefenthaler, a successful married architect in his 40s, visiting his 78 year-old father in prison. Randolph’s father, a man with no prior history of crime, is incarcerated for manslaughter. He’s a model prisoner, and the guards like him. What drove this elderly man to kill another human being? What is the backstory?

The rest of the novel unfolds as Randolph, with more than a little guilt, tells of the events surrounding his father’s incarceration. The Thiefenthalers, Randolph, Rebecca and their two children, Paul and Fay moved to a beautiful apartment in a pleasant middle class neighbourhood. There their formerly peaceful life is thrown into chaos thanks to their basement neighbour, Dieter Tiberius, an overweight, unemployed, chronically institutionalized man who is the product of childhood abuse. The situation between Dieter and the Thiefenthalers becomes intolerable, and something is going to explode: Randolph acknowledges: “we thought, said and did a great deal that contradicted the image we had of ourselves, and what I call our enlightened middle-class values.”

At first Dieter seems to be a pleasant, friendly man, but as he becomes more disinhibited around the Thiefenthalers, he becomes obsessed with Rebecca; he leaves her love letters and poems, and there’s evidence (thanks to an abandoned ladder) that he spies on the family in their most secret moments.

Fear

Things escalate, however, when Dieter starts accusing the Thiefenthalers of sexually abusing their children which results in repeated visits from the police. Randolph and Rebecca desperately seek police protection only to be told there is no case, so they turn to legal means which prove to be equally useless.  They find themselves behaving stiffly in the face of accusations, wondering how to act with their children. Even discussing the situation with friends fails to draw sympathy.

Even before Rebecca had finished talking, I saw her school friend’s wife purse her lips. Was it not possible, she asked eventually, that Dieter Tiberius was just a victim? After all, he’d grown up a ward of the state, and we all knew what went on in children’s homes.

Underneath this drama, however, there are undercurrents. Randolph is experiencing some sort of need to distance himself from his wife and family, and he has to curb his behaviour due to his wife’s fear of being alone. Randolph also reminisces about his childhood, his father’s love of guns, and how he disliked weapons, even becoming a pacifist.

Fear explores several issues such as the limitations of law though various encounters with several institutions. Also under scrutiny is the idea of masculinity. Dieter Tiberius is seen as the victim, while Randolph suffers comments from his brother and others about being ‘less than a man’ for not taking matters into his own hands and beating the shit out of Dieter. It’s interesting that no one expects Rebecca to find a solution: everything rests on Randolph’s masculinity. Also, I’m going to add that the book takes a look at telescopic empathy. When reading the newspaper, it’s easy to sympathise with someone who’s spent a lifetime in various institutions and now is basically non functional, but it’s an entirely different thing to have to deal with someone who’s severely damaged when they live in the basement flat.

Anyone who has ever known the frustration of trying to get legal help for a slippery situation will identify with Randolph’s feelings of helplessness as he tries, repeatedly, to get help with this untenable situation. As he deals with the police and social workers, Randolph finds his faith in the ‘system,’ and the Rule of Law slipping. All of the things Randolph believed in, the person he thought he was, slip away.

The loser is strong because he has nothing left to lose. People like me, apparently,  life’s winners, are weak because they have so much they want to hang on to. The upwardly mobile are particularly afraid. We are afraid of losing what we have attained, because it is not secure. neither morally nor financially.

Fear is a gripping read. The ending went on a bit too long IMO (quit while you’re ahead,) but that’s the only criticism I have. Finally a word on the cover: the novel has a way of pulling the reader into the drama here, so that we find ourselves what we would have done in Randolph’s shoes. Similarly, the cover hints of being drawn, step by step, into a claustrophobic nightmare of paranoia and fear.

Review copy

Translated by Imogen Taylor

 

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Filed under Fiction, Kurbjuweit Dirk

Madonna in a Fur Coat: Sabahattin Ali

“All unions are based on falsehood.”

Madonna in a Fur Coat from Turkish author Sabahattin Ali, set partly in 1920s Berlin, is the story of a doomed love affair. The novel begins in Ankara when our narrator, a young unemployed bank clerk, meets an old classmate who offers him a job. Desperate, the young man swallows his pride and finds himself sharing an office with a German translator named Raif Efendi. Efendi is mild mannered, quiet and, in the eyes of the narrator, boring and uninteresting:

I’d come to despair of this tiresome blank of a man who sat so lifelessly across from me, endlessly translating, unless he was reading the German novel he’d tucked away in his drawer. He was, I thought, too timid to ever dare to explore his soul, let alone express it. He had, I thought, no more life inside him than a plant.

The narrator isn’t the only one to have a low opinion of Efendi. Efendi is treated badly by everyone in the office, and although Efendi is a good worker (managing to keep deadlines with frequent bouts of illness), even the boss picks him out for special ridicule, and then one day an incident occurs which causes the narrator to revise his opinion of Efendi.

From that day on, I took an intense interest in every thing Raif Efendi did, no matter how trivial or absurd. Eager to know more about his true identity, I seized every opportunity to speak to him.

Eventually the narrator is invited to Efendi’s home, but still Efendi’s secrets remain elusive. Just as Efendi is belittled and humiliated at work, he holds the same position at home, in spite of the fact that his wages support his large extended family. The narrator knows that there’s more to Efendi than meets the eye–there’s some deep sadness and yet Efendi seems somehow above the emotions of his humble circumstances.

Madonna in a Fur Coat

Part of the story is told through Efendi’s notebook, and this section takes us to 1920s Berlin when Efendi, as a young man, is sent by his wealthy father to learn the soap industry in Germany. Here Efendi, torn between duty and desire, meets and is bewitched by, Maria, the “Madonna in a Fur Coat,” a young artist who has very definite ideas about men and relationships.

This is a romantic story, and regular readers of this blog, know that I am not keen on romance. I struggled at times with two characters who seem determined to be miserable, but don’t let me put you off; I still appreciated the novel. Scrape away the doomed romance, and for this reader, the novel is about power. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, who’s in desperate need of a job, silently acknowledges that he must listen to his old friend wax on about his success as this is all a power play. Similarly, Efendi is a powerless person throughout the entire novel; he’s certainly not made of the sort of material we normally consider for a romantic hero. Efendi is ‘manhandled’ by his landlady and accepts whatever Maria demands

Artist/singer Maria sets the terms of her affair with Efendi from day one, telling him,

“This all ends the moment you want something from me. You can’t ask for anything … Anything-do you hear?” It was almost as if she were arguing with a faceless enemy, for now, as she continued, her voice was thick with anger. “Do you know why I hate you? You and every other man in the world? Because you ask so much of us, as if it were your natural right.”

It’s a painful affair with Efendi and Maria both feeling the lack of something they cannot define. Possession does not bring satisfaction but only distance:

How painful it is, after thinking that a woman has given us everything, to see that in truth she has given us nothing–to see that instead of having drawn her closer, she is farther away than ever!

In some ways Madonna in a Fur Coat reminded me of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. The novel was first published in Turkey in 1943.  Sabahattin Ali (1907-1948) was killed trying to cross the Bulgarian border.

Review copy

Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

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Filed under Ali Sabahattin, Fiction

What You Did Not Tell: Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home is an exploration of his family’s lost past. The memoir opens with the death of the author’s father–an event which leads Mazower to dig through his father’s diaries. “I thought I knew my Dad well,” Mazower ruminates, “but the day he died I began to realize how much of his life was unknown to me. “ Thus begins the author’s journey which reaches back to his long-dead grandfather, Max, who died in 1952, 6 years before Mark Mazower’s birth. Ultimately this is a memoir that explores a family fractured by displacement and political upheaval–a family that was forced to transform, reinvent their lives and settle into a new, completely different social reality.

What you did not tell

The author’s research uncovers a remarkable history. Jewish Max Mazower, born in Grodno was a political activist in the Bund, an organizer working with a cover name. 1909 found Max living in exile, but he reemerged only to find employment with a British typewriter company. As a “continental manager,” he worked in Russia, but in 1919, Max was forced to escape St Petersburg when he was “tipped off” that arrest was imminent for the charge of espionage. Max had every reason to worry about his safety in Russia:

Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had run Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lódź. He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over, and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.

While part of the book is Max’s story, other chapters spread to other family members, including the author’s grandmother Frouma. One of the most fascinating sections concerns André, a child Max may or may not have fathered.

The story that had come down in the family was that when he was a baby, André had been brought by Max to London shortly before the First World War after André’s mother, Sofia, a fellow revolutionary, had died. In the absence of a birth, marriage, or death certificate, it was hard to be sure. Max had preserved an almost total silence about how or why this had come about, and he never mentioned the subject to Dad.

André reinvented himself several times and clearly saw his life in opposition to Max’s beliefs. The author recalls how his father was drawn, sometimes rather unhappily, into André’s life.  Another of my favourite sections concerns Max’s wife, Frouma and her child Ira from an earlier union.

While in many ways this book is a testament to the author’s love for his father, it spreads to an appreciation for other family members and the many hardships they endured. This is a very personal memoir, but it also offers a panoramic view of a world of revolutionaries, party affiliations, and countries in flux. Because the memoir is so personal the unknown fates of many relatives seem especially poignant. While Max built a new life for himself in England, one brother, Zachar, was in Vilna while another, Semyon, was in St Peterburg.

“Three brothers and three choices, or better-since choice does not feel quite right–three wagers on fate is how it might seem.”

Frouma had some relatives who survived occupied France while others survived in Russia, so while the fate of some relatives is known, others simply vanished. What conclusions can you come to when you realize that your relations were in a city that became a ghetto with all of the inhabitants carted off for death? Common sense leads to the obvious conclusion, and yet there’s no definitive knowledge. People just vanish. Relatives disappear forever, and the obvious conclusion just doesn’t seem enough. Reading the memoir brings the thought that  life is a very fragile thing. Max made the right choices at the right time; plus he was lucky while so many others were not.

Maps and photographs magnify this memoir, and of all the photographs included, for this reader, the most meaningful is the photo of the author with his father on Hampstead Heath. This photograph says a great deal about the man whose life was impacted, indirectly, by revolution, upheaval, uncertainty and danger.

review copy

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Filed under Mazower Mark, Non Fiction

After the Fire: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is the Swedish author’s final novel. After the Fire is a far cry from the Wallander crime series, and yet the novel, which at times conveys a strange dream-like quality also concerns crimes. This time, however, the emphasis is on aging and coming to terms with one’s life and actions.

69-year-old retired surgeon Fredrik Wellin lives on an island in the house that used to belong to his grandparents. Fredrik lives a solitary life, and he likes it that way. His only regular visitor is the postman, Jansson, and Fredrik’s daughter, Louise, who keeps her father at arm’s length, occasionally comes to visit. Independent and private, she stays in her caravan which was moved to the island on a cattle ferry. Fredrik suffers from high blood pressure, worries about his heart, and self-medicates. Perhaps some of Fredrik’s desire for solitude can be explained by his retirement which occurred in disgrace: he amputated the wrong arm of a young woman. And so he returned to the island, to the house in which he was born, to live out his days until his death.

After the Fire

Asleep one night, Fredrik is woken up by a bright light. Realizing that his house is on fire, he manages to escape grabbing two left boots on the way out of the door. The house is completely destroyed, and Fredrik, who moves into his daughter’s caravan, soon finds himself suspected of arson. Suddenly his life isn’t private anymore.

After the Fire is not a fast-paced novel. Mankell takes his time unpacking his story, building slowly on atmosphere, events in the area’s harsh past, and strange, eerie events. Even a childhood excursion when Fredrik went fishing with his grandfather evokes memories of his grandfather bludgeoning a swimming deer. Fredrik’s island is near a former fishing, now summer resort town, and the story takes place when the visitors have left and just the locals remain. The locals are a strange bunch: including the mysterious Oslovski, a woman with a glass eye who claims to be Polish and then later became a Swedish citizen.

Sometimes she disappeared for several months and then one day she would be back. As if nothing had happened. She moved around like a cat in the night. 

Most of the characters in the book are strange, and this raises the question: do strange people move to this area to escape the burden of suburbia, or do they become strange in this remote, harsh landscape? A bit of both, I suspect. The landscape is unforgiving: bitter winds, the sea that freezes only to crack and swallow unfortunate victims in the shallows, the perch have disappeared, the quarries have closed. Nature is relentless and unbeatable:

I drove down a steep hill, and then the trees began to thin out. I passed a few houses by the side of the road; some were empty, dilapidated, while others were perhaps still occupied. I stopped the car again  and got out. No movement, not a sound. The forest had crept right up to the houses, swallowing the rusty tools. the overgrown meadows. 

One of the only ‘normal’ characters here is the attractive newspaper reporter, Lisa Modin, and before long, Fredrik has designs on this woman, decades his junior, designs, which while incongruous on one level, also show his loneliness and desire for female companionship.

Fredrik’s daughter, the prickly Louise, a daughter whose existence he only learned of when she was an adult, arrives on the island, and while the traditional role would be for her to help her father pick up the pieces of his life, her short stay only brings friction and raises some uncomfortable questions.

After the Fire is an interesting, and at times slow, melancholy read. We land in the book at the end of Fredrik’s life, and pieces of information are gradually parceled out, so that we put together the puzzle of Fredik’s psychology. He acknowledges feeling remorse for chopping off the wrong arm of a patient, but add to that picture his wife, Harriet “who made her way across the ice using her wheeled walker, some years go” and who died on the island. Add a father who wasn’t told that he had a daughter until that child grew into adulthood. Then add the bizarre relationship between Fredrik and Louise–at one point he spies through the caravan window while his daughter is half dressed as if catching her in a private moment will reveal the secrets of her life that she refuses to share. Through the story Henning Mankell argues for the relentless of Nature and our human attempts to subvert it, and yet there’s another strain here: the immutability of human nature.

Review copy

translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Filed under Fiction, Mankell Henning

Three Floors Up: Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up from Israeli author Eshkol Nevo takes a look at the lives of three residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. The novel is split into three sections, each told by a first person narrator. While it may seem that the commonality here is proximity, gradually it becomes clear that all three narrators live on the fault lines of a fractured family. Each of the three characters are drawn, unwillingly, into moral dilemmas that will change their lives.

Three floors up

Arnon, a retired officer tells his tale to a writer, an old friend from the army. Arnon is married to lawyer Ayelet. There’s the sense that Arnon’s professional life hasn’t quite worked out as he planned, and he often recalls his time as a soldier. Tension exists and simmers in the marriage between Arnon and Ayelet. They have two daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. There are already indications that there were personality clashes between Ofri and her mother before Yaeli’s birth, but Yaeli’s ill health seals the divide in the family. Ayelet favours Yaeli, or at least Arnon sees it that way. Before long, the family unit is subtly divided into two, with Arnon and Ofri on one side and Ayelet and Yaeli on another.

Arnon and Ayelet are in the habit of leaving Ofri with their elderly neighbours, Ruth and Herman. Arnon has indications that perhaps this isn’t the greatest idea, but he goes ahead anyway, and when a crisis occurs, the fault lines in his family explode.

In every fight, there’s a moment when you say something you shouldn’t and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean? So that’s what happened. And what did I actually say to her? “If it was Yaeli, you wouldn’t be so calm.”

It isn’t a state secret, right? Just one of those little kinks that families have. Even in the bible, in the story of Jacob and Esau, it’s obvious that Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Esau was his father’s. The point is that it’s natural for a parent to prefer one child over the other. Even love him more. What isn’t natural-it turns out-is saying it out loud. Those little kinks are supposed to be transparent, invisible. But I just couldn’t control myself. She was sitting there in her prim lawyer’s outfit with her hair pulled back, talking to me in that patronizing way, like she was civilized and I was a savage. So I had to put her in her place. Every once in a while, you have to put them in their place.

The second narrative takes the form of a letter from housewife, Hani to her friend in America, Netta. Hani is known as “the widow” by her neighbours due to her husband’s continual absences. Hani, at home alone with the children, remarks to Netta that she married her husband thinking he would be a good father, but even when he’s home, he doesn’t get involved in family life.

Hani’s letter recalls the events that took place when her estranged brother-in-law showed up at her apartment. As a major embezzler, he’s on the run from the police, his former clients and even loan sharks.

The third narrative is told by a retired judge, Devora, whose husband, also a judge, died the year before. Devora’s tale is told by her to her dead husband, and she relates how she became involved in local demonstrations.

Of the three sections, Arnon’s is the strongest, possibly because we’re not quite sure how much is reality and how much is guilt. Plus an undercurrent of suppressed violence flows under his words, and this makes his side of things more complex (and epic as it turns out.)  Hani’s letter to Netta is also slippery, and the actions of her brother-in-law are highly suspect. Devora’s tale also presents a moral dilemma as she recalls a decision she and her husband made regarding their son.

The skill here is in the narrative, and the way each creates an intimacy with the reader, so that we become the listener to these confessions involving the most private moments. But even beyond that, as each story evolves, we ask ourselves what we would have done? What choices would we have made?

review copy

translated by Sondra Silverston

Marina Sofia also read and reviewed Three Floors Up

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Smile: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s novel Smile explores the disappointments of middle age through its first person narrator, Victor. When we are first introduced to 54-year-old Victor, he’s in Donnelly’s, a pub he’s decided is his local. We know right away that Victor’s life is in transition. Gradually, through Victor’s reminiscences and a bizarre relationship he strikes up with another pub denizen, we discover that he was married to TV personality Rachel, the founder of Meals on Heels. They met years earlier when they were both on their way up. She was a one-woman catering business, and Victor wrote for magazines, planning to write a book in the future.

SMile

Victor was “happy pretending to be Dublin’s Lester Bangs,” but we know that Victor’s life hasn’t gone the way he planned.  He’s no longer with Rachel. Although the details are vague, there’s the implicit idea that as a highly successful woman, she’s moved on, while Victor admits he’s “between things.”

I was used to being alone. I don’t think I felt lonely. I missed being married but I’m not sure that I missed Rachel. The aloneness was cleaner now. I wasn’t surrounded by her world. I didn’t have to hide. 

Victor spends a lot of time in denial: he’s not lonely (hopes to be included in male friendship at the pub), doesn’t miss Rachel (stalks her Facebook page), and thinks it would be “sad, a man of my age going back to some wrinkled version of his childhood. Looking for the girls he’d fancied forty years ago.” And yet he obsesses on the sister of fellow drinker, Fitzpatrick wondering what she’s like, if she still fancies him.

It’s a sad situation: where did Victor’s life go wrong? Why did his career never take off? Rather pathetically, he lives just a couple of miles away from his old primary school. He’s lost Rachel, their life together, the home they shared abroad. This is a life in transition, and where it’s headed looks bleak.

Buried underneath the narrative, there’s a strain of something peculiar. Victor tries to avoid Fitzgerald, an unpleasant man who claims to know him from the school they both attended which was run by priests. Victor has no memory of Fitzgerald, and yet Fitzgerald remembers Victor all too well, frequently bringing up incidents that Victor would prefer to remain buried:

-What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you? he said.

He patted the table.

-What was his fuckin’ name?

His shirt was pink and I could tell that it had cost a few quid. But there was something about it, or the way it sat on him; it hadn’t always been his.

-Murphy, he said.-Am I right?

-There were two Murphys, I said.

-Were there?

-History and French.

-Were they not the same cunt?

I shook my head.

-No.

-Jesus, he said.-I hate that. The memory. It’s like dropping bits of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?

The sad, lonely reminiscences of Victor as he spends nights at the pub are well done. Victor is accepted by a small circle of other men as long as he buys rounds, and these rejected middle-aged men perk up when the women in their 40s enter the pub. These wonderful scenes evoke the teenage equivalent–one side aware of the other but desperately appearing to be oblivious of the opposite sex. This time the game is minus impetuosity, minus energy–just imagine a deflated, wrinkled balloon.

So far so great, but the novel’s denouement was disappointing. The rug was pulled out and instead of a lonely middle-aged loser, we have something entirely different. I wouldn’t have minded the general idea, but in its entirety, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. Looking at other reviews, I seem to be in the minority opinion on this.

Review copy

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Filed under Doyle Roddy, Fiction

Verdict of Twelve: Raymond Postgate (1940)

Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve is an excellent, unusual book from the British Library Crime Classics series. The plot centres on a murder trial, but in essence the book takes a subversive look at the justice system and questions the entire jury process.

On trial for murder is Rosalie van Beer, a money-grubbing, cruel unpleasant woman who married into money and after various deaths in the family, she took over the guardianship of the family heir, an orphaned boy. Before the trial begins, and before we know the details of the crime of which she’s accused, we are introduced to the jury. As you’d expect, these twelve people come from various walks of life, and each person brings their own belief system and emotional baggage to the trial.

verdict of Twelve

These days, potential jurors are asked various questions: have you ever been the victim of a violent crime, etc, and while the jurors in this trial aren’t asked those questions (the book was published in 1940), nonetheless the prejudices and beliefs these fictional jurors possess impact their judgement.

For example, one juror, Miss Victoria Atkins,  murdered a relative for financial gain years earlier. Although she was a suspect she slipped the noose, so while we readers know that this act is in the back of her mind, we understand that it will influence her decision. Will she be more less or lenient towards another woman who is accused of the same type of crime? Another juror, is a Greek immigrant with a shady past, while another juror was left a widow after her husband was beaten to death by a handful of anti-Semitic yobos. Adding to the mix, there’s also a Socialist/Communist (he can’t quite decide whether or not to join the Communist Party, a Conservative, an actor, a travelling salesman, and a religious nutcase.

While it’s perhaps pushing credulity to add a murderer to the jury of a murder trial, it’s easy to see that the other 11 people are the types you might expect to find facing the accused. The novel’s structure shows how each juror approaches the crime and applies their experience, prejudices, and belief system to the case. One juror dislikes animals and so sees a slice of testimony in a different light from the others, and yet another juror “had been patiently assembling as far as he could a Marxist interpretation of the evidence.” That said, the big question is: will justice prevail?

With only two women on the jury, it was interesting to see that they were harder on the accused (I read somewhere that this is true). The two women catch details about the accused that the men miss:

They saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in black, with a white collar. The women noticed that her nails were not coloured, but had nail polish on them. The hands were rather fattish and had not done housework for many years.

Verdict of Twelve offers an intriguing approach to a crime novel and has a phenomenal ending.

Note: animals do not fare well in this book.

review copy.

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

Review copy

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