Category Archives: Fiction

Siracusa: Delia Ephron

“An eight-day vacation-how could that hurt”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tales about people on holiday, and that explains why I was drawn to Delia Ephron’s novel, Siracusa. This is a tale of two married couples who decide to spend a holiday together in Siracusa, Sicily. Both of the marriages under scrutiny here are pathologically troubled, and yet on the surface, everyone functions within those troubled relationships. But more of that later…

New Yorker Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning play writer who’s stymied with his novel (featuring his alter ego and heavily influenced by The Red and the Black). He’s cheating on his wife, journalist Lizzie, who in the internet age, can’t quite seem to find her niche. Years earlier, Lizzie had a fling with Finn, who is now a restaurateur in Maine and married to Taylor, a beautiful blonde who heads the tourist bureau in their hometown. Finn and Taylor have a 10 year-old daughter, Snow. They all met in London the year before and had a great time, and this year Lizzie plans a trip to Italy. First stop Rome and then on to Siracusa.

siracusa

Siracusa is told through four different narrative voices–the only character we don’t hear from is Snow ( a wise choice by Ephron). Snow, according to Taylor, suffers from Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. In reality, the child is disturbed, extremely manipulative and communicates, sometimes in “clucks,” with Taylor acting as both Snow’s conduit to the world and as her mostly intuitive interpreter for the rest of the company. According to Finn, Taylor, “doesn’t have a clue where she ends and the kid begins.”

While the two marriages here are pathological, I’d say that Taylor’s relationship with Snow trumps the lot. Taylor (think Blonde American Princess), who already has a superiority complex, and thinks that she’s married beneath her, sees her daughter as perfect.  Snow is an accessory to Taylor’s beauty and perceived pedigree, but since Snow and Taylor sleep together, the child also acts as a wedge between Taylor and Finn. Not that Finn really ‘gets’ it. This is a man who takes life lightly; he smokes secretly (breaking his promise to Taylor) and is busy contemplating an affair of his own.

Ephron does an excellent job of showing just how dysfunctional marriages still manage to function. The dynamic between Finn, Taylor and Snow is appalling, yet everyone acts as though their interactions are normal–as if Taylor’s relationship with Snow isn’t pathological. Taylor orders food for Snow, speaks for her, voices her opinions, and even tells Snow how to react emotionally to her father’s laughter. Taylor may think she’s helping her daughter but in reality, she’s enabling Snow’s  behaviour.

Taylor, wrapped up in her daughter, never letting her out of sight, admires Michael as a great writer, and Snow… well Snow develops a crush on Michael. Egomaniac Michael, sensing Snow’s worship begins paying her attention. In the meantime, Taylor thinks the whole holiday has been organized by Lizzie so that she can get her hooks into Finn. As for Finn, he sees something that puts him in a moral quandary, and Lizzie is so busy trying to get Michael’s attention, she doesn’t see some warning signs.

Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.

Given the festering nature of these two marriages, and that these people decide to holiday together in order not to be alone with their respective spouses, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the holiday goes horribly wrong, and that some of the characters find themselves in therapy afterwards. Ephron’s tale, however, is not as predictable as it might seem to be. …

Some authors can never seem to pull off creating different voices, but there are four very convincing separate voices in this tale. Through the different narratives, Ephron shows us how these two sets of spouses don’t really know each other at all. The fussy, perky slightly neurotic voice of Taylor is convincingly annoying.

Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, it’s importance, is overrated, and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.

And in contrast here’s Finn:

I felt like something dirty she’d forgotten to wash off. Tay threw herself into packing. I watched that sick enterprise–the compulsively neat way she folded things. One uneven crease and she begins again.

I had fun reading this. About the first half of the book is spent in the build up to Siracusa, and on one night there’s a seemingly innocent conversation that takes place around the dining table when the adults all answer the hypothetical question whether or not they’d “give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed.” An all-important moment as it turns out…

I don’t know if I was supposed to find the novel funny. Perhaps that’s a question for the author, but for this reader, the novel was nastily funny (I laughed in quite a few places as the situation devolved). Aside from Lizzie, all of the other characters are appalling people, so if you want to read about likeable people, then this book is not for you. Delia Ephron has a disturbingly canny eye when it comes to dissecting the complicated politics of marriage. Taylor, for example,  is insufferable but rather than confront her, Finn refuses to take things seriously and makes everything a joke. Taylor is constantly referencing her divorced mother, and Finn gets his digs in with comments such as Taylor’s dad “escaped.” Then there’s the entire Snow Situation… this child gets so much attention and yet still manages to slip under the parental radar.  When bad things happen, in “Siracusa. Where everything went in the shitter, we know these characters brought this all upon themselves.

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Revolver: Duane Swierczynski

“She gets the eerie feeling that this it it-that Philadelphia has lured her back home to trap her, like one of those fly-eating plants.”

Revolver, written by Duane Swierczynski, goes back and forth through three separate timelines to follow three generations of a Philadelphia Polish-American family through a narrative of disturbingly unsolved crimes. In 1964-1965, white police officer, Stan Walczak, teamed with black officer George Wildey during race riots, unknowingly triggers the attention of some powerful people when he begins helping Wildey with an investigation of heroin use in the city. In 1995, Stan’s son, Jim Walczak, haunted by the unsolved murder of his father, has an opportunity for revenge, and in 2015, Jim’s adopted daughter, Audrey, struggling to finish her thesis in forensic science, begins reinvestigating the unsolved murder of her grandfather, Stan Walczak.

revolver

The author takes us into the lives of the Walczak family through their ties to the Philadelphia PD. The book opens in 1965 with officers Walczak and Wildey waiting in a North Philly bar for a snitch who never arrives. It’s a powerful beginning which then segues to 1995 and picks up with homicide detective, Jim Walczak. It’s through Jim’s discussions with his son, that we know that Stan Walczak was murdered, and that the crime remains, officially, unsolved. Jim Walczak is about to investigate a case which will haunt him–the rape and murder of a young female journalist.

In the third timeline, 2015, Jim Walczak is retired, but his two sons, Cary and Stas, are both police officers. Audrey, the black sheep of the family, studying to be a forensic scientist, flies into Philadelphia to attend a memorial ceremony for her long-deceased, grandfather, Stan Walczak. Estranged from her family, Audrey hasn’t been home in years, and when she decides to start digging into her grandfather’s unsolved murder, she very quickly discovers that the established narrative about the crime is fundamentally untrue….

Swierczynski novels, and regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of this author, are always highly readable. I read this is a couple of sittings, juggling timelines and unsolved crimes in my head. The novel argues that the present is impacted by the past, and that is certainly true in the case of the Walczak family. Moving back and forth through time, we see how the male police officers in the Walczak family sacrifice home life–not for career concerns but due to the sheer dark weight of the crimes they investigate. Some scenes show the Walczak males coming home at night after facing scenes of horror, and then they have to switch gears and pretend to be ‘normal’ for their wives and children who, wrapped in a cocoon of safety, are largely oblivious. Jim Walczak copes with the two vastly different areas of his life by understanding that there’s an “Outer Jim,” and an “Inner Jim.” But that doesn’t stop him from wondering how his father coped with juggling police work and family life.

He wishes he could ask his father how he did it. The whole family thing. Granted, his pop was a career patrolman. He wasn’t obsessing over homicides. But even towards the end of his career, when they assigned him to the worst district in the city, Stan Walczak was there. He was present. Drinking tomato juice and laughing with Jim before school in the morning. Waking up before he got home from school to fix him a snack. Taking his boy to the Phillies games. (When was the last time you took your kids to a ball game?) His pop never talked about cases. Somehow he left it all in the squad car.

Written in the author’s inimitable style, tension blended with relaxed humor, over the course of this story of power, corruption and duty to crime enforcement, the history of three generations of the same family unfolds. We see sons who identify with their fathers; sons who want to be involved and solve the crimes their fathers can’t. It’s in this fashion that three generations of Walczaks, tied to the past, pay a price for their commitment to the police department.

As an aside, the author dedicated this book to his relative Philadelphia police officer, Joseph T. Swierczynski, “who was gunned down by a gangster” in 1919. So the echoes of crimes in the past and how they impact the present continue in a real-life domino effect. Once again, as in Swierczynski’s fantastic novel, Canary (and there’s a connection between Canary and Revolver,) the plot is firmly set in the author’s native Philadelphia, so the plot is steeped in history–the good and the bad sides of a city that Swierczynski obviously cares about.

This author has an intuitive knack of creating fiction that reflects the pulse of modern America. Revolver addresses, through the lives of its troubled characters, the very personal cost of serving as an undervalued cop in society. For this reader, Swierczynski is one of the most exciting names in American crime fiction. Always unpredictable, he never churns out old plots with new titles, and you can never guess where his next book is going to take you.

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Bye Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes

I gave up on the film version of Baise-Moi based on the book from French author Virginie Despentes, but that didn’t stop me from trying, and loving the film  Les Jolies Choses, based on yet another (sadly, untranslated) book from the author.  It was the latter film I thought of as I read Bye Bye Blondie, the story of a tangled relationship floating on a sea of fame and affluence.

The book begins with a woman in her late 30s, Gloria, whose real name is Stéphanie, washed up, living on benefits in the town of Nancy. Gloria could be called local colour at the bar where she hangs out, drinking, and it’s to this bar she gravitates after yet another violent break-up. This time it’s with her now ex-boyfriend, Lucas, and in the aftermath of the fight, she realizes that “she could have killed him. It came that close: a centimeter, a second! She diced with tragedy. He’d have had to be just that bit less quick, agile, or strong than her.”

Bye Bye Blondie

Gloria’s whole life gravitates around the bar where she’s well known. One of her few remaining friends is Michel who is smitten with a woman,
“a château bottled bitch,” named Vanessa, and to Gloria’s dismay, this relationship may be serious. Gloria is very intolerant of other people–especially women, and yet she always expects others to accept her aggressive, destructive behaviour.

Back in the bar, she looks around for L’Est Républicain, the local paper, and sees it clutched in the pink false fingernails of the woman sitting at the bar. Classic slut. Another regular. Always lots of makeup, come-hither eyes. She’s fat, dark-haired, no great looker, but not letting on she knows that.

Of course with a character like Gloria, you have to ask where things went wrong. How did she get to this point, “addicted to pointless anger,” and the first half of the book explores those questions with the result it’s obvious that middle-aged Gloria is not in a slump, no, she hasn’t moved beyond her adolescence. She’s a trainwreck, but she’s at the age that her actions can still impress those younger than her. Since her teenage years, obessive-compulsive Gloria has enjoyed throwing fits. To her they are an effective tool:

What she doesn’t tell him is how much of a kick she gets these days out of being aggressive. How much she loves the moment when everything tips over, when the other person is caught off balance and you have to go on, attacking, screaming, and seeing his fear. That’s the moment she likes. The pleasure she gets from it is dirty, degrading, filling her with shame-a filthy and superpowerful pleasure.

Never really able to settle on her own identity, in the 80s, she latched onto the Punk rock scene. But that’s not mentioning her stay at a mental hospital where she met the love of her life, Eric, a young man from a wealthy home, who, in the years following his break-up with Gloria, has become a successful television personality.

Blurbs about the book mention the inherent violence in heterosexual relationships, and while that’s not an arguable point when discussing this author’s work, other pertinent themes include the issues of class differences, status, and fame. The very things that attract us to someone in the first place are quite often the same things that guarantee doom.

I loved Gloria; I loved her ability to self destruct and to rise from the ashes. She’s funny, intelligent, and yet as her own worst enemy, she continually launches herself into a never-ending cycle of aggression. To Eric, locked into the world of the rich and famous, Gloria is a breath of fresh air, so he takes her to Paris and is “delighted to see the way she gets up people’s noses.” Gloria gets used to living in Eric’s world, and the question is: how long can she behave before creating another “nuclear disaster?”

There are many memorable scenes to carry away from this book. In one scene, Gloria is questioned by an “ancient” male psychiatrist who dislikes Gloria’s dyed red hair. He decides she’s “refusing to be a woman,” and locks her up.

And in another scene she’s shopping in Paris with Eric.

She waits in front of the luxury delicatessen, Fauchon’s, smoking a cigarette. She looks people up and down as they go in, actively detesting them. Elderly dyed-blondes, all twig-slim with ridiculous little dogs, hordes of Japanese women, young anorexic girls with strained faces, old ladies with white hair and Hermès scarves. The clichés aren’t misleading: rich people are just like you’d imagine them, weird, ugly and pleased with themselves. They can spot each other at a glance. Even when one of them dresses down, they keep something about them that says to their equals, “I’m one of us.”

She waits for him opposite Colette’s smoking another cigarette.

“Come in with me, don’t be silly.”

“I tell you it would give me conniptions.”

“You look like a horse stamping its foot outside. You’re scaring everyone.”

She wants to run between the aisles waving her hands in the air and screaming, pushing people over into the displays. Breaking all the glass, the mirrors, the windows. Punching the old hags in the face, kicking the salesgirls, jumping up and down on the fashion victims, smashing the balls of the bouncers.”

But my favourite scene has to be Gloria, stuck in long line at the post office. There’s annoying children, a demented old lady in a dressing gown, and a disgruntled customer:

A woman complains that there’s always a line at the post office. Gloria never at a loss for something to say, looks her up and down and retorts: “perhaps that’s because you only come here at busy times, you silly bitch.”

Gloria may be a trainwreck but she’s a disinhibited one, and it’s hard to disagree with some of her outspokenness, and while Gloria seems hell-bent on destroying conventional society and all of her relationships at the cost of her own comfort, there’s a tiny voice off on the sidelines that whispers we hope she can change her cycle of self-destructiveness but still remain true to herself.

We don’t get too close to the secondary characters in Gloria’s life, nonetheless there’s plenty to entertain here–the pub customers, life at the mental hospital, and parties full of the unhappy wives of rich, “repulsive pigs.” I would love to see the film version…

Translated by Siân Reynolds

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Open Wounds: Douglas Skelton

“Maybe he’s reached the end of his shelf life.”

Open Wounds, the fourth and final book in the Davie McCall Scottish crime series, finds the series protagonist, now 38 years old, still leading  ‘The Life,’ ten years since a prison sentence. McCall works for “Glasgow Godfather” Big Rab McClymont but wants out of the violence, something he confides to childhood friend, Bobby, a former crim who now owns a decorating store and leads a quiet family life. McCall, who was brought up in an incredibly violent home, stepped into The Life seamlessly, but now some of his past actions chew away at the dark reaches of his consciousness; he’s beginning to question his actions, and in the type of work he’s in, where loyalty is premium, conscience and questioning orders are both luxuries he can’t afford.

A violent job with explosive sidekick, Jimsie, a man who enjoys inflicting physical punishment and has a “tendency to go over the top,” leaves McCall with the definite feeling that he no longer has the stomach for the work.

open wounds

When McCall’s boss tells McCall to ‘fix’ freshly released Jerry O’Neill who’s talking to The Criminal Case Review Commission, the object is to shut the man up, but O’Neill claims he was framed by McClymont, and with McClymont seizing O’Neill’s former business concerns, there’s something about O’Neill’s story that rings true. McCall starts digging into the case on his own assisted by former cop, Donovan, now private detective. On the other end of the spectrum, McClymont leans on bent cop, Jimmy Knight, aka The Black Night for help.

“It happens,” Knight went on. “Guy gets older, slows down, doesn’t have the heart for things he used to. Man like McCall, without the ambition or the brain to be anything other than what he is, well, he can outlive his usefulness. Time to be put out to pasture, maybe.”

A complication in McCall’s life occurs when he becomes involved with a woman who lives in the same apartment complex. In his line of work, McCall can’t afford personal relationships, but the desire for a normal life proves to be a testing point.

The author presents an interesting portrait of a much-feared enforcer whose reputation causes those he visits to quiver at the knees, and yet, through the narrative, we see a man, in early middle age, developing doubts about the world he embraced, unquestioningly, decades earlier. There’s an edge of humour in the novel that lightens this dark, violent tale, and McCall’s deep attachment to his dog wins this character a lot of points.

Blood City, Crow Bait, and Devil’s Knock are the first three books in the series, and although it was no problem to read and enjoy Open Wounds as a standalone (the backstory and past events are woven in well), I feel as though I’ve missed some excellent books and that I should have read the series from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. Other reviews across the internet express the same sentiment.

Special thanks to Crimeworm for pointing me to this book.

Review copy

 

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Die of Shame: Mark Billingham

It seemed appropriate to move from people locked up in an Asylum to people in a recovery support group for various addictions.  Author Mark Billingham is arguably best known for his Tom Thorne novels, but Die of Shame is a standalone crime novel which emphasizes the dynamics and relationships within a support group.

die of shame

Therapist Tony De Silva, much to his wife Nina’s annoyance, holds the support group meetings at his posh London home. It’s a small group consisting of Robin, a doctor, ex-junkie Heather, sometime rent boy Chris Clemence, and well-to-do divorced Diana. The group dynamic shifts when the morbidly obese Caroline joins the weekly meetings.

The group members usually socialize at a local pub after the Monday night meetings, but the relationships are really rather forced. While all the group members share the common problem of a past addiction, these people come from different walks of life and in any other circumstances would not mingle.

A respected doctor in his early sixties, with a history of addiction to a variety of easily available medications. A thirty-two-year-old woman once addicted to drugs and gambling. A young gay man, living in a series of hostels and shelters, his drug dependency now replaced by an addiction to computer games and online pornography. A well-heeled housewife who had drifted into alcoholism as her domestic life had disintegrated and now shops compulsively instead of reaching for a bottle of wine at breakfast.

Tensions within the group increase when therapist Tony decides that exploring past events that caused group members to feel shame might well address the root problem of addiction. The group members find themselves sharing information that’s been long buried.

The group is a mixed, and believable bunch of recovering addicts: Diana, an alcoholic, is a middle aged woman who cannot accept that her husband has divorced her after meeting a much younger woman. Diane lives in a beautiful home and has no money worries, but nothing fills the void created by her bitter loneliness. Robin, a doctor with access to all sorts of drugs, ran amok with the privileges extended by his medical license, but he managed to pull himself out of the abyss of addiction–not before infecting several people with Hepatitis C. Heather, a rather tomboyish ex junkie and gambler, ekes out a marginal living on state assistance, and she’s closest to sometime rent boy, the homeless, acerbic and unpopular Chris.

The book goes back and forth between the murder investigation of one of the group members and the weekly sessions conducted by Tony. As the story unfolds, we see that Tony, with a resentful wife and a pot-smoking rebellious teenage daughter, has a number of problems of his own. The sessions between the recovering addicts come to crackling life while showing the tensions and burdens of sharing information.

What about you?” Heather asks. She looks at Caroline.

“Oh, please!” Chris leans forward. “It’s not like you need to be Sherlock Holmes, is it? Look at her.”

“You are such a twat,” Heather says.

“I’m used to it,” Caroline says. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“That’s good,” Tony says.

“Yes … I had a problem with compulsive overeating. I’ve always had … issues with food, with weight. Then, when my knees started to give out, I got hooked in painkillers. So …”

“Right,” Chris says, “But it’s really all about why your knees gave out, isn’t it? Your basic addiction is to cake at the end of the day. Eating all the pies.” 

DI Nicola Tanner investigates the murder. She’s  a humourless, but not unsympathetic character, a lesbian whose partner has a drinking problem, and so there are moments when aspects of the investigation become personally relevant for Tanner. The investigation is hampered by Tony’s reluctance to share information about the group’s sessions, but Tanner is convinced that the solution to the murder lies with the group members. In spite of the book’s length, author Billingham keeps tension and interest high, and the ending, which is, somewhat disappointingly, not conclusive, hints that perhaps the story doesn’t finish here.

Thanks to Cleopatra Loves Books for pointing me towards the book in the first place.

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Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

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The Sea Change: Elizabeth Jane Howard

“It’s the difference between leading a Jane Austen life and a Tolstoy one.”

Emmanuel Joyce, a famous playwright, half-Irish, half Jewish, his fragile, much younger wife, Lillian, and their faithful ‘fixer,’ Jimmy all live together in various hotels and travel back and forth between Britain and America. Their lives are intertwined in the production of plays-although Lillian, whose only child died decades earlier, isn’t sure just what her purpose is any more. They live out of suitcases, and plunge into social lives in New York and London, and Lillian “whose active ambivalence about Emmanuel’s work nearly drove him crazy at times” actively ignores her husband’s many affairs. Even though this is a pathological situation, the dynamic between the three characters works successfully. Emmanuel alternates between longing for solitude and treating his chronic invalid wife like a china doll, and it’s Jimmy’s multi-tasking job to squire Lillian around when she’s dumped into his hands. Everyone gets along, the system works, but no one ever addresses the pathological aspects of this threesome.

But things shift after a dramatic, unsuccessful  suicide attempt by Emmanuel’s secretary and latest mistress. After the event, Lillian employs, on impulse, a young girl who will accompany them to New York. This young woman, Sarah, has the same name as Lillian’s dead child, and so Emmanuel asks her to call herself Alberta, just to make things easier.

the sea change

‘Alberta’ comes from a large, closely knit, eccentric country family, and she’s the daughter of a vicar. A character who really belongs in a Jane Austen novel, she’s a unique, unpretentious, disarming combination of naiveté and sagaciousness. To work as a secretary for a famous playwright seems a fabulous opportunity, but given the fate of the last secretary, it’s clear that Alberta could unwittingly bring serious trouble into the Joyces’ lives. She’s certainly a catalyst for change.

The story unfolds through four narrative voices: Emmanuel, Lillian, Jimmy and Alberta–with the latter’s story partly told by long letters home. These shifting voices give the story grace, dimension and interest. We first see Lillian through the eyes of Jimmy; she seems high-maintenance and he calls her a bitch, and yet when we hear Lillian’s voice we discover she has hidden depths of sensitivity. Emmanuel, who at first seems all ego and bombastic self-interest is shown to be a self-made man, inspired by his drunken, brutal father whose poetic, self-pitying rants spiked and became dramatic performances during his drinking binges.

But his father lurched and jabbered on; charged with disastrous vitality-bored by everything but his own imagination of himself and haunted by all the chances he might have had.  

The character of Alberta, who is a breath of fresh air in the stagnant lives of the Joyces, is an absolute delight. She has a delicious sense of honesty and loves to repeat pronouncements from various eccentric relatives. Lillian is terrified that Alberta will become Emmanuel’s next mistress, and yet she can’t help really liking the girl. Emmanuel finds himself inspired and renewed by Alberta, and Jimmy… well Jimmy’s a bit of a cipher–even to himself.

Here’s a taste of Alberta’s spirit in this quote taken from a letter she writes home:

Then we had an extraordinary picnic lunch in an office with two men who had been at the auditions. They just ate yoghourt because they were dieting, but they talked about what they would have liked for lunch all the time we were eating ours, until I must say that it got quite difficult and hardhearted to go on eating it.

I recently read and reviewed Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View— another look at a stagnant marriage, but of the two novels, I much preferred The Sea Change for its generous look at human nature, and the subtle way, through the various narratives, we are reminded that we all have private sorrows.

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To the Islands: Randolph Stow

Randolph Stow’s novel To The Islands takes a look at the corrosive impact of colonialism through, aging, bitter missionary, Stephen Heriot, who has spent decades managing a Christian mission for ‘Indigent people’–the indigent people in this instance being Aborigines. When the novel opens, Heriot wakes up in his corrugated iron hut with its grass thatched roof. His books, detritus of his education and a reminder of his long distance past, are literally falling apart.

On the shelves of the rough bookcase, Heriot’s learning was mouldering away, in Oxford Books of this and that, and old-fashioned dictionaries, all showing more or less the visitations of insects and mildew.

There’s a symbolic significance to the books, for their decay matches Heriot’s decline. Physically, he’s aged and no longer accomplish the things he used to do, while mentally, he’s bitter, and he’s lost his sense of purpose. His wife died at the mission decades earlier, and now he’s facing the thought that he wasted his life. There’s the implicit idea that this once powerful man is in shambles. Looking in his broken mirror, “he saw himself as a great red cliff, rising from the rocks of his own ruin.”

How does a man grow old who has made no investment in the future, without wife or child, without refuge for his heart beyond the work that becomes too much for him?

Most of the other white men on the mission, in this “goldfish-bowl of existence,” are looking forward to Heriot leaving, and some think he’s gone “troppo.”  In many ways, Heriot is an embarrassment because he represents the old ways of handling the aborigines, and everyone would rather forget the past. While one character defends Heriot, placing him in the context of his times, Father Way says, ” a man who goes round spreading civilization with a stock whip gets no admiration from me.”   Heriot has requested a replacement from the regional council, but he receives a letter saying that he must remain as there is as yet no suitable candidate. And this brings in yet another idea–that Heriot, in his youth, had enough fervor, sense of purpose, or belief in his ‘mission,’ and that he was willing to sacrifice his entire life for what he believed in. Yet there’s no one to replace him; no one else has that sense of commitment.

to the islands

What drives people to leave their homes and take jobs in the remote area of Australia under such harsh, unforgiving conditions? Well religion explains some of it but there’s a also an excellent nurse who failed medical school; she’s “perhaps a fanatic of sorts, like a nun,” and a young teacher who “never intended to be involved. But the country had taken him in.” Bottom line these white workers are all driven by something to stay at the mission, but the reasons Heriot came to the mission are now absent. He’s been there too long. He’s ill and he suspects he’s dying.

Stow gives us a strong sense of life at the mission –both good and bad (with its pervasive attitudes towards the aborigines as ‘childlike’ or indigent).  A crisis erupts with the arrival of Rex, a man Heriot loathes, who’s a subversive influence on some of the younger residents of the mission. This beautifully written novel tackles huge themes of Shakespearean proportions through the story of the bitter aging missionary and his relationship with Rex. The mission has been existence for decades, and while the older residents seem more comfortable with the “indigents’ allowance,” there’s the idea, running under the surface of the story, that this system is inherently unhealthy, unproductive, and corrosive for all involved. With Rex’s unsettling presence, the established order of life at the mission is challenged.

Heriot watched the old women, across the grass at the meathouse, and thought of misery and hopelessness, of the wretched tribe of indigents. But it is their choice, their own choice…

Randolph Stow published  To the Islands when he was 22 years old. He’d worked for a period at an Anglican-run mission, and in the preface of my copy, he explains some of the changes he made from the original edition. Although the story addresses the cost of colonialism and the inherent wisdom of supporting a native population on an undignified subsistence way of life,  this isn’t a story about race as much as it’s a tragic tale of how we battle ourselves and our impulses.

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Mona Lisa: Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1937)

Alexander Lernet-Holenia’s playful novella Mona Lisa from Pushkin Press capitalizes on the mystery of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic painting by focusing on the facts and then cleverly blurring the details. The result is a delightful little tale centered on the alluring Mona Lisa smile, obsession, and the human desire to build a narrative around any mystery.

Mona Lisa

It’s the dawn of the 16th century, and we’re in the middle of the Second Italian War. King Louis XII sends one of his marshals, Louis de la Trémoille to Milan where he is supposed to raise an army, go to Naples and offer relief to the French governors who are fighting the Spanish.  There’s a big speech, full of pompous grandiosity from King Louis XII which boils down to the fact that the only thing Louis de la Trémoille is getting from the king is his blessing. The king stares “for a while into the indeterminate middle distance past the Marshal with the vacant expression of one who at all costs refuses to talk of money.” The Marshal is supposed to finance the campaign somehow:

“I trust that you will also take the opportunity of recouping the cost of this campaign. Be sure therefore that you levy from the territories for whose sake we are making such sacrifices all necessary and fitting reparations, be it in the form of direct payments or precious objects, jewels, costly tapestries and suchlike things. For this is my express wish and command. And so,” concluded the King, “goodbye and may god go with you!”

So Trémoille leaves for Italy with just a “few inconsequential counts and minor noblemen.” The First Italian War was a very lucrative affair, but the Second Italian War isn’t a booty-filled operation, and poor Trémoille  “was barely able to send to Paris anything of note.” He has to “content himself with fleecing the smaller towns” and decided to “concentrate on the purchase of objects of art.” This is how Da Vinci enters the picture.

Da Vinci is portrayed as a distracted genius, far more sophisticated and intelligent than Trémoille. While trying to catch a fly inside Da Vinci’s workshop, one of Trémoille’s entourage, a certain Monsieur de Bougainville, discovers the painting we know as the Mona Lisa. He falls in love with the woman depicted in the portrait and is determined to track her down….

The book plays into the mythology that’s grown around the painting, and at the same time, the narrative creates mystery and mythology of its own. Bougainville, dangerously obsessed and determined to discover the identity of the woman known as La Gioconda, takes Leonardo da Vinci’s words and builds a whole story around the woman who posed for the portrait. Da Vinci is frustratingly vague about his model:

“Oh,” Leonardo said, raising his eyebrows, “I knew her only fleetingly, and the picture of the woman before you is neither her nor anyone else. The truth us, even had I wanted to paint her, it would have immediately turned into the likeness of someone else. After all, one always paints women who never exist, and the same goes for women one really loves.”

This is a very light, bubbly read, and although there are some very serious consequences to Bougainville’s obsession, the story never deviates from its comic stance. De Vinci seems mystified by the French soldiers, their desire for booty, and Bougainville’s determination to create a palatable narrative regarding the model for his painting. The novella is written in such a way that readers connect with the rather bemused and distracted Da Vinci. Why is this Frenchman so determined to ‘save’ the woman who may or who may not have been the model for painting? After all, according to Da Vinci, the portrait is of an idealized woman. What is all this fuss about?

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Translated by Ignat Avsey

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The Secret of High Eldersham: Miles Burton (1930)

Miles Burton’s novel The Secret of High Eldersham concerns a murder that takes place in a East Anglian village pub, the Rose and Crown. The pub has an unfortunate location–it stands in “an isolated spot,” outside of the village of High Eldershaw at the end of a side road.

It was about twenty miles from Gippingford, the county town, and stood upon the old coach road running northwards. At one time it had been a favourite spot for changing horses, but with the advent of the car its popularity had departed, since it was neither imposing or romantic enough the attract the attention of the passing motorist. Further, within recent years a new main road had been built, absorbing the through traffic and reducing the old coach road to little more than a country lane. The result was that few strangers entered the portal of the Rose and Crown.

That leaves the pub relying on local trade for business, and the nearby “struggling” village which sits on the banks of the River Elder only boasts 200-300 inhabitants, mostly labourers who don’t have much in the way of disposable income to take to the pub. When the book opens, the Rose and Crown’s long time publican transfers from the Rose and Crown to the much more lucrative business at the Tower of London pub in Gippingford. The head of the brewery advertises for a new publican and accepts retired policeman, Samuel Whitehead for the position.

The Secret of High Eldersham

In spite of the fact that Whitehead is an outsider, and that alone can be a death knoll for a business in East Anglia, a region where outsiders are regarded with “distrust,” the pub continues much the same until late one night, Constable Viney, the High Eldersham village policeman, riding home on his bicycle, stops by the pub and finds Whitehead dead–stabbed to death while sitting in his chair.

The case is very hastily passed along to Scotland Yard, and Detective Inspector Young arrives to head the investigation. Before long, he calls upon his good friend, Desmond Merrion, “a bachelor of independent and very considerable means,” a man he met during the war, for advice. At first Young dismisses the idea that High Eldersham is peculiar when it comes to the area’s attitude towards strangers, but he sees something that convinces him otherwise. By not revealing Young’s observations, Burton advances the story’s interest, and soon Merrion observes the same thing–we readers don’t know what they’ve both seen, and that kept me turning the pages.

The atmosphere in the village seems friendly enough, but it’s clear that outsiders will not penetrate the close knit community

I think it’s because all the people have married among themselves for so long that they’re all sort of related like. They settle things among themselves, you’ll never hear of one of them going to law with another, or anything like that. And they don’t like outsiders coming in and interfering with their affairs.

The initial set-up is strong, and the book begins very promisingly indeed  with the murder of the publican discovered by the intrepid Constable Viney. As much as I really liked the character of Desmond Merrion (and we do get to see quite a bit of him here), the murder investigation lost itself at times. I was disappointed when the topic of witchcraft arose, and the book, ultimately, seemed torn between being a police procedural and a thriller.

Some time ago, I read Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, so I looked forward to another novel by the same author. Of the two, I preferred Death in the Tunnel. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the author, real name, Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) and his very prolific career. It’s easy to guess that Burton’s series character, Desmond Merrion, is an alter ego.

For two more reviews:

Cross Examining Crime

Past Offences

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