Category Archives: Fiction

The Feast of Lupercal: Brian Moore

“He’s just like a lot of Irishmen I know. He pretends to be a wild Celt  but he’s frightened to do anything his neighbours wouldn’t approve of.”

Brian Moore’s The Feast of Lupercal, is arguably, a companion novel to The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Both novels concern middle aged lonely protagonists who live in Belfast. In the latter novel, spinster Judith Hearne, a piano teacher in her 40s moves into a boarding house. Judith’s life is on the descent. She nursed a horrible aunt until she died, but now that crutch/burden is removed, Judith, who likes booze a bit too much, is on the slippery slope. The Feast of Lupercal, concerns Diarmuid Devine, a lonely, repressed English teacher who works at a Catholic school. He’s a fading nondescript 37 and has a tiny basement flat furnished with items from his now deceased parents’ home. Even his bed “was one he had slept on since he was a boy.” Whereas Judith is clinging, desperately to the shreds of respectability, Diarmuid is entrenched in respectability and conformity, seeing his last chance at love and intimacy slipping away.

The feast of lupercal

It’s usually a blow to our self-image when we learn people’s true opinions about us. At school one day, Diarmuid overhears a bathroom conversation in which he hears himself called an “old woman.” It’s as though that conversation turns on a switch, and for the rest of the day Diarmuid begins picking up hints that’s he’s aging. He’s not viewed as much of a young eligible bachelor anymore (if he ever was); somehow he’s passed that line and is seen part of the aged/neutered crowd. He attends a party to celebrate the engagement of a young couple, and the host, a sixty year old, refers to Diarmuid as a peer. Following this blow, Diarmoud finds himself mingling with the elderly. The leftovers.

Here were the old ones. Tim Heron’s mother and his wife’s father, an aged uncle, a solitary aunt. Five or six unmarried females, elderly, out of things. All of them dressed in their Sunday best, wondering what to do with themselves. For they had so looked forward to this party, and now, as usual, they were not enjoying it. They sat in a stiff oval on the sofas and chairs, trying to think of small, useless remarks. Unwanted, even by each other, they were the kind of relatives who must be invited to every function because, being the least noticed, they were the quick to take offence. Someone had given them glasses of sherry and there were a few small biscuits of  a plate. They waited for supper, like children for a treat.

There’s one exciting aspect of Diarmuid’s life, amateur theatre, but even this is regulated by the church. Still, in his better moments Diarmuid can imagine that he’s a bit dangerous, a tad exciting, and that night at the party, he meets Una Clarke, a young protestant girl who’s moved from Dublin in a cloud of scandal and hopes to attend nursing school in Belfast. Diarmuid is attracted to her, and he begins to think this is his chance for love….

This is a closed, claustrophobic society in which everyone knows everyone else and gossip floats freely in the air. In this sort of atmosphere, people like Diarmuid can never escape the perceptions and judgments of others. Una is smart enough to know she has to escape to fresh pastures. She’s clearly someone who has her own mind and admires those “who defy people and do what they think is right.” An acquaintance describes Diarmuid as a “fella that wouldn’t say boo to a dead duck.” so this timid schoolmaster isn’t exactly her type. On one hand Diarmuid’s attracted to her, yet on the other he worries what people will think–that the “authorities” will think. She’s a curious choice for Diarmuid. He’d probably be better off going for a Catholic wallflower, but he selects Una partially because she is ‘dangerous’ but also because she’s open and not stigmatized by the rigidity of religion. But is he also interested in Una, perhaps, because, it’s not likely to work?….

The Feast of Lupercal examines one man’s struggles against himself, and author Brian Moore cleverly sets up the plot so that Diarmud eventually, finds himself in a tragic, moral dilemma. Diarmuid must face that fork in the road– who he is and who he’d like to be.

While this is an excellent novel, this isn’t my favourite Moore. I struggle with passive characters, and I struggle with characters whose lives are dictated by religion. I much preferred The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

In some ways, The Feast of Lupercal reminded me of a Wharton novel (The Age of Innocence) in which characters are suffocated and influenced by the society in which they live.

Here’s Jonathan’s review.

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Fishnet: Kristin Innes

Fishnet from Kristin Innes takes a look at the inner world of prostitution. It’s the world’s oldest profession as the saying goes and in Scotland, where the book is set, prostitution is legal but public solicitation, pimping and operating a brothel is not. Readers are going to come to this book with their own opinions about prostitution and they may find those opinions challenged.

Fishnet

Fiona is at a hen’s night whooping it up in a highland village when something weird happens. Some semi-boozed up man at the pub claims he recognises her. The trip to this particular village brings back memories of Rona, Fiona’s missing sister, as this village was her last know whereabouts. Rona’s been gone now for almost 7 years. Fiona decides to track down Rona’s friend and former roommate Christina, and she’s shocked to discover that Rona was working as a prostitute right before she disappeared. This new information throws an entirely different light on Rona’s disappearance.

Coincidentally, when Fiona returns to work at a construction company, the building is being picketed by sex workers who are about to be evicted. Fiona’s boss tells her to call the police on the women, and while Fiona complies, she also takes the women tea and warns them that the police are on their way.

This encounter sends Fiona down the rabbit hole looking for her sister. Meanwhile Fiona’s home life as a single parent living with her parents, takes a back seat. The novel sways between a search for Rona, the reduction of the stigmatization of sex work, the legalization of prostitution, and the argument that prostitutes aren’t all exploited women. This was obviously well researched, but the plot was somewhat predictable so no surprises there.

My opinions of prostitution have altered with age. In gung-ho youth, I thought, remove the pimps, it was a victimless crime, damn it and that it should be legalized. It was pretty black and white for me. I still think it should be legalized, and the Scottish approach seems the most humane and reasonable. However, my opinions were altered some time back by the Elizabeth Haynes (researched) novel Behind Closed Doors. This novel concerned a 15 year old girl who was sold into sex slavery, drugged up to the eyeballs, beaten, raped and rotated through various flop houses in the Red Light district of Amsterdam.  You know … where prostitution is legal. Yeah right.

review copy.

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All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

Review copy

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The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.

 

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The Dutch House: Ann Patchett

“I could feel the entire house sitting on top of me like a shell I would have to drag around for the rest of my life.”

A story of inheritance, failed responsibility and restitution, The Dutch House from Ann Patchett is told by Danny Conroy. Danny, now a middle aged man narrates the retrospective tale which begins in Danny’s childhood. Danny and his sister Maeve are the children of real estate tycoon, Cyril Conroy who, following WWII, begins to accumulate real estate in Pennsylvania. The jewel in his crown is ‘the Dutch House’ of the title, a mansion built by the ill-fated VanHoebeek family, whose possessions (what’s left) remain in the house. The fact that inside this incredible house, all these accumulated objects, some worth a considerable amount of money, are forgotten and gathering dust, is significant. The VanHoebeeks were wealthy before the depression, but the disintegration of the family made all else immaterial. 

The Dutch House.

Cyril’s wife, Brooklyn born Elna Conroy, who had at one point been a novice, was uncomfortable with immense wealth and the surprise ‘gift’ of the vast VanHoebeek house. She finds the 3 storey mansion with its walnut bas-relief walls and her new life suffocating, so she abandons her 2 children departing the scene for India. Shortly thereafter, Maeve becomes diabetic.

My father sighed, sank his hands down into his pockets and raised his eyes to assess the position of the clouds, then he told me she was crazy. That was both the long and the short of it.

“Crazy how?”

“Crazy like taking off her coat and handing it to someone on the street who never asked her for a coat in the first place. Crazy like taking off your coat and giving it away too.”

Within a few years, Cyril marries again, an avaricious woman named Andrea who has two young daughters. Andrea, the complete opposite of Cyril’s first wife, holds herself in check, barely, but when Cyril dies unexpectedly, she loses no time in evicting 15-year-old Danny–Maeve has long since been made to feel unwelcome. Maeve and Danny, in a matter of days, find themselves cast out of the house and cut off from what they assumed would be their inheritance. There is, however, an education trust fund set up for Danny and also for Andrea’s two daughters. Maeve, loathing Andrea and feeling the injustice of her stepmother’s actions, pushes Danny into medical school in order to drain as much of the trust as possible.

The novel covers five decades, and most of the novel is defined by Danny’s close relationship with Maeve. They connect through their shared past and also through the home they lost. Maeve is a mother figure, sacrificing herself for Danny in contrast to their mother who ran away, ditching her responsibilities in order to care for strangers.

To say too much more about the plot would be to ruin it for others. This is a strongly narrative novel told by Danny, and we only see glimpses of his wife Celeste who takes second place to Maeve. Through Danny’s tale, the novel explores failed relationships and failed responsibilities. Maeve’s drive to score against Andrea leads Danny to a life he didn’t choose for himself, and yet he still manages to pull himself into a direction in which he’s comfortable. Both Danny and Maeve suffered from their parents’ failed responsibilities. Their mother physically abandoned them, and while their father remained, he emotionally abandoned his children. It’s interesting then to see Danny’s relationship with Celeste. He’s absent in more ways than one. There’s one scene when Celeste sees that Danny has improved Maeve’s kitchen, and Celeste quietly notes that she had wanted exactly the same thing for years. The narration is well-paced and interesting, and I wanted to know what happened to Danny and Maeve. Elan’s early departure stranded the two children for almost their entire adult lives and while they developed into successful people (Maeve was underemployed) the damage was done. Lots of children have it way tougher than Danny and Maeve, but these siblings lost a great deal of money. Ultimately the money lost was secondary to the need for loving parents.

But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.

The novel takes a rather idealised view of human nature (with Andrea sucking up the book’s negative view of humanity). People who’ve been shafted usually seem to scar and yet here healing takes place in a redemptive way.  Should we let toxic people back into our lives? Should we forgive? Is forgiveness for the transgressor or for us? That said, there’s one character I won’t name (but you can guess it if you’ve read the book) who needs a good wallop over the head. Does she not see the irony of her behavior? Perhaps, arguably, it’s ‘penance’ as she says but poor Maeve pays for it as she pays for almost all the bad things that take place in the novel. Telescopic Philanthropy so well described by Dickens. 

Review copy. 

 

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The Little Girls: Elizabeth Bowen (1963)

“And yet now, this minute, with you sitting there opposite, I quite distinctly see you the way you were. You so bring yourself back that it’s like a conjuring trick.”

Is it wise to revisit the past? This is the question asked in Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Little Girls.  Dinah, a woman in her early 60s, assisted by Major Frank Wilkins, constructs a time capsule; she’s “asking people for things.” This all takes place at Applegate, a 1912 “substantial villa“–a splendid dwelling which includes incredible workmanship, “lush green woods,” “the rolling Somerset landscape” and a cave. The process of gathering objects stirs Dinah’s memories back to 1914 when she was 11. Her school friends were Clare Burkin-Jones and Sheila Beaker. But that was fifty years ago. Where are they now?

The little Girls

A rather aggressive series of advertisements, which carry hints and possibly even threats, bring Clare and Sheila from the woodwork. What does Dinah want and how will her two friends react after decades of silence?

The book’s first section brings these three women back together, and it only takes a few minutes in each other’s company for the old relationships to slide back into place. These may be women in their 60s, but suddenly they are 11 once more with all the old rivalries in place–except now there are some nasty comments to toss around.

Sheila has married well but somewhat predictably and she’s immersed and concerned with the appearance of respectability. Clare, who is now a successful businesswoman, hasn’t aged well.

Her forehead, exposed by the turban, was forever scored by the horizontal lines into which it rolled up when she raised, as she often did, her comedian’s eyebrows. Bags underhung her eyes; deep creases down from the broadened lobes of the nostrils, bracketed her mouth. Her pug nose and long upper lip (which she still drew down) should have been recognizable features, had the whole of her not so paralyzed Sheila’s eye. Strictly, she was massive rather than  fat: her tailor-made, tailored to contain her, did not minimize (as she sat at the table) shoulders, chest, bust or rib-cage. Clare had arrived, you might feel, by elimination at the one style possible for herself, and thereafter stuck to it. It did not so much fit her as she it. 

So 3 women who’ve lost touch are now back in the same room, and as you’ve probably guessed it’s a mistake. They don’t want to be reminded of who they were, and yet they find themselves rapidly slipping back into the old groves (including old nicknames). And what is the deal with Dinah’s snoopy servant, Francis?

The book’s first section brings the three women back together and then in the second section, we’re in 1914, and some languid days right before the eruption of WWI. Part 3 brings us back to the present.

The first and second sections of the book were fairly strong, but unfortunately the third section is a disappointment. There are hints of some horrible secret which are never fully realized, and the book is far stronger when it details the relationships between the girls, the women they become, and the poignant scenes of 1914. Of note, however, are the descriptions of the garden which made me see and smell the flowers:

As they mounted the steps, the temperature rose. Above ground, the steamy flower-smells filled the air (more, still, that of a lingering August than of September) as the three followed a spongy serpentine grass path towards the house. On each side, the path was overflowed by a crowded border. Mauve, puce and cream-pink stock, Double, were the most fragrant and most crushingly heavy; more pungent was the blue-bronze straggling profusion of catmint. Magnificently gladioli staggered this way and that–she was an exuberant, loving, confused and not tidy gardener; staking and tying were not her forte. Roses were on enough into their second blooming to be squandering petals over cushions of pansies. Flowers in woolwork or bright chalk, all shades of almost every colour, zinnias competed with one another. And everywhere along the serpentine walk where anything else grew not, dahlias grew: some dwarf, some giant, some corollas like blazons, some close fluted, some velvet, some porcelain or satin, some darkening, some burning like flame or biting like acid onto the faint dusk now being given off by the evening earth,.

That paragraph gives a sense of Bowen’s sometimes convoluted style. But above all, this author must have been a gardener.

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Middle England: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Middle England moving from 2010 until 2018 is a state-of-the-nation novel. The lives of a handful of characters are set against a troubled Britain as the country moves towards (and through) Brexit. The main character here is Benjamin Trotter who also appeared in The Rotter’s Club and  The Closed Circle.. While this is a trilogy, Middle England can be read as a standalone novel. When  Middle England opens, Benjamin, now in his fifties, is attending his mother’s funeral. Benjamin is ‘retired’ after making a bundle from selling his London property. He’s moved to a converted watermill in Shropshire, where he lives alone trying to finish his novel. 

Middle England

The novel spans 8 years in Britain’s history: a short time considering all that has gone before, but what a momentous 8 years it’s been. Other main characters include Benjamin’s university lecturer niece, Sophie and her plebeian husband, driving instructor, Ian–a couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. There’s also Benjamin’s sister Lois who now works in York while her neglected husband remains in Birmingham. Another character is one of Benjamin’s best friends, Doug Anderton, a journalist who writes political op-ed pieces. He appears at Benjamin’s home on the night of the funeral and opens the subject of the political landscape in Britain.  He notes that Britain is “at a crossroads, “ that there’s a large chunk of the population who are unhappy and resentful, and that the political future in Britain is “volatile.” Doug who’s left-wing and married to an embarrassingly wealthy woman feels he’s “just a spectator” who lives in a “cocoon” of privilege. 

I’m just a spectator. I live in a house in Chelsea worth millions.  My wife’s family own half of the Home Counties. I don’t know what I’m talking about. And it shows up in my writing. Of course it does.

This theme, of being out of touch with the undercurrents of British society, “the sense of simmering injustice,”  runs though the novel. While Doug grasps that politically, Britain is facing change, just what that change will be seems to catch everyone (the politicians especially) off guard. The political scene is presented as it occurs: against the backdrop of life, so we see a timeline of events: the murder of Jo Cox on the news, the rumble of net migration figures. Benjamin, his sister, his niece and his friends are not comfortable with the shifting ‘face’ of Britain. They are upperclass/uppermiddle class. The working class make a slim showing here, and subjects such as Disability Living Allowance and fit-to-work tests are not given a mention–although the Leave promise to send 350,000,000 pounds weekly to the NHS does appear. 

As a novel, Middle England is flawed. The author’s political bias is evident, and while I don’t know quite how you escape that trapdoor when you tackle a subject such as this in a novel, the pro-leave characters are portrayed as rather ignorant repulsive people; the remainers seem stunned and confused (no doubt realistically) by what’s afoot and characters are rather conveniently slotted into “incidents.” The novel is at its strongest (IMO) when characters face an epiphany: such as when Sophie finds herself defending political correctness, publicly, over her husband’s crushed ambitions. This rather interesting scenario is spoiled when later Sophie becomes entangled in an incident involving a transgender student. Would, anyone, after all that is happened, visit the student in hospital? Sophie’s words have already been horrible misinterpreted and twisted once. So that brings me to another question: is the visit logical or does it say something about Sophie’s need to prove that she wasn’t all the things she was accused of.

Middle England is an ambitious novel which attempts to catch the mood of a country as radical changes take place. The novel doesn’t try to present a cogent discussion about immigration or the Brexit decision. Instead it acts as a mirror for the times, and in that sense written from the perspective of characters who are rather privileged, I think it’s a job well done. I watched Brexit from afar. I thought it would happen and it did; I have relatives who live in Britain, Australia, NZ, and Europe, and the latter who left (mainly) due to dissatisfaction with the UK, now are nervous about their future. By taking major political events in a timeline sort-of-way and placing this timeline in the lives of the characters, the novel goes a long way to explaining the mood of residents and an argument for why the Brexit vote passed. In spite of its flaws, I liked the book, and here’s Lisa’s review.

I find myself thinking a lot about the characters who voted to stay in Brexit, who then feel so uncomfortable in their home country that they leave. So on both sides of the Brexit divide, people don’t like what Britain has become. That’s a lot to think about. Finally, loved the Hobbit references which burrowed into the whole Middle Earth/Middle England idea, and the way the Olympics seemed to tap some deep core of patriotism.  

Review Copy

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Olive, Again: Elizabeth Strout

“God, have I seen enough of this crap! Come on, Jack.”

I was sorry to see the last of Olive when I closed the final page of Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. For those who have yet to meet Olive (in either the book or the TV series version) Olive Kitteridge is a retired Math teacher who lives in Crosby Maine with her husband, pharmacist Henry. In many ways they are a mismatched couple (she’s domineering and abrasive and Henry is tender and kind) but in other ways Henry and Olive supplement one another.  In Olive Kitteridge, which isn’t as much a novel as much as interconnected stories, we meet not just Olive, Henry and their son Christopher, but also a range of characters who live in Crosby, and these characters form a rich tapestry of small town life. Some people really like Olive for her quirky outspokenness ; others find her abrasive and dislike her.

It doesn’t take too many pages before you realise that Olive is a formidable character. She can at times have incredible insight and empathy towards people but she is a tyrant at home. Both gentle Henry and unhappy Christopher are overshadowed and dominated by Olive, and in Olive Kitteridge, Christopher breaks with his mother and Henry suffers from illness which takes Olive by surprise.

Olive again

Now we’re back again: life has moved on for Olive. At the end of Olive Kitteridge, Olive meets Jack Kennison a retired widower, a Harvard professor who’s been eased out of his position by sexual harassment charges. Olive, Again picks up this story thread with 74-year-old Jack and Olive connecting after acknowledging old age and loneliness. Both Jack and Olive are estranged from their children, and Jack, a much more confident and self-assured man than Henry, manages to roll with Olive’s sharp temper and lashing tongue.

The stories bring a host of characters into play: people who drift in and out of Olive’s life and sometimes we see Olive pass by the lives of other characters who are central to a specific story. Over time, Olive finds that Henry recedes into the background and she goes through various conclusions about her marriage and Henry (some of which are reassessed again before the book concludes.)

The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage–a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding–had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. 

I’m not going to talk about all the stories: just the ones that stick in my mind. One of my favourite, yet disturbing stories in the collection, Cleaning, features Kaley, a young girl who cleans houses. She cleans the home of a strange couple, a teacher and her husband who, according to Olive is “going dopey-dope.” Kaley finds that she cannot talk to anyone about what is happening at the house–it’s a situation that creeps up on her, and while the subject doesn’t come up with Olive, somehow Olive’s frank take on the couple clears the air.

There’s also another brilliant story, Labor about a tedious baby shower. which illustrates how Olive doesn’t fit in. Olive sits there with the other women aware of how she’s supposed to act: she’s bored and impatient; she knows she’s supposed to ohhh and ahhh over the gifts with all the other women, and she tries to put on a good show of interest and attention but it’s really more than she can bear.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait–wait-while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life. 

In Light Olive visits a former student, Cindy, who has cancer. Most of Cindy’s friends avoid visiting or if they visit, the C word isn’t mentioned. But no subject is taboo to Olive; she doesn’t recognize boundaries. Olive’s graceless blunt manner is just what this woman needs and for once Olive’s matter of fact approach is welcomed.

In The End of the Civil War Days, Olive plays a tiny role while the main focus is a married couple who separate their living areas with yellow duct tape, so that they each have half of the dining room, the living room etc. and necessary communicate exists through addressing the dog “The main issue, naturally, is the television,” as with two televisions husband and wife compete with sound until the husband gets earphones. The way some people live for so long that it becomes normal. …. The irony to this story is that a state of civil war reigns at home and the husband is a member of a civil war reenactment group.

(And just as a point, I know a couple who live like this; the husband sleeps outside.)

Somehow these stories sum up a lot about Olive: she’s complicated; she’s impatient and doesn’t fit the roles she finds herself shoved into. She has a difficult time with social relationships and perhaps that’s why outsiders, people on the fringes like her so much. Jack emerges as a main character here. At one point, he reassesses his relationship with his dead wife with the “horrifying rush” that while he loved her, they’d “still squandered what they’d had.” Whereas Henry was dominated and overshadowed by Olive, Jack, who’s well aware that they must enjoy the short time left, simply laughs at Olive’s grumpiness and barbs.

Mental illness is one of the themes of Olive Kitteridge, and while it’s also in Olive, Again other themes are the deep scars left in marriage by infidelities, the rising tide of regret, and aging which of course goes hand in hand with dying. Characters drop off left right and center, and Olive herself become an old lady. Her world shrinks in this book, and while it’s sad, Olive comes to a few revelations about her life and her son Christopher.  At times she struggles to understand how things happened, but she also has some remarkable revelations– as does Jack, who also lives with many regrets and has an unfortunate face-to-face with his Waterloo in Pedicure.

Review copy.

 

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Poor George: Paula Fox (1967)

“You light a match and the house burns down.”

George Mecklin, an English teacher at a private Manhattan school, is 34, he’s stepping into middle-age and well into his career. He and wife Emma, a part time librarian, have recently moved out to the country region of Peekskill. The decision to move to the country appears to be driven by financial reasons, but as the plot continues, the move is possibly also a band-aid for their married life. While the country does initially add a degree to solace to their lives, it also, as it turns out, adds new problems and threats.

Poor George

The novel opens with George, sitting in a boring work meeting, asking himself ‘who listens?’ and immediately returning with the answer ‘no one.’ Is he talking about his students, his obviously discontented (and possibly sexually unsatisfied) wife Emma, his self-focused sister, Lila, or Emma’s obnoxious friends, the Devlins? George, an idealist, is aware that he’s not satisfied with life; he finds himself involved in political spats at work, and he also feels alienated from his wife. The very things that attracted him to her in the first place now rankle. He’s beginning to realise that he doesn’t like her very much: “sometimes he thought her coolness not so much a cover as the thing itself, an emptiness.” There are issues in the marriage: issues which gnaw away at the relationship. Emma also seems unhappy; she was supposed to continue her studies “one of these days,” but she seems caught in a web of lethargy. Emma dislikes the country and finds it “eerie.” They live shabbily on a tight budget, she chain smokes and suffers from fatigue.

When he had first known her, the violent decisiveness with which she judged people had charmed him. For Emma, people were enemies or protectors. Even though the charm had worn off, he sometimes envied her–her sense of others devoid of the kind of complex and enervating reflections he was given to–for within her limits she was clear while he, he thought, moved in a permanent blur. 

In spite of the fact that George now lives in the country and no longer jostles for space with other New Yorkers, there’s an sordid, claustrophobic imprisoned, feeling to George’s life.

Behind their cardboard menus their glances raced from entree to price. The waitress stood next to their table; her red arms bulged at the sleeve endings of her uniform, as though she were slowly growing out of it. The plastic mats, the hurricane lamp, the soiled pretentious menu, the waitress with her expression of patience in a hurry, and the humble clotted ketchup dispenser were the elements of a set piece to which they returned again and again. How could he have told her of their thousand evenings of the same entertainments without reference to these tangible manifestations of tedium and habit?

George comes home from work one day to find a local teenager, Ernest, has waltzed into his home. George learns that Ernest is failing at school and against Emma’s wishes, George invites Ernest to return for tutoring. George, feeling an emotional detachment from his career, thinks that Ernest is “appealing to him for salvation,” and so Ernest begins visiting the Mecklins’ home. George lays down ground rules which Ernest constantly flouts, and while Emma simmers with resentment that her husband has overruled her opinion (and effectively chosen Ernest over her) George and Ernest have sporadic learning sessions.

Initially when George finds Ernest in his home, he thinks the teen is a thief, but it’s more complex than that. Ernest seems to be driven more by curiosity than anything else. He’s an odd mix of characteristics–at times he appears naive and possible salvage material, but then underneath that youthfulness there’s something unpleasant.  Ernest’s curiosity combined with an abusive drunken father leads to him spying on the local inhabitants:

–“Where do people get money? Where, how? More shoes than I had in my life … tool kits, shiny, don’t they use them? Electric stuff, something to do everything with. … Jesus, how do they get it?”

George felt intense pity; he tried to speak to the longing in Ernest, to dissuade him from making a mystery of the economic profligacy about which, as he tried to explain it to the boy, he found himself growing long-winded and uneasy, as though he were lying subtly. But then Ernest would laugh; the tension in his face would be replaced by a loutish leer as he described other things he had seen. George told himself it was defensive–these stories Ernest recited so wolfishly. The scenes were stripped of humanity. like the scrawled graffiti in public places, and George was haunted by them–Charlie Devlin sprinkling his fat, naked wife with gin; Martha and Joe Palladino beating each other and weeping while the children watched from behind furniture. 

While Emma grows increasingly hostile to George and accepts a silent truce with Ernest, other secondary characters weigh in on the relationship. Emma’s  “tedious and vicious” friend Minnie Devlin develops her own toxic theories about what is going on, but George finds an unexpected ally in a fellow teacher:

There’s something flabby about teaching in a place like this,” He said. “If you don’t have to exert yourself once in a while, you begin–or at least I do–to feel like a headwaiter leading people to the second-best table.

Then there’s the train wreck: Mrs Palladino, the alcoholic neighbour who doesn’t go outside much following a recent incident in which she passed out in a ditch.  No one seems to blame her husband for straying, but then which came first? Martha Palladino’s drinking problem or her husband’s serial affairs? Her ramshackle home is an epic disaster but somehow the children manage to survive in the havoc. Mrs. Palladino admits she’s considered “setting fire” to her home, and while she hasn’t done that yet, there’s another form of disintegration afoot. Emma goes for a visit and can’t get out of there fast enough as Mrs. Palladino is disturbing:

You know there isn’t much to do in life once you fall though the surface of things.

Set in the 60s, the book gives a glimpse of the social fabric of the times: Racism, homophobia and commie-hating. George has a lot going for him: he’s still young, he’s healthy, educated and employed, yet George is “experiencing a profound dissatisfaction with life.”  How many of us arrive at a point in our lives when we ask ‘is this all there is?’ We see other characters who are experiencing the same thing but have either fallen through the cracks of middle aged, middle class angst or have developed various coping mechanisms.  The world is fluid yet George feels stagnant, trapped, in a rut. George thinks he can rescue Ernest, but isn’t he really expecting Ernest to give meaning to his (George’s) life? While this is George’s story, there’s also the feeling that Emma’s unhappiness lingers just around the corner. At one point she asks George: “Do you think I’m only here when you look at me?” Then there’s a scene when she wants to rescue a dog (could this be her Ernest?) and George stamps on the idea. Poor George  was everything that a recent Richard Yates read was not.

In the end you learned to live with things once you stopped talking about them.

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Bad Debts: Peter Temple

“One thing practicing law gives you is a feeling for some kinds of truth.”

I’ve been meaning to read the Jack Irish novels for years, but then I watched the series which featured the marvelous Guy Pearce as the title character. Guy Pearce IS Jack Irish–he’s excellent in the role, so good in fact that I started to wonder if I should skip the books.

Jack Irish

Roll on to Bad Debts, the first book in the series: I was in the mood for some light crime, and Jack Irish seemed the perfect choice.  First for those who haven’t seen the series, Jack Irish was a successful criminal lawyer until his wife was murdered by a pissed off client. Then he sank into an alcoholic haze. It was the beginning of the forgotten zone,” and when he hit rock bottom, Jack’s former law partner, Andrew Greer “pulled strings” to get Jack “off a variety of charges.”  Jack lives in Fitzroy and only does very minor legal work; most of his income comes from “collecting serious debts or finding witnesses.”

I found Edward Dollery, age forty-seven, defrocked accountant, big spender and dishonest person, living in a house rented in the name of Carol Pick. It was in a new brick-veneer suburb built of cow pasture west of the city, one of those strangely silent developments where the average age is twelve and you can feel the pressure of the mortgages on your skin.

Eddie Dollery’s skin wasn’t looking good. He’d cut himself several times shaving and each nick was wearing a little red centered rosette of toilet paper. The rest of Eddie, short, bloated, was wearing yesterday’s superfine cotton business shirt, striped, and scarlet pajama pants, silk. The overall effect was not fetching.

This is how the novel opens, I swept right into Jack Irish’s world and was delighted to hang out in his company for the course of the novel. The plot involves the death of an ex-client, McKillop, a man who approaches Jack pleading for help, but before Jack makes contact, the man is shot dead by police. Jack begins digging with a low grade curiosity and a twinge of nagging guilt. The dead man was one of the last people Jack represented during his black alcoholic phase; he remembers little of the case and so it’s with a sense of tenderly, tentatively probing this awful time in his life that he begins to ask questions. Soon he’s warned off the case which, of course, only fuels Jack’s quest. In a way Jack feels as though he owes McKillop something and this feeling, a debt not paid, propels Jack forward.

As always with a series PI (and that’s basically what Jack is at this point–that and an amateur woodworker) the story vacillates between the character’s personal and private life. In Bad Debts, the story moves between Jack’s various jobs, so one plot thread finds him digging into lucrative gentrification contracts, while another plot thread finds him hanging out with Cameron Delray, the understated “enigmatic footsoldier,” who works for diminutive Harry Strang, a horse racing enthusiast. Wily Strang frequently employs Jack Irish for a range of jobs.

Bad Debts is loaded with marvelous characters: there’s the three senior citizens who appear to be glued permanently to the stools of the local pub “nursing glasses of beer and old grievances.” There’s also Stan the publican and Senior Sergeant Barry Tregear–a man who constantly eats fast food messily, and “looked two slabs of beer away from fat.” All these characters appear in the series. It’s in this novel that Jack meets reporter Linda. She was a character I disliked intensely in the series: too holier-than-thou for my tastes, and she seemed a bit mismatched for Jack’s low-key, understated, damaged yet slightly slippery character. In the novel, she’s more relaxed and interesting. If you enjoy horse racing or football, you will have additional plot elements to interest you, but for me, Jack’s world vision is the best thing in the book. There’s something about that sense of humour that lets you know what lowlifes people really are without that sort of reflected back judgement which always taints:

He was an ex-cop called Col Boon, pensioned off the force for extreme hypertension after shooting another cop during a raid on an indoor dope plantation in Coburg. A tragic mistake, the coroner said. I suppose in some ways it’s always a tragic mistake to shoot the man who’s rooting your wife every time you’re on nightshift and he’s not. 

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Temple Peter