Category Archives: Fiction

Iza’s Ballad: Magda Szabó

Last year I read Magda Szabó’s Katalin Street, a novel, beginning in 1934, which follows the fate of three neighbouring families.  You don’t have to be a historian to know that these fictional characters lived through some tough times, and that brings me to Iza’s Ballad, from the same author. In this novel, it’s 1960, the bad times are over, and Ettie and her husband Vince are living proof… well, let’s back up a bit and amend that by adding that after a case that was a political hot potato, judge Vince lost his job decades earlier. Subsequently Vince & Ettie lived in disgrace, were shunned by former friends and neighbours and forced into a life of extreme poverty. Their first child a boy, died very young, but they had a second child late in life, Iza. Iza, who wanted to be a doctor, was initially rejected by the university due to her father’s political actions, but she was eventually accepted due to the influence of a loyal family friend. Now, under a new political climate, Vince has been  “rehabilitated” and given a pension.

When the novel opens, Iza is working as a doctor in Budapest. At one point she was married to another doctor, Antal and they both lived in the family home, previously requisitioned by the government, and bought with Vince’s rehabilitation money. But something went wrong… Antal and Iza divorced and Iza moved to the city. Now Vince is dying and Iza returns home.

Iza is, by all accounts, an admirable person. No one can understand why Antal and Iza divorced; the reason for the divorce is never openly discussed, and there’s a great deal of speculation among their acquaintances about what could have occurred. Iza is respected by everyone, so when she returns home and swoops up her elderly mother and sends her off to a health spa before whisking her off to Budapest, everyone envies Ettie. Iza is both Ettie’s daughter and her doctor, and in the days following Vince’s death, Ettie, stunned by her loss, is too numb to ask questions and simply complies with her daughter’s directions.

This is a dark, subtle novel…ultimately rather depressing, but it’s an excellent psychological  exploration of the troubled relationship between mother and daughter. We know that there will be trouble ahead when Ettie, who is a relic from another, much harsher era, is shuttled off to the health spa which was the brain child of Antal and Iza in the early part of their collaborative relationship. Here Ettie orders the cheapest menu options, and she trusts that Iza will forward all of her precious belongs and furniture to Budapest. This section is a little heavy-handed as Ettie repeats this, internally, so many times, we know that her expectations are going to be flattened by Iza’s brutal efficiency.

As the novel continues we see these two very different women establish a life together. Iza, a dutiful daughter, checks all the appropriate boxes, advising her mother to eat good food and exercise, but Ettie cannot adjust to life in Budapest and she shrinks into herself.  Iza is mostly oblivious to her mother’s feelings and needs, and she notes that her mother has an “instinctive feudalism” when it comes to dealing with other people.

On one level, this is a novel about a generation gap, and how we fail to see our parents as human beings, how the elderly become a hindrance, but it’s also an illustration of how an admirable human being can also be a horror when it comes to personal relationships. One government official sees Iza as “a splendid woman” who “spares absolutely no effort.” That is certainly true when it comes to Iza’s work ethic, but anyone involved with Iza on a personal level sees a different side. “Iza didn’t like remembering,” and that translates to a blunt, efficient approach to life which allows for no emotional attachment to places, things or even people.  Iza ‘means well’ (and what a treacherous term that is) but fails on all levels to understand her mother’s sensibilities.

She kissed her mother’s hand and face, and let her finger flutter over her pulse a moment. The pulse was strong and regular. Luckily washing hadn’t been too much of a strain. Iza went into the kitchen to heat up supper while the old woman took down the washing line, quickly removing her own things

Readers may have a range of responses regarding Iza. Her professional life is rich, and she’s devoted to her patients, and yet she is missing some of the very necessary qualities that make us flawed human beings. For this reader, there was another intriguing issue to the novel, and that’s how individuals handle poverty. Some of us never really get beyond it, saving every rubber band and paperclip rather than throw it away, and still others have a horror of their past poverty and gild themselves with a patina of the latest, most modern stuff.

Review copy.

Translated by George Szirtes

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Life in the Garden: Penelope Lively

“There is always this sense that the garden is a living entity with its own agenda.”

Penelope Lively’s non-fiction book, Life in the Garden, quickly drew me in with the author’s explanation that:

The two central activities of my life–alongside writing–have been reading and gardening. And there has been a sense in which the two meshed: I always pay attention when a writer conjures up a garden, when gardening becomes an element of fiction. 

I too love reading and gardening, and the days are best when it’s possible to read in the garden; what better surrounding? And with that thought in mind, I managed to read most of Life in the Garden outside.

I am never going to have the talent/money/time to be one of the legendary gardeners mentioned in these pages, but in common with many people, I appreciate the labour of love a garden represents. And that love of gardening extends to Lively’s book as she explores her subject: this is part memoir, part meditation on the use of gardens in literature & art, aging, and in part a history of landscape architecture.

Life in th garden

Lively explains how she “grew up in a garden. Almost literally, because this was a hot, sunny garden in Egypt and much of life was lived out of doors. Our home was one of three houses built outside Cairo in the early twentieth century, a sort of alien enclave amid fields of sugarcane and clover, canals, and mud-hut villages.”

I immediately pictured a white house plonked on the desert sands with a pyramid in the background, but I was wrong. Penelope Lively’s mother created a garden “very much in the spirit of the English garden, with lawns, rose beds, lily ponds, pergolas walks, and with a necessary nod to the climate and what would grow there by way of poinsettias, Latana, zinnias, cinerarai and bougainvillea.”

The description (longer than quoted here) is certainly enough to evoke an image of the garden the author enjoyed as a child, and it’s also easy to imagine how a child who grew up in Egypt, yet lived somewhat incongruously in a lush green “English” garden, valued gardens for her entire life. But then as the author explains gardening runs in the family.  There’s a poignancy when Lively describes how she moved from a large garden to a small area in London, and that aging, naturally has “restricted” her capabilities.

Lively expounds on the temptations of garden centres, how gardens impacted the lives of several writers (including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville -West, Elizabeth von Armin,) the use of gardens in authors’ work (Elizabeth Bowen, Willa Cather, Daphne du Maurier, Beatrix Potter, Angus Wilson, Edith Wharton etc.,) the gardens of artists, the merging of art and gardens, gardens and literature.  Lively admits that she pays attention when gardens appear in books, so for example, “as soon as ivy sneaks in you know it is there with possibly sinister intent.” Lively’s observations are, as always, intelligent, marvellous and graced with a gentle whisper of wisdom.

Initially I thought this book would appeal to any book reader, regardless of whether or not one has a passion for gardening, but my opinion shifted as the book continued and the author steps into some of the history of gardening, famous gardens and some names and periods associated with landscape architecture. Ultimately, IMO the book’s best audience is for fans of Lively and anyone who loves gardening and reading.

Review copy.

 

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New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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We Begin Our Ascent: Joe Mungo Reed

In these internet times, blurbs are often the entry point for book reading, and that is true in the case of We Begin Our Ascent, a debut fiction novel from Joe Mungo Reed. The description proffered a look into the life of professional cyclist, Sol and his research biologist wife, Liz as they navigate various moral choices. There’s nothing wrong with that description, however, I’ll add for potential readers that the novel follows Sol during the Tour de France, so scenes of Sol and Liz’s married life are mostly seen through memories.

We begin our ascent

If I’d known that the book described Sol’s grueling, punishing days spent on the Tour de France, I might have passed over the novel, and that would have been my loss. The book could be categorized as a sport novel, but that categorization is limiting. Essentially this is a novel about how far we are prepared to go to achieve our goals, and just how much we are willing to sacrifice.

We join Sol on day 12 of the Tour de France. Sol is a “domestique,” It’s his job to support team leader, Fabrice:

We are competing only to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this tour in as little time as possible. This cumulative time, the criteria on which the winner of the tour is judged, is all that matters to us. Our own results are not important. We shade him from the wind, pace him, will give him our own bike if he punctures. These measures have just small effects upon his time, yet this is a sport of fine margins–decided by difference of seconds after days and days of riding–and so small advantages, wrung from our fanatical assistance of our strongest rider, offer our team the best chance of victory. We only think of the ever-rising time it takes Fabrice to make his way through this race, how that time compares to his rivals’, how we may act to lessen it. 

Some days the route is mountainous, and other days the land is flat. Before and after each day’s race, as Sol makes his preparations, he thinks of Liz, a specialist in Zebra fish, and how they met. So we see two people with extremely different career goals pursue an elusive end-point. While Liz’s colleagues “marveled at her fluency” in her specialist field, “in her actual accomplishment of the position she had built so long toward, she was truly faced for the first time with the scant effect of the work she had chosen, the world’s apparent indifference to all her expertise.” In contrast to Liz, to those outside of the cycling world, Sol appears to have some sort of stardom, but Sol realises, like most athletes, that he has a short shelf life, and he will never be a household name.

“It must be nice to be able to succeed to clearly,” she said. “To have such definite parameters. Clear successes. No one is cheering me in my lab.”

I knew next to nothing about the Tour de France before reading this book, and since I’m not that interested in sport, it’s to the author’s credit that I enjoyed this novel. But then again, the plot rises above sport, racing, training and instead hits obsession and moral dilemmas when Sol reveals various strategies involving drugs. We spend days with Sol as part of the peloton, his grueling routine, his life of preparation, deprivation and superstition:

I had assumed, when I became a professional, that things would be more intense, somehow, more vivid, and real. The reality, though was that my life had become smaller. I prohibited myself from many things, set myself a limited pattern of thinking. It is perhaps obvious in hindsight, but obsession does not give you more, but less. 

I loved the vivid scenes when Sol recalls how he tried to explain his career to skeptical his in-laws who don’t get that the Tour de France isn’t about Sol winning, and Sol’s dialogues with former cycling champion, now coach Rafael were simply brilliant. One night, Sol is called to a meeting with his coach in the hotel basement:

“What do women like about men?” he said. “What does your wife like about you?”

“Conversation?” I said.

He shook his head.
“Commitment? Empathy?” He kept shaking.”Jokes? Cooking?

“Okay, okay, okay,” he said. “Perhaps all of those things a little bit, but what they like a lot is height. Of all the James Bonds only Daniel Craig has been under six foot. And what is Daniel Craig?”

He mimed flicking something off the table. “A little goblin.”

“I like Casino Royale,” I said.

“Of all the Bonds, only Roger Moore has the true British style.” Rafael wrinkled his nose. There was rattling from the laundry chute and a ball of towels shot out. “Women like height. So in the chase for this, how you say, ‘hypothetical girl in our village,’ height is important.”

“Okay,” I said, “I can see that.”

“And it is man’s nature to maximize every advantage.”

The novel’s conclusion seems a little moralistic, and prior to that, the plot was much more sophisticated and deserved, IMO, a slightly different ending.  Still, in spite of that, I was glued to every entertaining, thoughtful page.

review copy

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Camera: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“In the battle with oneself and reality, don’t try to be courageous.”

Last year I read Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur, the story of a man whose private life places him in a series of predicaments. Camera has some similarities, but of the two, I preferred Camera. This is a simple tale quirky, amusing and light in the beginning, but the plot takes a darker turn. This is the novella’s opening line, and if it appeals to you, you’ll probably like the story:

It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The story begins with an anonymous man showing up at the driver’s ed. office, but it later turns out that this isn’t his first attempt at learning how to drive.  There’s something about this character and boundaries, and we see this almost immediately. Pascale, the young woman at the drivers ed. office needs certain paperwork completed and photos of potential students. The completion of the application becomes a long drawn-out affair which requires numerous trips to the driver’s ed office.

It seemed to me that, in order to be able to turn in the application, the only things that were missing, apart from the self-addressed envelope, were the photos. Before leaving, I let her know that, speaking of photos, a little while ago at my house, I had found some photos of myself when little. Why don’t I show them to you, I said while taking out the envelope from my coat pocket, and, walking around to the other side of her desk, I went through them once by one, leaning over her shoulder in order to point out what I was explaining. 

The next day, he returns, without the required photos, makes himself comfortable in her office and while Pascale can only offer tea, the narrator demands coffee, so off Pascale trots to get coffee. In the meantime, a young student appears at the door. The young man, seeing someone inside the building, during office hours, knocks persistently.

I put my paper down again and  got up to answer the door–this guy was going to get it. What do you want? I asked. I just turned eighteen, he said (as if he was trying to impress me). We’re closed, I said. But I was already here yesterday, he added. I just wanted to drop off my application. Let’s not be stubborn, I said, slowly closing my eyes. I shut the door. 

Gradually the self-obsessed narrator invades Pascale’s life, and she seems the perfect match. He’s charmed by Pascale noting “although she could be very lively, that she permanently challenged life with a lethargy that was just as remarkable.” Whereas the narrator questions everything, dissects every event, Pascale manages to snooze through life. Soon he’s meeting her son and father, has a pedicure, battles for a propane tank and takes a trip to London–all fairly pedestrian events during which a romance begins between Pascale and the narrator. Underneath all of these events, there’s a connective acknowledgement of the passage of time, and a “move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” 

I’ve read some criticisms of the novella stating that nothing really happens in the plot. I don’t agree: this is about the mundane quality of life as observed by a self-obsessed man who worries about decay and who slides into an existential crisis. My edition, from Dalkey Archive Press, contains an interview with the author.

My approach, rather obscure to those unfamiliar, was based on the idea that in my struggle with reality, I could exhaust any opponent with whom I was grappling, like one can wear out an olive, for example, before successfully stabbing it with a fork, and that my propensity not to hasten matters, far from having a negative effect, in fact prepared for me a fertile ground where, when things seemed ripe, I could make my move with ease. 

Translated by Matthew B. Smith

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Ballad of a Mad Girl: Vikki Wakefield

“I sometimes wonder if dreams are like dandelion seeds: once you blow them off they take root somewhere else, with somebody who still believes.”

In Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl, 17 year-old Grace Foley who, after the loss of the family farm, lives with her widowed father and brother in Swanston (“Swamptown”) Australia. Nothing has been the same since the death of Grace’s mother.  She was the glue that held the family together, and now Grace’s father seems unable to cope with his teenage daughter.

Grace attends school, and a rivalry exists between students from Swampie Public and the private Sacred Heart school. Swampie Public doesn’t have a library or a gym, and so they ‘share’ Sacred Heart’s facilities.

A solid, eight-foot wall separates Swanston Public and Sacred Heart. They made it arty by placing a thick Perspex panel every thirty metres or so, just to give the illusion that it’s all friendly, that we’re not segregated according to how much money our parents can afford to blow on our education. The wall keeps two castes of baboons from tearing each other apart.

This longstanding rivalry is manifested in many ways, but one of the most dangerous demonstrations of perceived superiority takes place in the local quarry when teens from both schools meet at night to compete. The dangerous goal: to straddle, shuffle or walk across a pipe that crosses the quarry, and if you slip, there’s a long fall to the quarry beneath. Grace is a Swampie Quarry champion, and when the book opens, although she’s grounded (again) she slips out of her house for another quarry challenge. This time, however, something goes horribly wrong. …

Ballad for a Mad Girl

After the failed challenge, Grace is different. Something happened to her when she sat on the pipe attempting to cross the quarry. She felt a presence, and she didn’t come home alone. Now something, someone dead, follows her, lives in the shadows of her room. Grace isn’t the same. Her friends shun her and Grace, finally, realises that the otherworldy presence, wants something from her.

Grace begins to poke around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl named Hannah Holt, a girl who is rumoured to be buried somewhere in the quarry. Her search leads her away from her friends and back into the past, specifically to Hannah Holt’s room, still maintained as a shrine by Hannah’s reclusive mother.

Class, adolescence, peer pressure, loss, all add up to a mystery coming–of-age novel with supernatural elements, and the supernatural elements serve to produce that other problem of adolescence: alienation. Ballad of a Mad Girl is essentially a substantive YA book–not my usual read as I’m not the target audience. Still I appreciated the novel.

An entry in the reading Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Review copy

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Fire in the Thatch: E.C. R. Lorac (1946)

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”

In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her,  persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.

June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.”  The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.

Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….

Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.  Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.

The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:

She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.

Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”

What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.

Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch,  a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.

Review copy

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The Vanishing: Tim Krabbe

“Smooth as spaceships, the cars full of tourists moved south down the long, wide turnpike. Evening fell over the wavy landscape bordering the Autoroute du Soleil and turned it violet.”

Tim Krabbé’s The Vanishing, made into a film of the same name, is one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, so this novella is recommended if you don’t mind turning the last page and feeling disturbed.

The Vanishing

Rex and Saskia are heading out on their holidays from Holland to France. They have a house booked in Hyères, but it’s a long drive. The drive brings grievances in the relationship to the surface; Rex paid for Saskia’s driving lessons, but she “almost never drove,” and this nettles Rex.

During the past hour their mood had grown prickly. Saskia had to put her knitting aside twice in ten minutes because Rex asked to have an orange peeled and she dropped the second one on the floor.

“Ohh! It fell! Ohh!” she said.

She’s doing that on purpose, Rex thought, but he said nothing.

The car’s fuel gauge isn’t working, and that is a point of contention between the couple. Even though they know they have enough fuel to get to their destination, Rex decides to stop and fill up the car. The broken fuel gauge is a silent reminder of the time when the car ran out of fuel, and Saskia was left alone, terrified, on a dark highway for hours while Rex struck out for petrol.

But the stop lightens the mood. The car is tanked up, and then Saskia decides to step back into the station to get some drinks. Rex waits by the car, and Saskia … never returns. …

The book picks up 8 years later. Rex seems to have moved on and he’s now ready to marry, but the past lingers. He remembers how, as a child, Saskia once dreamt that she was “locked inside a golden egg that flew through the universe. Everything was pitch-black, there weren’t even any stars, she’d have to stay there forever, and she couldn’t even die. There was only one hope. Another golden egg was flying through space. If it collided with her own, both would be destroyed, and everything would be over.” He remembers how when Saskia left his apartment and rode off on her bike, he’d keep her in his sight for as long as he could.

But do you know what the worst thing is? It’s not knowing. Standing by the door with two sodas, and zip, gone! As if someone had decided that her atoms didn’t belong together anymore. To have lost her makes sense, but not this not knowing. That is unbearable. You can play all kinds of mind games. For instance, I am told that she is alive and somewhere and perfectly happy. And I’m given a choice: she goes on living like that, or I get to know everything and she dies. Then I let her die.

The Vanishing, and the term could be a verb or a noun here, shows Rex as someone who cannot move on from Saskia’s disappearance. He harbours guilt, but he also harbours a gnawing feeling of needing to know what happened to Saskia, a vibrant young woman who is spirited away in front of dozens of witnesses. As long as Rex doesn’t know Saskia’s fate, there’s the possibility, however remote, that she could be alive. The author mines this need with the plot which follows Rex’s efforts to go as far as the truth takes him.

It’s been a long time since I saw the film, but the imprint left on my mind is the relationship between Rex and Saskia. For the book, I see a connection between the man responsible for Saskia’s disappearance and Rex: both men want to launch out in an experiment, a compulsion if you will.

A chilling, disturbing read.

Translated from Dutch by Claire Nicolas White.

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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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