Category Archives: Fiction

Demons: Wayne Macauley

Wayne Macauley’s novel, Demons, is set over the course of one winter weekend and concerns a groups of friends who gather together at a remote coastal house and, there, without the distractions of children, computers and televisions, they plan to “stop time,” by just enjoying each other’s company, fixing group meals, and swopping stories. It’s supposed to be a time “to get back to something real.”

Gathering together for the weekend are film-maker Megan and musician Evan, “lately gone a bit to seed,” who have “five kids between them, late teens to early twenties,” lawyer Adam and Lauren whose career is “in advocacy,” retired journalist Leon (Megan’s brother), “he’d beaten the grog with naturopathy, meditation and yoga, and the cure had clung to him almost as persistently as the disease” and Hannah, his new girlfriend– the youngest in the group.

demonsPolitician Marshall and his wife, Jackie are also expected but Marshall arrives late and without Jackie:

Is he with Jackie? said Megan. Evan looked out, and shook his head. If he thinks he can still get something to eat then he can go fuck himself, she said. Marsh! said Evan, waving, but Marshall was already at the door.

That short quote gives you an idea of the author’s style, and while the tone and the conversations are startlingly realistic, it’s sometimes difficult to tell who is saying what since this conversation-heavy text is completely devoid of quote marks.

As the weekend wears on, members of the group, a rather privileged cross-section of Australian society, take turns telling stories, and of course telling stories about other people and their problems allows those listening to make various comments about what they’ve heard. But in between these disturbing stories, which range from the deadly serious to the trivial, various problems between these people begin to emerge, and soon, the planned weekend takes a different turn…

It’s Marshall’s arrival that begins to change the atmosphere. He arrives after abandoning his wife during a family tragedy, and his decision to leave his wife and join his friends at the coast says a great deal about Marshall, and while the characters focus on story-telling as entertainment, it becomes clear that the characters also fabricate a kind of fiction around their own lives.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters much, the dialogue and interactions seemed very real indeed, but overall, I carried away the feeling that this might be one of those rare instances in which a film version could be better than the book. I found myself enjoying the stories told by the characters more than the interactions between the friends. In particular, I enjoyed Leon’s story which he claims is true: The Broken String. Leon prefaces the story with the announcement that it’s “about the death of idealism … and the growth of expediency.”

These entertaining stories reveal a great deal about the storyteller, and yet… there’s the sense that Macauley’s characters have fabricated these stories to make salient, social commentary in order to impress one another or to impose some sort of moral message. In other words, there’s no small amount of posing going on as one might expect from this particular, privileged cranny of Australian society. We all know people like Macauley’s characters, and while reading about them & listening to them talk sounds very real, at the same time, I know I wouldn’t want to spend a weekend with this lot.

Ultimately, the stories these characters tell were, for this reader at least, the best part of the book. Megan’s story about a nurse who fights against the bureaucracy of Australian health care hits a nerve even as it uncovers the absurdity of managing recovery :

There’s not much time for any of the Florence Nightingale stuff. Key Performance Indicators, that’s the mantra: people are numbers, even sick people. Especially sick people. It’s an obsession. I don’t know when it started–it’s already lost in the mists of time–but someone at some point decided that the way to improve a screwed-up health system was to ask the bean counters to make it more ‘efficient.’

It became a numbers game. The government put a carrot in front and a stick behind: move the patients through faster and you’ll be rewarded, slower and you’ll be punished.

But when the novel reverts back to its characters, there’s the feeling that we’ve seen these types before–shallow, selfish, self-focused people facing the terrifying void of middle age and discovering that their lives haven’t turned out the way they planned. Naturally the weekend implodes, but the implosion was a storm in a teacup, and the Demons aren’t much more than time-worn, middle-age, middle-class angst.

Review copy

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The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 1)

Never hit a target you don’t need to hit. Ever. One murder gets the police interested, two gets them excited.”

In The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, freelance hitman Calum MacLean takes a job from crime lord Peter Jamieson to kill a fairly lowlevel drug dealer who is poaching on Jamieson’s turf. Jamieson would normally order a hit from within his own organization, but with his star, aging hit man, Frank Macleod, out of commission, Jamieson is forced to turn to freelance.

According to Frank, Calum is “the best of the new breed,” quiet & methodical. Jamieson and his right-hand man, John Young, are scoping out, and ready to recruit, an eventual replacement for Frank, so hiring a freelance outsider is not only a necessity but may also be a way of building a permanent business arrangement. Jamieson’s “instinct for the nasty work was unrivalled,” which explains his success, and while he’s the brains, Young brings his tactical ability to the organization. “Separately they were talented; together they were lucrative.”

the necessary death of lewis winterWhen Jamieson hires Calum for the Lewis Winter hit, he considers Calum, who paces his jobs carefully, “not too hot, not too cold, but just right. A Goldilocks employee.” Calum, who prefers the freedom of freelance work, takes the one-off job with no reservations and applies his usual precautions. On the surface the job seems simple, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s stepping into a turf war between Jamieson and a challenger. Small-time Lewis Winter, under pressure from his much-younger, high maintenance girlfriend Zara Cope, has made a deal with another organization to move into Jamieson owned territory, and while this move brings a death sentence, it also ignites a series of fall out events.

And this is how this explosive hard-boiled crime novel opens:

It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller. Regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust, tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant. It happened, Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it.

This gripping tale is essentially a character study of a hitman. Calum is an unemotional, precision killer–a loner, an avid reader who prefers to keep his independence rather than trading it in for the “suffocating” security of working within an organization. As an independent, he can take or refuse jobs, and keep his criminal associations to a minimum, and so far, in spite of an already well-established reputation, he’s completely off the police radar. Calum understands that if he ever stops being freelance and takes a permanent job, “settling down,” as Jamieson calls it, he’ll be forced to take more risks, make more hits and will inevitably have a high profile with the police.  It seems to be a consensus between Frank, Jamieson and Young that as hitmen age, most of them seek the security of working within a firm. Calum isn’t at that point yet:

Does he want something long-term and lucrative?

Small flat, small car, small savings, but always enough. He works for need, not luxury. Long-term means risk, and risk is to be avoided. There are gamblers in the business, but they all lose eventually, and the cost is final. So don’t gamble. You don’t need to. There are two reasons why people do: one acceptable, and one not, The unacceptable reason is greed, the prospect of more money, which they don’t actually need. The other reason is the thrill, and that’s different.

While this is a character study of a hitman as the story unfolds against the backdrop of the contract on Lewis Winter, the novel’s other characters are well-drawn. Author Malcolm Mackay paints a cohesive, disturbing portrait of Glasgow’s impenetrable, violent criminal underworld with its trashy clubs, nervous snitches, lowlife drug runners, sleazy drug dealers, skilled drivers, bottom feeder loan sharks, and brutal muscle men. It’s in this world that grasping Zara Cope “a slut, but a smart one,” passes from one criminal to another and realizing that her shelf life is short, she grabs the malleable, pathetic Lewis Winter as her permanent meal ticket. Lewis “is small-time, always has been. He is a man cursed. Every success was swiftly followed by a crushing failure,” but with Zara pushing for more, Lewis is ready to make some risky moves for his new powerful friends. Zara’s greed, when combined with Lewis’s desire to impress her and keep her, is the catalyst for explosive violence.

With corrupt cops and fragmented flashes of criminal organizations, we see that the mantra isn’t so much crime solution or even crime prevention as much as it is “crime management.” Through carefully crafted scenes, Mackay shows us multiple sides of various complex characters as they move through the hierarchy of the criminal world in which taking orders is imperative, initiative may or may not be rewarded with a bullet, and the most important element in a crisis is having associates you can call for back-up. In this world, contract hits aren’t killings–they’re statements of power. While many novels focus on the individual within society, the focus here is the individual within the criminal organization.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, written in a hard-boiled style that paradoxically welds an intimate knowledge of the criminal mind with an objective, factual distance is gritty, explosive and riveting, and it’s highly recommended for readers who prefer to read crime novels from the criminal perspective, but be aware that this is the first of a trilogy and after you turn the last page, you’ll want to continue the story in book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye.

review copy

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The Buddha Returns: Gaito Gazdanov

“I knew that perhaps all it would take to draw me irresistibly towards her was one random twist of fate.”

After publishing Gaito Gazdanov’s marvelous novel, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, Pushkin Press follows up with a second title from this underappreciated Russian émigré author: The Buddha’s Return. Gazdanov (1903-1971) was born in Saint Petersburg but of Ossetian background, he grew up in Siberia and the Ukraine. At 16, he joined the Whites during the civil war, eventually left Russia, and arrived in Paris in 1923. There he worked a range of jobs, but finally settled into driving a taxi by night, as the job, he argued, allowed him to write. Gazdanov has been compared to Nabokov, and that starts with the Russian émigré label but also continues into thematic content.  You’ll never do a writer a favour by drawing a comparison to Nabokov, and while there are definite similarities, it’s best to keep the comparisons to a minimum and appreciate Gazdanov for his own sake.

the buddha's returnIn The Buddha’s Return, Gazdanov takes his usual, idiosyncratic, seemingly discursive approach to the narrative, so initially the story seems to have a meandering, shapeless plot which focuses on the protagonist, a young, penniless student who suffers from fits and strange episodes of lucid dreaming in which he notes a “duality” where he is both a witness and a victim. He considers that “there had been years when my life somehow clearly didn’t belong to me,” and this sense of life as a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit is important as the novel continues. The beginning of the novel establishes the student’s aimless life, the futility of existence and the difficulties he has when it comes to differentiating between dreams and realities. In one Kafkaesque sequence, for example, he dreams that he’s arrested for a murder, and obviously this section of the novel carries a political undercurrent.

The novel shifts from a seemingly aimless narrative in which dreams of death and imprisonment pixelate into a strange parallel reality. The main story begins to take shape when the narrator gives ten francs to a beggar in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

It was in these distant and neurotic times that I met a man who seemed to have been summoned out of inexistence with the sole purpose of appearing before me at this precise stage in my life. Strictly speaking, he was not a man, but the unrecognizable, distorted spectre of someone who had once been alive. That man was no more, he had vanished but not without trace, as there yet remained what I saw when the figure first approached me.

The image of the beggar haunts the narrator’s imagination, which “is running a few minutes ahead of itself like a bad watch.” He “later recalled” that when he met the beggar, the light of the day reminds him of a painting– “light in which the last, just departed ray of sun seems to have left a subtle though unmistakeable trace of its unhurried dissolution in the air–in a number of paintings, in particular one of Correggio’s, although [he] is unable to remember which.”

He’s long troubled by visions of the beggar, but the memories morph into an “endless sequence of haunting visions.” It’s already been established that the narrator has difficulties unraveling dreams from reality, so when he sees the beggar again, two years later, but this time as a well-dressed, obviously wealthy man, the narrator is dumbfounded & confused.

To my utter disbelief, I recognized the man to whom I had given ten francs in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I could never have identified him solely on the basis of his eyes and his voice, though, for the man sitting here in the café seemed to have nothing in common with the beggar who had approached me two years ago, asking for money. Never before had it occurred to me that clothes could so change a man. There was something unnatural and implausible about his metamorphosis. It was as if time had fantastically regressed. Two years ago this man had been a mere shadow; now he had miraculously transformed back into the man he had once been, whose disappearance ought to have been irreversible. I was unable to come to my senses for genuine astonishment.

As it turns out, there’s a perfectly plausible explanation for the beggar’s reversal of fortune; his estranged brother died unexpectedly and the beggar, Pavel, inherited a fortune. But while the explanation is plausible, fate has clearly thrown Pavel and the narrator together….

The narrator’s relationship with the now wealthy Pavel Alexandrovich opens up a whole new world–but not all of it is pleasant. Some very shady characters, including a femme fatale, inhabit Pavel’s life, and soon, in a flash of deja vu, the narrator finds himself a murder suspect.

The Buddha’s Return is the most discursive of the three Gazdanov novels I’ve read so far. It’s easy to read Gazdanov and conclude that his narrative writing style suffers from a lack of discipline. But after reading the marvelous The Spectre of Alexander Wolf and the sublime An Evening with Claire, now after this third novel, I can only conclude that to read a Gazdanov novel, one must commit to the journey–a journey which tackles central themes of displacement, the double, identity and fate. Gazdanov’s eye never leaves the plot thread, but there are times, early in the novel,  when the plot seems formless. Not so–at the conclusion of The Buddha’s Return all the hypnotic, mystical threads tie together, and Gazdanov clearly saw the destination ahead, but just took his time arriving there.

Review copy

Translated by Bryan Karetnyk

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Crane Mansions: A Novel About the Redeeming Power of Cake by Gert Loveday

After reading about the hilarious doings at a writer’s workshop in Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy, I decided to read Crane Mansions even though Crane Mansions didn’t sound at all like the usual thing I’d read. I tried this tale on the strength of the author’s (actually–authors–‘Gert Loveday’ is really sister writing team, Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly) other book, and I was not disappointed. Complete with dastardly villains, a mystery orphan, and a lost inheritance, this is the sort of tale you might find starring that adorable curly-headed tot, Shirley Temple–I’m thinking of the 1939 film, The Little Princess in which Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) is left at a girls’ school while her soldier father toddles off to Africa & the Siege of Mafeking. While The Little Princess shamelessly pulls out all the stops when it comes to manipulating the heartstrings, Crane Mansions isn’t a tearjerker. Instead it’s a marvelous, mischievous tale, heavy on laughs and the foibles of human beings.

crane mansionsCrane Mansions is essentially the story of  the orphan Millie Lord, one of the unfortunate children who lives at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent, a place as dreadful as it sounds.  The school, run with the “relentless exactitude” established by the school’s founder, Dr. Crane, is a horrible place where the children are ill-fed and taught the most useless garbage, pigeon-related axioms, which are somehow supposed to train them for the harsh realities of life outside of Crane Mansions. “The simple rules that were the underpinning of the Crane Mansions education: Stay Awake, Sit up Straight, Never Cry, and Know your place in the World.” Breakfast consists of a heavy starchy porridge so vile and tasteless, it could probably be patented as wallpaper paste.  Now the school is run by the founder’s son, the “second Dr. Crane.” While influenced by his father’s “harsh regime,” the younger Dr. Crane brings “the spirit of Poetic Inspiration” to the school from “his adored, long-lost Little Mummy’s tales of fairies, ducklings changing into swans, children changing into bluebirds, through his youthful passion for the works of William Blake.”

While Dr Crane doesn’t question how his father ran the school, neither can he be bothered with “the details,” and so he accedes power to two of The Leaders–schoolmasters Marcel Hogue and Odell Vincent while Dr. Crane, “a scholar, a seer, a visionary” uses his telescope to observe the nesting pigeons and scribble notes about their behaviour. “Pigeonnic Augury” is Dr. Crane’s “entire life,” and he’s obsessed with pigeons, convinced that he is “advancing closer and closer to the Great Truth at the heart of things.”

Dr. Crane isn’t a bad man by any means but “he’s a “rolled-gold nutcase. He couldn’t even peel a banana without help.” Crane just accepts the status quo of the school’s harsh regime and its torturous  exercise programme established by his father while his interests lead his meandering thoughts away from the conditions in which the children live. As the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Dr. Crane’s lack of attention, which may be simple avoidance, has led to bitter rivalry between the two school masters–cruise obsessed Marcel Hogue and inventor Odell Vincent, and it’s this rivalry which opens an anarchic crack into the established order of Crane Mansions.

With a wonderful, engaging cast of characters, Crane Mansions follows the fortunes of Millie Lord who’s plagued with dreams of a former life and gifted with shards of memories. While Millie Lord is a good girl with a strong sense of right and wrong, she defends other, weaker children, and yet her behaviour is seen as aberrant by the schoolmasters (and the lowly schoolmistress) who are really much more comfortable with the sneaky, sly, corruptible or stupid children such as Gertrude Shelton, Ned Parcher & Giles Snedhawk.

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, but I have to discuss one of my favourite characters–a vengeful woman with an appetite for the High Life and her dream of her “own chat show on American TV” who reinvents herself with every spin of the wheel of fortune: Trish Monroe aka Trish Vere de Vere’/Trish Rosskillies who uses men like toilet paper and flushes them away (what’s left of ’em) when they’re all used up. Here she is, posing as a good Samaritan, giving a couple of men a lift in her pink car:

Len took out a cigarette.

‘Ah, ah!’ said Trish roguishly, tapping a long pink fingernail on the hand-painted plaque attached to the dashboard. In flowing feminine handwriting, surrounded by flowers, it said, No smoking–unless it’s salmon!

‘Sorry darling,’ said Len, putting the ciggies away. ‘Filthy habit, I know.’

‘Then why not give it up?’

‘I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried!’

‘It’s just a question of putting your mind to it,’ said Trish. ‘I did.’

‘What a woman!’ said Len, turning to Eustace in the back seat with a wink.

Trish was clearly taken with Len, because not only did she drive them to the garage, she even drove them back to the car with the tin of petrol nursed on Len’s lap. Len stood by the car looking after it as the sequined number plate TRISH1 disappeared up the road.

Crane Mansions is its own closed, sluggish bizarre world, and like any other institution, its rules and regulations are not questioned until outsiders breach the walls. While Dr Crane lives in his own impenetrable ivory tower, there’s a very real world out there full of crooks and con men, and when the kitchen girl, Tibbie Clemons reunites with her estranged father, gambling man, Len, he uses this relationship (with a promise of a new life in Australia) as a segue into Crane Mansions in order to steal the secret project under development by Odell Vincent. Since this is very much an archetypal tale, good will eventually triumph over bad, and everyone will get what they deserve–not what they think they deserve.

In terms of literary comparisons, I saw the name Roald Dahl, but I’d also throw in the Lemony Snicket books–although I think Crane Mansions is superior. This is really a very, very funny story–a beguiling blend of Victorianism with the temptations of the modern world–at one point for example, perennial maneater Trish gets a schoolboy drunk. It’s not easy to create believable villains who are both a credible threat and a source of humour, but Gert Loveday manages to create several wicked characters here in this well-paced tale which tackles the idea that children must be raised with love and imagination–not deprivation and useless axioms, and a couple of the school’s graduates are prime examples of the twisted message received from a Crane Mansions’ education.  But this is essentially a tale with multiple moral messages which include the issue of the abdication of responsibility–parental and otherwise, for an abdication of one’s responsibilities leaves a gap for the opportunistic to slip in….

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A Duel: Guy de Maupassant

Guy de Maupassant uses duel as farce in Bel Ami. His main character, Georges (the Bel Ami of the title) is more or less pushed into a duel against a rival journalist, and in order to go through with it, Bel Ami polishes off a bottle of brandy. Of course, the danger is exaggerated, later, with each subsequent retelling of the almost comical event.

In the short story, A Duel, Maupassant presents an entirely different scenario. It’s post Franco-Prussian war, and France is overrun with the victors.

The war was over. The Germans occupied France. The whole country was pulsating like a conquered wrestler beneath the knee of his victorious opponent.

On a train going to join his wife and children who are safe in Switzerland, is a certain M. Dubois “who during the entire siege had served as one of the National Guard in Paris.” Dubois is an unprepossessing figure:

Famine and hardship had not diminished his big paunch so characteristic of the rich, peace-loving merchant. He had gone through the terrible events of the past year with sorrowful resignation and bitter complaints at the savagery of men. Now that he was journeying to the frontier at the close of the war, he saw the Prussians for the first time, although he had done his duty on the ramparts and mounted guard on many a cold night.

Dubois isn’t happy to find himself surrounded by Prussians, and “he stared with mingled fear and anger at those bearded armed men, installed all over French soil as if they were at home, and he felt in his soul a kind of fever of impotent patriotism.” Also in the same railway carriage are two Englishmen who are there as sightseers.  The train stops at a village and a Prussian officer enters. The Englishmen stare with interest at the Prussian while Dubois pretends to read the newspaper. But in spite of Dubois’ attempts to avoid conflict, he’s provoked repeatedly by the Prussian officer who goads and insults Dubois until he can take no more. Given that the title of the story is A Duel, it’s easy to guess where the action goes.

But while the story touches on patriotism (from the author as well as from the characters), the story is also a piece on temperament. The Prussian is spoiling for his next fight while the “impassive” Englishmen are caught in the middle as spectators:

The Englishmen seemed to have become indifferent to all that was going on, as if they were suddenly shut up in their own island, far from the din of the world.

Maupassant volunteered during the Franco-Prussian war and many of his stories, including the unforgettable Boule de Suif (Butterball) are set during the period. While A Duel isn’t one of Maupassant’s  best short stories, it’s interesting for how Maupassant portrays the duel in this instance. A duel is a means of obtaining satisfaction, settling arguments, and while Bel Ami’s duel was really an empty, meaningless event, the duel here is brisk and brutal.

7 pages

Translated by A.E. Henderson & Mme Louise Quesada

 

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Take a Girl Like You: Kingsley Amis

“Ah, these continentals.”

It’s the swinging 60s when twenty-year-old teacher Jenny Bunn moves to London from the North of England, leaving behind her family and an ex-boyfriend who laid siege to her virginity and failed. It’s a fresh start that Jenny is after, but while the location has changed and the men have different faces, the focus is the same. Think poor little innocent Jenny Bunn (and what a great name that is) flailing in the treacherous waters of London while circled by a number of sharkish predatory males all determined to strip Jenny of her virginity. They each have their own M.O., some are more successful than others, but arguably the most practiced, and the most vigorous male in pursuit of Jenny is Patrick Standish.

take a girlJenny rooms in a home owned by Mr and Mrs. Thompson and the other young woman who lives there, the French Anna le Page, is Patrick’s most recent lover, and add to that drama the fact that while Mr Thompson is clueless, there’s definitely some amorous vibes headed towards Patrick from the waspish Mrs Thompson. Meanwhile, the high-maintenance (in Patrick’s opinion) Anna le Page seems to be launching into an experimental phase when she grabs Jenny and kisses her on the lips. Poor Jenny takes her dating tips from the outmoded Woman’s Domain which is sadly amusing if you think about it. This is the stuff of sexual farce, and while parts of the book are very funny indeed, I’ve never found the losing of virginity a subject of interest or of fun, and in the case of Jenny, a lamb thrown to the wolves, it’s occasionally painful to read of the way she fights off various assaults. The girl needs to carry a taser.

Ideas about her, she had had to learn, were liable to be got by any man she might nowadays meet. She considered she had led a fairly normal life until she was fifteen or so. She had had friends who were girls and friends who were boys, and she had known quite a few older, married people of both sexes, most of whom were nice to her in the ordinary way. And then quite suddenly, just over the weekend as it were, the whole set-up had changed. All at once there were men everywhere. Men turned up in large numbers on public transport, especially after dark–there were always more of them then; they fairly thronged the streets; they served and waited to be served in shops; the cinemas were packed out with them; they came to the front door selling brushes and encyclopedias; some of them had even penetrated into the Training College. Men had begun not only to get ideas about her in passing, but in a fair number of cases to stay on the spot and get going on putting those ideas into practice, A fair number of the fair number of cases had been rather surprising ones by reason of the age, married status, or general dignity of the man concerned. At least they had surprised Jenny to start with.

A good example of it all had been when she was coming home from school one day and the bus-conductor had tried hard to hold her hand instead of giving her change.

Here’s one of the funniest parts in the book when Jenny meets Patrick for the first time and he thinks she’s a friend of Anna le Page because, to him, Jenny ‘looks French.’

‘Well, I’m not,’ Jenny said positively, ‘I’m English.’ She said it positively because thinking she was French (or Italian, or Spanish, or–once each–Greek or Portuguese) on the evidence of the way she looked had evidently been enough to get quite a number of new acquaintances to start trying it on with her straight away. There had even been that time in Market Square at home when a man had accosted her, and on finding she was not a tart after all, had apologized by saying: ‘I’m awfully sorry, I thought you were French’ What could it be like to actually live in France?

While the male characters are a sorry, sex-mad bunch, Patrick is arguably the sleaziest of the lot. He grasps the fact that Jenny is not the sort of girl who can handle a quick, non-committal fumble under the sheets and yet he can’t help himself, plying her with alcohol, and guiding her into his flat in case she tries to “make a break for it.” While the novel includes a few female predatory characters, it’s the males who are seen in the most unpleasant light, so there are plenty of sexist discussions amongst the male characters that are guaranteed to offend (and occasionally bludgeon) a modern audience. The sexism of the male characters who acknowledge they prefer their females “docile” is not necessarily a charge I’d lay at the author’s feet. Amis seems rather fond of Jenny Bunn, and certainly she’s recognized as a wonderful character.

Getting through Take a Girl Like You was a bit of a slog due to several sluggish sections and its dated themes. A lot of the book’s humour comes from Jenny’s innocence and sweetness when it’s contrasted with those who surround her, but this humour only works when naiveté works as a protective sheaf, and while this is definitely true for a great deal of the novel, the humour doesn’t work when Jenny just doesn’t understand what’s going on around her, is plied with drinks, and on more than one occasion lands into a series of sticky situations. Of course, Take a Girl Like You was published in 1960, when attitudes towards women, the treatment of women, sexuality and sexual consent were vastly different–and that’s putting it mildly. So while the book was being read for the first time, it must have seemed to be “incendiary stuff,” to quote the Observer. Now the book seems dated and at some points offensive–particularly for its disappointing ending.  For a modern audience, it’s very difficult to imagine the dating scene of the swinging 60s, what was ok and what wasn’t, but I worked with someone years ago who was married with children when the 60s hit. He told me that when he was a young man, you dated someone and then if it worked, you married them–with his family background, premarital sex was never on the table. When the 60s hit, he said it was like someone ‘threw open the door to the candy store.’ There’s that sense in Take a Girl Like You–the doors are wide open, but Jenny, in a world where love is hopelessly tangled with sex, isn’t ready to move through those doors. She’s hanging onto her principles of waiting for marriage before having sex.

At one point, Patrick in a rare moment of insight chews over his actions against a “humble, defenceless little thing like Jenny,” while feeling amazed that he is the same man who mooned over a girl “fifteen or sixteen years ago” hoping that she’d just look his way. It’ll be interesting to see how Amis views his characters as they approach the disillusionments of middle age in the sequel Difficulties with Girls.

 

Review copy/own a copy

 

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Sundays of a Bourgeois: Guy de Maupassant

Monsieur Patissot is the subject of Guy de Maupassant’s short story Sundays of a Bourgeois, a piece that’s really a study in character, and a piece in which Maupassant manages to get a dig in at Zola. M. Patissot is fifty-two when the story begins, and that’s an interesting place to start; he’s set in his career of government service (more of that later) and isn’t as much a failure with women as much as they are not a part of his life (again more of that later). Maupassant makes an argument for his character’s mediocrity–just look at the title alone, and he also lets us know that Patissot “failed in his examinations,” and so began a life of lowly government service through the help of a relative.

The story is broken into sections: Preparations for the Excursion, Fishing Excursion, Two Celebrities, Before the Celebration, An Experiment in Love, and a Dinner and some Opinions. As you can tell from the titles, the stories focus on Patissot’s leisure time, and Maupassant tells us, tongue in cheek, that “the tale of his excursions may be of value to many Parisians who will take them as a model for their own outings, and will thus, through his example, avoid certain mishaps.”

Preparations for the Excursion delves into Patissot’s career. Not destined for greatness,  Patissot “advanced very slowly, and would perhaps, have died a fourth-class clerk,” but for his powers of imitation. Always hoping for a pay raise, he tells himself he  “had too much self-respect” to grovel to “his superiors,” and claimed “his frankness embarrassed many people, for, like all the rest, he protested against injustice and favoritism shown to persons entirely foreign to the bureaucracy.” In spite of these comforting thoughts “his indignant voice never passed beyond the little cage where he worked.” So you can’t really dislike Patissot. He’s not a bad person and there’s a little comic touch to this poor little man who assuages himself with imagined principles which explain and excuse his lowly position. Of course, all those principles go flying out the window in time.

First as a government clerk, then as a Frenchman and finally as a man who believes in order he would adhere to whatever government was established, having an unbounded reverence for authority, except for that of his chiefs.

Patissot finally gets ahead in government office by imitating the appearance of Napoleon III, but he suffers a temporary setback when “the Republic was proclaimed,” His “ape like faculty of imitation,” was stymied until he began sporting a tri-clouded rosette, which, accompanied by a new demeanor, led to more promotions.

In his mid-fifties, health issues lead to an interest in exercise, and this heralds an orgy of consumerism:

He visited a so-called American shoe store, where heavy travelling shoes were shown him. The clerk brought out a kind of ironclad contrivance, studded with spikes like a harrow, which he claimed to be made from Rocky Mountain bison skin. He was so carried away with them that he would willingly have bought two pair, but one was sufficient. He carried them away under his arm, which soon became numb from the weight. He next invested in a pair of corduroy trousers, such as carpenters wear, and a pair of oiled canvas leggings. Then he needed a knapsack for his provisions, a telescope so as to recognize villages perched on the slope of distant hills, and finally a government survey map to enable him to find his way about without asking the peasants toiling in the fields.

Later in the story, in Two Celebrities, Patissot and a cousin travel to Poissy to the home of the painter Meissonier, and once there, the painter proudly gives a tour of his incredible home. Next onto the home of “the author of the Rougon-Macquart series,” Zola. This time we get a description of Zola’s home with “an immense table littered with books, papers and magazines,” and Zola is “stretched out” on an “oriental divan where twenty persons could have slept.”

Patissot and his cousin don’t get far in the conversation department until Patissot tells Zola that he owns a “superb property,” and “then in the heart of the man of letters, the landowner awoke.”  The visit is a success.

An Experiment in Love finds Patissot at the Folies-Bergere where he makes an assignation with one woman only to have another show in her place. Octavie is a tall, loud red-head who creates a series of embarrassing scenes:

Shame overwhelmed Patissot, who as a government employee, had to observe a certain amount of decorum. But Octavie stopped talking, glancing at her neighbours, seized with the overpowering desire which haunts all women of a certain class to make the acquaintance of respectable women. After about five minutes she thought she had found an opening, and, drawing from her pocket a Gil-Blas, she politely offered it to one of the amazed ladies, who declined, shaking her head. Then the big, red-headed girl began saying things with a double meaning, speaking of women who were stuck up without being any better than the others; sometimes she would let out a vulgar word which acted like a bomb exploding amid the icy dignity of the passengers.

Patissot, a man “full of that common sense which borders on stupidity,” isn’t a bad person, just an ordinary one, and his mis-adventures, viewed with just a hint of the malicious, border on comic. Patissot, who’s spent his youth working in a lowly, ill-paid position, finally has the means to do more than simply exist. He is in his 50s before he begins to branch out beyond his employment into any sort of social life, and if a youth in his 20s mis-steps then we have a coming of age story, but with Patissot stumbling along in his 50s, there’s a whiff of both the pathetic and the poignant to his Sunday adventures.

Translated by: A.E. Henderson and Mme Louise Quesada

44 pages

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Behind Closed Doors: Elizabeth Haynes

Behind Closed Doors from British author Elizabeth Haynes takes a look at the fallout of a crime that occurred ten years earlier. Fifteen year old Scarlett Rainsford was on holiday in Greece with her thirteen year old sister, Juliette and her parents when she disappeared. DCI Louisa (Lou) Smith, ten years before back in 2003, early in her career, was one part of the team investigating the girl’s disappearance, and at the time there was a theory–never proved–that Scarlett’s parents were somehow involved in her disappearance. The strange family dynamic and the father’s bizarre behaviour led the police to think that perhaps the parents had killed Scarlett, so initially the search was for a body. Lou had “always expected to hear” about Scarlett again one day, but it’s an unsolved case that rankled even after all these years. Here’s Lou discussing the case:

“Didn’t feel right. I know that’s easy to say with hindsight. The family was odd–Scarlett’s sister was monosyllabic, hostile at first; the father was polite, helpful as far as it went. When the mother came back she was in a bad state emotionally.” “What happened with the Greeks?” “It was pretty chaotic. One minute they wanted our help, the next they didn’t. They told us some bits and left out other important things. They thought straight away that she had been killed and disposed of. Somehow the investigators who went out there got the impression that had evidence that she’d been killed, some forensics–but there was nothing like that. For a couple of days we were looking for a body when we should have been checking the ports.” “To be honest, we all thought it was the Dad.”

Now ten years later, the Rainsford family (and their sole daughter) are on holiday once again–Spain this time–when they are given the news that Scarlett has been found working in a brothel in their hometown of Briarstone. Lou discovers that Scarlett, who obviously in hindsight wasn’t murdered, wasn’t a runaway either. As a 15-year-old troubled teen, she was very vulnerable and fell for a local Greek boy, but when a secret meeting failed to take place, Scarlett was smuggled out of the country by human traffickers. Behind closed doorsElizabeth Haynes’s crime novel moves through three narrative voices moving backwards and forwards in time with Scarlett’s terrible story unfolding and alternating with the current investigation. The murder case from Under a Silent Moon (the first in the Briarstone series) is mentioned frequently–along with various characters from the first novel, so there’s some back story here that readers should be aware of. Scarlett’s horrific story is gripping, and so gripping that this works against the novel when chapters flip from Scarlett to the chapters narrated by Lou and Sam. Maintaining momentum through multiple narrative voices is a challenge which is not met here. There was too much fluff with Lou’s love life and the inserted reports were distracting. Nothing could match Scarlett’s story for readability. In the creation of Scarlett, the author shows impressive depth for not only does she tackle a very real social problem, but she faces prostitution head-on in all of its ugliness–even addressing the red-light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.

Did they genuinely think she was here through choice? That she would choose to sit in a window in her underwear, on display, waiting for the next ugly, filthy, sexually inadequate bastard to come and use her body? Why did none of them ever stop to think about it, about the hideousness of it all, of what they were doing? How could this ever ever be right?

But here’s what she has been told to tell customers:

“I came here because I always wanted to do this,” she recited, trying to keep her voice light, knowing it sounded flat. “I always wanted to make people happy. You see, I have an insanely high sex drive. I need to fuck guys all the time or else I feel sad. So this is the perfect job for me.”

It’s with the character of Scarlett that Elizabeth Haynes takes some bold chances and succeeds in examining the deeper psychological aspects behind the case. Here’s a now 25 year old woman who was kidnapped and sold into a life of prostitution at age 15.  At one point, Scarlett is being interviewed by the police and they seem amazed that she doesn’t know more about the men who moved her around Europe or the apartments she was kept in. By alternating the investigation with Scarlett’s story, we see how the police fail to grasp the abysmal conditions and imprisonment Scarlett has endured along with the inevitable crushing of any hope of escape that she may have tried to hold onto. At one point, Scarlett says she was told she was in a specific country but she really doesn’t know that for certain–after all she only sees four walls and the sweaty bodies of men on top of her. We accept her story while the police are skeptical. At another point, she describes how a girl being trafficked was shot in the head–one of the investigators wonders if Scarlett may be making this up and even questions if her tears are real. And this brings me to the crucial part of the story–at some point Scarlett moved from being a victim to being seen as thoroughly corrupted and part of the criminal problem. She is as objectified by the establishment as she is by the pimps and the johns. Because she is 25 when she’s found in a brothel in Briarstone, the police don’t understand why she doesn’t run away, but that’s the whole point. After ten years of this life, where do you run to? Who wants you? A young, innocent girl is stolen from home, but that young girl–while maintaining a strong character–has become an incredibly cynical human being who will probably never be able to trust anyone or have a normal sexual relationship again.

Stories have hit the news about real-life victims found after years locked up by some sexual predator. Kept in horrendous circumstances, beaten and subjected to the sort of physical, sexual and mental torture few could withstand, of course the big questions in these cases are: how can these people adjust back to any sort of normal life? They’ve been damaged, but at what point are people damaged beyond repair? How much recovery can take place?

I think, of course, of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at age 7  & held by a sexual predator. He managed to escape at age 14 taking another victim with him, but died in a motorcycle accident at age 24. In an interview, Steven, who had problems adjusting,  once said “I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?” In a bizarre twist to this story, Steven Stayner’s brother Cary is a serial killer.

But back to our story of a 15 year old girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and then rescued 10 years later. Bravo for presenting Scarlett’s story stripped of any prostitution mythology, and bravo again to the author for tackling some important social issues. Unfortunately, Scarlett’s story was so effective, so gripping that the rest of the novel couldn’t compare in readability.

Thanks to Caroline for directing me towards Elizabeth Haynes in the first place with her review of Into the Darkest Corner

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A Legacy: Sybille Bedford

With a backwards glance at the private lives of the privileged against the background of a newly-unified Germany, Sybille Bedford’s loosely-structured novel A Legacy follows two connected families: the Merzs, an extremely wealthy bourgeois Jewish Berlin family and the aristocratic Catholic von Feldens who live on a Baden estate.

a legacyThis non-linear tale is broken into five distinct sections: A House, Augustans, The Captive, A Free Agent, and A Reprieve. We begin with the narrator discussing her birth and her father, Jules (Julius) von Felden. As she relates the history of her family, the narrator is at first unnamed, but as the history unfolds, by the fourth section, we know that the narrator is Francesca, the second daughter of Jules von Felden from his second, British wife, Charlotte. But back to the beginning of the book which begins with the narrator telling us that she was born “in a flat rented for the occasion,” and not in the home of the Merzs (and their extended family), “a huge Wilheminian town house in the old West of Berlin” on Voss Strasse. Jules (Julius) von Felden, part of the noble, but not oozing in wealth aristocratic German family, was married briefly to Melanie Merz, but she died leaving behind a daughter, Henrietta, and this bound von Felden permanently to the Merz family, so that he continued to receive a generous allowance from his former in-laws. With the description of the privileged, idiosyncratic cocooned life of the Merzs, I was hooked:

No music was heard at Voss Strasse outside the ball-room and the day nursery. They never travelled. They never went to the country. They never went anywhere, except to take a cure, and then they went in a private railway carriage, taking their own sheets.

They took no exercise and practiced no sport; they kept no animals–except carriage horses–and none were allowed in the house. The caretaker couple kept a canary in their basement by the furnace, but no truffled nose had ever snuffed the still hot air upstairs, no padded paw had trod the Turkey pile, no tooth had gnawed, no claw ripped the mahogany and the plush, and there was a discreet mouse-trap set in every room. The Merzs had no friends, a word they seldom used; they saw no-one besides the family, the doctor and an occasional, usually slightly seedy, guest asked to occupy the fourteenth place at the table. They were never alone; when it wasn’t the barber, it would be the manicure. Grandmama Merz had never taken a bath without the presence and assistance of her maid. They did not go to shops. Things were sent to them on approval, and people came to them for fittings. They never read. There was a smoking-room, and a billiard room nobody used, but there was not so much as a courtesy library, and I cannot ever remember ever seeing a book about.

And this is the way the Merz family manage their money:

In his younger days Grandpapa Merz had gone to board-meetings; now he still received at intervals the visit of a decent-looking individual who presented himself with a satchelful of papers to be signed, bank-notes and gold. This man was called the book-keeper. The money he brought was handed over to the butler, Gottlieb, who paid the wages and the house-keeping bills, had charge of his master and mistress’s personal expenses, tipped my mother’s cabs at the door and lent what were not always small sums to my half-sister. The banknotes were new. Money, like animals, was not hygienic, and no-one employed in the house was supposed to handle used notes. Thus everybody was paid straight off the press. The subsequent problem of change was not envisioned.

Money management is one of the central issues of the story, and second son, Friedrich, “a leather-faced, idle bureaucrat” saves “half of his allowance and all his pay” while ruining his career through his relationship with a “not respectable” Frenchwoman. “One of the counts against her was that in an age of rubber tubs she travelled with a silver bidet.” The eldest son, Edu Merz is a spendthrift and a gambler who finally exhausts the patience of his heiress wife, the formidable Sarah.

My mother once said that everything about Edu was impersonation: that his passion was not cards, but seeing himself at cards. She may have been right. It is certain that Edu adored his chosen personality; and its setting, in some measure, depended on his wife. Edu at race-meetings, at bachelor suppers, Edu with the duns, was one thing; Edu with Sarah was another, and as a couple they were something else again. Obviously their marriage was a failure, but that was something both were able to put aside, and if they had little else in common, they shared at least two things–a belief in the importance of society, and the habit of being rich. Both were at home in their time.

The Jewish Merzs are in contrast to the Catholic aristocrats, the von Feldens, the widower Baron and his four sons  who lead a much more active lifestyle with animals and with notions of honor and duty occupying an important place. They are “agreeably off without being the least rich.” The fact that Julius von Felden owns, lives with and travels with monkeys becomes a major problem when he marries one of the Merz daughters, Melanie.  And under the growing influence of Prussian militarism, another son, Johannes is “carted off to a cadet corps to be made into an officer,” and it’s this decision that has lasting and tragic ramifications for both the Merzs and the von Feldens.

At times A Legacy is not easy to read due to its occasionally knotty prose–so much so that I found myself rereading and trying to unravel many sentences repeatedly. As the book moves on some parts are elliptical in nature with obtuse conversations or repeated general opinion rather as though the author recreated snippets of dialogue which she overheard.  But in spite of its faults, A Legacy depicts a brilliant, intimate representation of the twilight hours of a lost world.

Sybille Bedford (1911-2006) wrote a memoir of her life, Quicksands, and it’s impossible to ignore the autobiographical details of this tale: she was born in Germany, to an aristocratic father, was “bundled between two houses,” and the author has this to say about her semi-autobiographical novel:

Thus what I know or feel I know about the places and the men and women in this story is derived from what I saw and heard and over-heard as a child at the age of roughly three to ten, much of which I managed to absorb, retain and decades after, to re-shape in an adult mode. The rest is invention and surmise.

Bedford admits that a couple of the characters are of her “own devising” but that many of the elements of A Legacy did occur in the history of her family. So it’s no wonder that the book rings with an authenticity, a presentation of a shimmering now lost world of the wealthy and the privileged, the German aristocrats, the wealthy Jewish bourgeois family–people who thought they were the movers and shakers of German society who were, as Bedford says, in reality “playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany and of what was brewing therein.”

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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs”

At one point, early in the novel Hausfrau, protagonist, 37-year old Anna, an American living in Switzerland, asks her therapist, Doktor Messerli, “Is there a difference between shame and guilt?” This is an interesting question from a bored married woman who engages in a series of affairs right under her banker husband, Bruno’s nose, and it’s interesting because Anna feels neither shame nor guilty, just temporary relief as she hits one violent orgasm after another.

But why is Anna having these affairs? Is there some sort of central point to her behaviour or is she simply self-destructive? The novel begins with a simple sentence: “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and it’s that qualifier that drew me into this tale, of a bored, displaced housewife, living in the town of Dietlikon, who turns away from her home life to seek sensation.

hausfrauAnna & Bruno have three children and a stagnant marriage. Anna has never really adjusted to life in Switzerland; she’s decided to try and learn German when the novel begins, but the classes seem more a segue and alibi for torrid affairs than anything else. As the plot unfolds we see Anna, the housewife, who’s  really anything but, disappearing day after day to meet a lover while her mother-in-law takes care of the children, fixes the meals and generally steps in to take up the considerable slack left in Anna’s highly noticeable, lengthy absences.

To say Anna isn’t easy to like would be putting it mildly. She’s self-focused, depressed, morbid, and emotionally disconnected from her life. Night after night, her husband retires to his home office, shutting out Anna, and rejected repeatedly, her response is to arrange assignations with her lover, almost as though she’s begging to be caught–an exposure which at the very least should bring her festering marriage problems to a head.

We ask ourselves where things went wrong? Is Anna simply a neglected wife who gets attention elsewhere? Or can part of her estrangement be blamed on the fact that she’s an ex-pat, confined by and not assimilated into Swiss culture after living in the country for nine years?

So her world was tightly circumscribed by the comings and goings of locomotives, by the willingness of Bruno, Anna’s husband, or Ursula, Bruno’s mother, to drive her places unreachable by bus, and by the engine if her own legs and what distance they could carry her which was rarely as far as she’d have liked to go.

With its graphic sexual details and an extremely unlikable self-focused main character, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau is certain to offend some readers. I’ve read some reviews which complain about the graphic sexual content and others which somehow equate Anna’s lack of self-knowledge with the author. Here’s my thoughts on those two complaints:

The graphic, repellent sexual details were ugly, and yet they created a jarring noise that directly contrasted with Anna’s subdued, emotionally disconnected life. These details also illustrate the affairs for exactly what they are: devoid of romance or lover’s talk, all that’s left are violent, profane, increasingly risky couplings.

Just because an author creates a selfish, unlikable character, this does not mean that the character’s lack of insight reflects back onto the author. While this is a third person narrative, we only see things through Anna’s perspective, so her husband is cold and withdrawn, her mother-in-law is disapproving. But by the time the novel ends, we readers have an understanding of Bruno and Ursula–even if Anna does not. This is a novel likely to generate a lot of debate if picked up by a book group. Some readers will be alienated by Anna’s behaviour, and some may take the simplistic view that there’s a moral message here (x happens when you commit adultery), and this is definitely not a book to be read by the already-depressed. Is Anna supposed to be a sympathetic character? Does the author intend us to feel sorry for Anna? Yes and No… I think Anna is supposed to be sympathetic in as far as someone is sympathetic when they labour under a major delusion and when they spiral out of control and desperately need help, but Anna is also selfish, self-focused and as far as her marriage goes, she refuses to take responsibility for something really major.  We see everyone through Anna’s eyes. She never examines her own behaviour or her treatment of other people. Also notable is Anna’s opinion of her mother-in-law, Ursula, a woman Anna dislikes and silently criticizes, but who seems to be raising Anna’s three children single-handedly while Anna disappears for her afternoon sexual encounters. Frustrating in her passivity, yes there are times you want to shake Anna silly and say: ‘you have a lot to be happy about. Get over yourself. Get a divorce if you’re that unhappy, but do something.’

Anna has a therapist, a Doktor Messerli, who becomes increasingly frustrated with Anna as the therapy fails to produce results. As the book continues, the possible cause of Anna’s depression is revealed, and then Anna’s husband, Bruno, instead of being an inattentive bore, becomes something else entirely. While Anna careens through her life, craving sensation after sensation, avoiding the deep cause of her self-destructive behaviour, the author has clearly created a character who’s supposed to be out of control, but at the same time, she cannot get beyond the suffocating membrane of depression. Anna appears to be extremely passive in a go-with-the-flow way, but she asserts herself sexually with men, and takes the initiative. She’s passive in her relationship with her husband, but with him, she’s throwing clues in his face, silently screaming for him to pay attention.

Occurring monthly, at least, were dozens of instances into which she commended a task into Bruno’s hands. It was he who dealt with local bureaucracy, he who paid the insurance, the taxes, the house note. It was he who filed the paperwork for Anna’s residency permit. And it was Bruno who handled the family’s finances, for he was employed as a mid-level management banker at Credit Suisse. Anna didn’t even have a bank account.

First impressions would indicate that Bruno is controlling. But has Anna simply abdicated her responsibilities? Are the affairs a type of rebellion? This is a novel certain to generate a lot of opinions–my opinion is that Anna, as an ex-pat, is initially forced to abdicate those responsibilities, and then it simply becomes a way of life. When people step into life in another country, they cannot grasp how their lives will change and the extent of the things they are sacrificing, so it’s notable that Anna’s first affair is with a fellow American.

Given that the book’s title is Hausfrau, it should come as no surprise that underlying Anna’s troubled marriage, there’s a plot thread concerning the lives of other secondary female characters. Anna’s acquaintance, Edith, for example, also takes a lover and claims it’s a move that improves her skin. There’s another character, Mary, a fellow student in Anna’s German class, who is intriguing. Mary is married, addicted to cheesy romance novels, has children, is on the plump side and appears to be a veritable Betty Crocker. She befriends Anna and Bruno, and says she is glad to have a female friend. But there are no  less than three occasions when Mary’s actions hint at some dark ulterior motive. In spite of the fact I disliked Anna and was frustrated by her repeatedly, I liked Hausfrau. I liked the chances the author took in creating an amazingly self-destructive character who reminds me of two great fictional characters whose names I won’t mention as to do so would be a plot spoiler.

Marina Sofia’s review, and thanks Marina for pointing me towards Hausfrau in the first place.

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