Category Archives: Fiction

Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

Review copy

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An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

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Gaia, Queen of Ants: Hamid Ismailov

The closer a person is to you, the deeper you hide your secrets away from him or her.”

Gaia, Queen of Ants is the tale of three expatriates who live in England. Russian Gaia is 80 years old, but hardly anyone’s idea of a frail old woman. Meskhetian Turk Domrul, who is haunted by memories of childhood trauma in Uzbekistan is her caretaker. Finally there’s Emer, a young Irish woman who grew up in Bosnia. So there’s a mix there: a mix of cultures, memories and traumas, and all these come hurtling together in this Uzbek novel. 

Gaia

Gaia, as it is revealed, has MS, and she, a “queen of cunning,” has another, shady, agenda for Domrul, who unfortunately, for a range of reasons, becomes putty in sly Gaia’s hands. According to Domrul’s boss, his “task is not so much to assist with her MS, but to be more like an entertainer, bringing her joy.”  Fat chance.

Gaia lives in Eastbourne’s “tallest, most mountainous apartment building,” and she draws an unsuspecting Domrul into her plot:

The Armenian cognac had no effect on him, but when the Qoraqum candy, which Domrul had forgotten, touched his mouth, his heart grew warm and suddenly overflowed. Bith his tongue and his soul spread wings. He told the begum about his childhood. They drank some more, the begum brought out some Russian caramels, and another teacup later, she served up more Russian treats: gingerbread and wafer cookies. That did it for Domrul.

“Naive” Domrul, who’s scarred from his horrific past, and pen-ultimately respectful of his elders, is just what Gaia has been looking for, and soon Domrul, who already had a somewhat fragile psyche, is in a terrible position. Enter Emer, Domrul’s girlfriend, born in Bogside, whose father was murdered by the Irish People’s Rescue Organization, and who is subsequently raised in Sarajevo. Emer was 12 when war broke out, and eventually Emer and her mother escaped to London. Emer, who is made of stronger stuff than Domrul, is unfortunately in Paris where she’s under the spell of a “bard” a “story-teller” Kuyak-baxshi, who gives concerts with his dombra.

In a giant coincidence, Kuyak reveals that he knows Gaia all too well. …

I loved parts of this novel: Gaia’s Soviet past, the way she was “unwillingly made into a housewife,” her life with her husband, a Soviet party council member, her indestructibility and the awful, awful way she treated her family. 

As if moving a pawn by bald-faced trickery to the far end of the chessboard to turn it into a queen, Gaia, slowly, carefully filled up her husband with airs and importance.

Other parts of the novel (non-Gaia) were not as appealing as she is an incredible, larger than life woman who sourly dominates and submerges the other characters who seem tangled in the net of religion weaving its web through the culture, conflicts and traumas of the past and present. As with all religious stuff, I tune out, and the MS thread seems a superfluous plot convenience. 

“This evening there’s a poetry event at Pushkin House in London,” she said. When Gaia Mangitkhanovna probed, she learned that neither Pushkin nor any descendants of his had ever lived in that house, but Pushkin’s name had just metaphorically been attached to a splendid building, and evenings devoted to Russian and Soviet culture, literature, and music were arranged there.

It ought to be nicer than sitting around this stinking place thought Gaia.

Review copy

Translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

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Four Novellas of Fear: Cornell Woolrich

The collection Four Novellas of Fear from Cornell Woolrich is aptly named. Woolrich creates four domestic scenarios that tap into primal terror. Here’s the line-up

Eyes That Watch You

The Night I Died

You’ll Never See Me Again

Murder Always Gathers Momentum

Eyes That Watch You is the story of a paralyzed wheelchair bound woman who overhears her daughter-in-law, Vera, plotting to murder her son. Without the power of speech and unable to move, she is helpless to stop the crime. Given the woman’s incapacity, this is a story that in other hands could have lacked tension, but it’s the pure callous savagery of the plotters that knocks a powerful punch:

Just see that he soaks up enough, and you can bet all the oxygen in the world won’t pull him through. Watch his face. When that gets good and blue, all mottled, you got nothing more to worry about. 

For me, The Night I Died was the weakest of the bunch. This is the story of a married man who goes from marriage and dead-end job to murder, insurance scam and stolen identity all in one night:

The point about me is: that I should stay on the right side of the fence all those years, and then when I did go over, go over heart and soul like I did–all in the space of one night. In one hour, you might say.

I liked the story’s premise: a married man comes home unexpectedly from work and finds his wife plotting his murder. Nice. Things go downhill from there. The narrator/husband’s decisions seemed a little implausible given that he can’t trust his wife to the slightest degree. Murder is one way to end life, but handing it over to someone you can’t trust is another.

Four novellas of fear

You’ll Never See Me Again is the longest story in the book, and again Woolrich taps into a primal fear when he creates a nightmarish situation involving a missing wife. Newlyweds argue about the wife’s baking and she takes off into the night and disappears . …

Murder Always Gathers Momentum is the story of Paine, a married man who goes to his boss to claim his wages. The encounter ends in murder and murder having been done once… This story shows Woolrich’s skill at pacing for the tale seems to speed up with each murder as Paine rushes towards his violent fate. 

My favorite was Eyes That Watch You. Woolrich really ramps up the fear factor with this tale. It’s terrifying to imagine being paralyzed but even more terrifying to be paralyzed, overhear a plot to murder your child and be unable to stop it. ….

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The Pelican: A Comedy: Martin Michael Driessen

Martin Michael Driessen’s novel  The Pelican is set in a quiet Yugoslavian coastal town. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and knows their history–the exception being the occasional tourists who pass through. The story revolves around two discontent men: Josip–an unhappily married, war hero, cable car operator and lanky bachelor postman Andrej. These two men engage in parasitic blackmail schemes–each one blackmailing the other.

Driessen-thePelican-27545-JK-FL-v1.indd

While Josip and Andrej are, on the surface, two very different men, there are some commonalities. Josip is trapped in a miserable marriage to a mad woman. Andrej is a failed soccer player who longs for a girlfriend, lives alone and has a thing for Princess Diana. While both men are trapped, each in his own way, they have managed to create a bit of excitement for themselves. Josip, through the use of ads for women, has managed to build a secret life, and Andrej has been opening people’s mail for years.

He liked to imagine that Marshal Tito would have decorated him for his vigilance, and for thwarting potential capitalist plots. He steamed open the envelopes in his kitchenette, and after having inspected the contents on the Formica table, he carefully glued them back shut. 

Of course, if there’s money inside, well those items are not resealed. Andrej just helps himself.

The inevitable happens. Andrej discovers, through his little hobby of opening other’s mail, that Josip is having a torrid affair. He photographs Josip and his lover together and then starts blackmailing Josip. …

From this point, a danse macabre ensues. Andrej blackmails Josip wasting his ill-gotten gains and Josip, after discovering Andrej’s dirty secret begins blackmailing the postman. There’s a wry black, bleak humour at play here. Both of these men have sad lives, and the blackmail schemes are rather torturous–given that these men don’t have a great deal. But then when are blackmailers humanitarians? I found it somewhat implausible that Josip didn’t guess that Andrej was his blackmailer, but then plot wise, the mutual blackmail thing couldn’t have been constructed if Josip had guessed the truth.

While the tale has its humour (the title is The Pelican: A Comedy), it also segues into war, and there’s some animal cruelty/neglect. Considering how nasty these people are towards each other, it’s not too surprising there would be poor treatment of animals. Overall, I would say apart from some initial dark humour, in its exploration of failed friendship and wasted lives, this isn’t funny at all.

Review copy

Translated by Jonathan Reeder

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Wild Town: Jim Thompson (1957)

Jim Thompson’s tale of corruption,  Wild Town feels like a much earlier novel than The Killer Inside Me which was published 5 years earlier in 1952. The Killer Inside Me remains one of my favourite  Thompson novels, while Wild Town doesn’t feel as mature, as polished and certainly not as dark. Yet both novels feature Lou Ford. It was actually somewhat surreal to read about Wild Town‘s Lou Ford while The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford lurked in my memory, but enough of that; onto the plot.

Wild town

The Wild Town of the title is a Texas oil boom town with Lou Ford as the local chief deputy sheriff. It’s the sort of place where men are expected to get drunk and get into fights, so local law enforcement is more about limiting damage.  The town itself is rowdy and not built for permanence. “Practically all the structures were temporary–built as cheaply as possible and as quickly as possible.” The town’s one hotel, the Hanlon Hotel, is a fourteen storey building where everyone turns a blind eye to various shenanigans. It’s hardly a respectable joint, but it’s not a fleabag hotel either. And this is where our main character Bugs McKenna comes in.

McKenna is fresh out of prison. His life story is a series of missteps, and he’s aware that one more mistake will land him in prison for the rest of his life. He arrives in town and is promptly thrown in jail, but then a strange thing happens. The sheriff, Lou Ford points him towards a job as the house detective at the Hanlon Hotel.

McKenna, who is used to being labelled as a jailbird, distrusts Lou Ford’s friendly, good ‘ol boy manner. (So did I.)

He was about thirty, the chief deputy. He wore a pinkish-tan shirt, with a black, clip-on bowtie, and blue serge pants. The cuffs of the trousers were tucked carelessly into the top of his boots. In Bug’s book, he stacked up about the same-in appearance-as any county clown.

His black, glossy hair was combed in a straight-back pompadour. His high-arched brows gave his face a droll, impish look. A long thin cigar was clamped between his teeth.

McKenna takes the job, and he finds that he likes having security, likes being able to shower and shave, and likes the hot coffee brought to his room every morning. The job, however, is not without its problems: first someone is stealing money from the hotel, and then the owner’s sexually rapacious wife, Joyce is determined to seduce McKenna.

While the plot sounds good, the book has its flaws. McKenna and Ford are both interesting creations but I found it impossible not to connect ‘this’ Ford with the Ford of The Killer Inside Me (a far superior novel). Also, there are a couple of bellboys who are cartoonish, and then there’s a lot of good-ol boy hee-haw slang going on which gets annoying after a while. I’d consider this a lesser Jim Thompson, so if you haven’t read any, I’d suggest you start elsewhere. Still if you’re a die-hard Thompson fan, you won’t be able to resist:

“Aw, heck. Gosh all fish-hooks. Gee willikers,” drawled Ford. “and here we-all thought we had you fooled.” 

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It’s a Wrap: 2019

Three novels

Time for my best-of-year round up. For some reason, this year the choices seemed easier.

Three Novels: The Resurrection of Mozart, The Waiter and the Slut, Astashev in Paris: Nina Berberova. 

Berberova never disappoints. 3 novellas here–all quite different from each other, yet they each weave in the theme of  Russian displacement. Berberova deserves far more recognition than she gets.

A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

My first Murdoch novel and I hit a winner. This is the nastily funny tale of bored privileged people who create drama in their lives by unpleasant, selfish self-focused behaviour. I love reading books about nasty people, so it’s no surprise that I loved this.

Olive Kitteridge: Elizabeth Strout

Ahh… Olive Kitteridge. What a woman. Of course, we wouldn’t want her as a mother or a wife but she’s great to read about. Olive seems the epitome of a person possessing good and bad characteristics. Someone may make a great teacher or neighbour but a lousy relative. It’s no wonder that Olive elicts strong reactions from people. Olive Again is also highly recommended.

The Children: Edith Wharton

It’s been too long since I read Edith Wharton. The Children isn’t considered one of her greats, but it’s wonderful–a study in subconscious human behaviour and how we get what we want without quite confronting our own negative drives.

The Travels Of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster

Narrow-minded, inflexible, pious Maudie finally leaves Glasgow to visit each of her three children. Her first visit is awful but it goes downhill from there–until finally Maudie finds herself in a surreal situation, living in a primitive hut (without plumbing) on an isolated island.

A Very Scotch Affair: Robin Jenkins

A married man decides to ditch his wife and family in Glasgow and run off to Barcelona with his mistress. The book focuses not so much on his escape but the fallout of his actions.

Artists’ Wives: Alphonse Daudet

I’m glad that a short story collection makes my list this year. The range, the wit, the understanding of human nature–all these things make for marvellous reading.

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen

My first Elizabeth Bowen wasn’t that great but The Hotel is a treasure. I like books set in hotels anyway but this story is subtle, rich and entertaining.  Post WWI, a hodge-podge of guests, mainly British, socialise with varying results.

Three Obscurities from the Borderlands: Werner Bergengruen, Adalbert Stifter, Maria von Eschenbach.

A fluke find for German Literature month. One story is outstanding, another is excellent and the third has redeeming characteristics. In spite of the fact that I liked these three stories to varying degrees, it still makes my best of year list.

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing

I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It’s not my typical read but this gaslight noir is very well done indeed. The main character is a missionary’s widow. She’s always led a pious religious life but it was never a choice. When the widow gets choices, her real nature emerges.

Dodsworth: Sinclair Lewis

Certainly not an exciting book, but nonetheless still relevant 90 years later… This is an American Abroad book. It addresses American materialism and subsequent lack of quality of life. Get off the hamster wheel in retirement and boom… what are you left with?….

 

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Filed under Berberova, Nina, Bergengruen Werner, Daudet Alphonse, Fiction, Forster Margaret, Jenkins, Robin, Lewis Sinclair, Murdoch Iris, Shearing Joseph, Stifter Adalbert, Strout Elizabeth, von Eschenbach Marie, Wharton, Edith

So Evil My Love: Joseph Shearing (1947)

“There are secret ways of justice.”

So Evil My Love is a novel of Gothic suspense. Hardly my usual read but I came to this book via the ‘Gaslight noir‘  film version (which I’ve yet to see). Author Joseph Shearing is one of the pseudonyms used by Marjorie Bowen (1885-1952) who wrote an incredible number of books.

So Evil My love (1947) according to my edition, has some similarities to the case of Charles Bravo, so if you know anything about that case, you know that it involves murder–murder by poison.

The novel opens with 30-year-old Olivia Sacret, the widow of a Dissenter missionary “whose life and death were obscure, who had bequeathed her but a few hundred pounds” and a tiny shabby house. She worked alongside him in Jamaica and nursed him through the tortures of his illness. Now she’s back in England desperately seeking work either with some mission or dissenter society, but no such work is forthcoming. Olivia, the daughter of a doctor who married beneath him, remembers a school friend, Susan. Heiress Susan married, was made a widow and has married again. In between those two marriages, however, she fell in love with a married man. Looking for a suitable position, Olivia reads an announcement in the paper that Susan and her new husband, Martin Rue have just returned home from Florence.

Olivia decides to contact Susan, and even though she despises Susan, Olivia, a festering tangle of resentments, thinks perhaps she can turn the acquaintance to her advantage.

So evil my love

Susan Rue, as it turns out, isn’t happily married. Her second husband, Martin is “jealous, censorious, mean,” and even though he’s a young man, he’s a perpetual neurotic self-made invalid, fussing about his health and dosing himself with various potions.  After Susan foolishly confides her unhappiness to Olivia, Olivia gains “a sense of power,” for “she had regained her old ascendancy over this [Susan’s] weak nature.”

Olivia mentions some letters from Susan she still has in her possession. The letters were written when Susan was a widow and madly in love with the married man. Susan’s obvious fear that these letters still exist fuels Olivia, and she begins to subtly blackmail Susan–moving into the Rue home, siphoning off money, jewelry, clothing.

Then into Olivia’s life, a handsome man appears who claims he’s a painter. He wants to rent Olivia’s now empty house, and after a little flattering attention, gradually Olivia falls under his spell, confiding in him and taking his advice regarding her manipulation of Susan. …

As noted, this is not my usual read, and yet So Evil My Love is brilliantly constructed, it’s gripping. The threat of encroaching evil permeates this incredibly atmospheric novel of deception, blackmail, murder and revenge. Marjorie Bowen, writing as Joseph Shearing nails human nature, and shows how a murderous plot is put in motion with one nasty, vindictive human nature coming under the control of an evil mind–a murderer who gives Olivia a narrative of her life. And that is Olivia’s central weakness: accepting the narrative she wants to hear. Olivia is an incredible, yet credible, creation: when the novel begins, she wraps herself in piety. It’s a costume which allows her to feel superior and to imagine she’s still part of the genteel crowd when she’s long since sunk beneath that–now she’s clinging to the raft of respectability with both claws. Bowen includes some marvelous touches here–Martin Rue’s hothouse of exotic rare flowers, the resentment of the servants, the way in which Olivia brushes over her own evil acts, and the way the ‘painter’ harnesses her resentments for his own gain. 

How little any of it had availed–so much violence, so many lies, such intricate scheming, and she was where she had been, a poor missionary’s widow. It was all the fault of her parents, who had brought her up so poorly, who had cheated her so cruelly, who had never given her a chance.

She made her way home, using that word in her mind, with no sense of how grotesque it was in her case.

The ending is incredible.

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The Bishop’s Bedroom: Piero Chiara

I still think about Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signor Guilia, so I was delighted to see a translation of The Bishop’s Bedroom. The New York Times Book Review compared the book to a Patricia Highsmith novel, but I basically ignored and forgot that comment. But it’s a well deserved comparison, and I wasn’t too far into the novel when Highsmith popped into my head. This is a suspense/crime novel set against post war Italy. The dreariness and deprivation of war is over, and those who have survived, at least most of the characters in the book, are approaching life with new attitudes. There’s a sense that leisure and pleasure are to be valued above all else. The war is in the past, a shadow that still can be seen with a backward glance.

The Bishop's bedroom

It’s 1946, and WWII has ended, yet the ripples of the conflict still extend in Italian society in spite of the book’s emphasis on relaxation, leisure, and sun. The unnamed narrator, a man in his 30s who has recently returned from Switzerland, has a sailboat and he spends his life sailing around putting off the day he must pick up responsibilities again. The narrator is a consummate bachelor (lothario), and with a knack with women, some of them married, he picks one up, takes her for a sail and then drops her back home. There are no commitments, no broken hearts, and no demands.

One day he sails into the port of Oggebbio on Lake Maggiore and a local man named Orimbelli, who reminded me of an oily Peter Lorre, strikes up a conversation. The narrator finds that he can’t quite read his new acquaintance:

He smiled often, sometimes for no reason, as if to seem obliging, but with the world weariness of a gentleman, or a man who’s lived a lot. His voice was somewhat nasal and yet not the least bit affected. He wore a gold ring on his little finger, and a fancy wristwatch, the kind that tells the day and month as well as the hour. It was immediately obvious that he was someone of a certain refinement, but it wasn’t easy to pin down his class. Clearly, he wasn’t a businessman or industrialist. Perhaps a doctor or notary, or just a rich idler who had established himself by the lake before the war, someone who’d stuck his head out after the army had gone by, to see which way the wind was blowing. 

One thing leads to another and Orimbelli, who tells his story of how he spent some of the war in Ethiopia,  followed by a stay in Naples for health reasons,  invites the narrator to his villa for dinner. Orimbelli lives at the Villa Cleofe with his older “very thin, schoolmarmish” wife and his sister-in-law, the lush widow Mathilde. While the villa is gorgeous, the atmosphere around the dinner table is suffocating, so it seems no surprise that Orimbelli should want to lighten the domestic atmosphere with the diversion of a guest. And neither is it too surprising that Orimbelli expresses an interest in sailing away with the narrator.

Over time, the narrator and Orimbelli, who connect over the pursuit of women*, make a number of sailing excursions together with the narrator sleazily picking up various women for himself and Orimbelli. If the idea is that Orimbelli needs to escape from his wife’s scrutiny for a while, then Orimbelli, once off leash, knows no restraint. Orimbelli has the annoying habit of shamelessly poaching the narrator’s women, and in spite of the fact that he’s not particularly attractive, he’s remarkably successful with women, perhaps because he’s so persistent.

While the story is set mostly in sun-filled days spent on the water, there’s a dark thread which runs through the plot. Is Orimbelli just the overweight, harmless married man he appears, or is there something far more sinister afoot? After a few incidents, the narrator, who calmly observes Orimbelli, decides he’s a “well-mannered monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” but even after that recognition, Orimbelli’s deviousness still catches the narrator off guard.

The Bishop’s Bedroom, incidentally, the room in which the narrator stays in at the Villa Cleofe is a lavish red and gold bedroom–a creepy shrine like room with a morbid atmosphere.

Soon the sun would flood the bishop’s bedroom, rendering it violet rather than red in the first light, and transforming it into a first-class mortuary with its canopy, the altar-like chest of drawers, the walnut wardrobe with large panels. the prayer stool and crucifix between two purple festoons.

*It’s possible to say the two men also connect over sailing, but IMO, the boat is a means to an end.

translated by Jill Foulston

Review copy

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Filed under Chiara Piero, Fiction

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff: Margaret Forster (1967)

When Margaret Forster’s book opens, 69-year-old Glaswegian Maudie Tipstaff’s bags are packed and she’s preparing for a year long trip–spending 4 months with each of her three children. Now that Maudie is alone (and what happened to her husband exactly?) it’s possible that she may end up moving in with one of her children permanently as “they had all written and pressed her to come and live with them for good.” Now there are several things fundamentally wrong with this idea. Maudie Tipstaff is an inflexible, domineering, pious misery, and since her children have more or less run off or made themselves scare, Maudie hasn’t seen them in years and has no idea how they live.

the travels of Maudie Tipstaff

Pleasure and happiness are foreign states of mind to Maudie. There’s simply ‘Duty,’ and as she tells her ‘friend’ (“it required depths of loyalty known only to Eastern despots” ) Mrs McAllister, “I’m not going to enjoy myself,” said Maudie sternly. “I’m going because it’s my duty.”

Things immediately go wrong. Maudie insists on travelling by bus rather than by train due to the cost–even though Maudie’s daughter Jean, the daughter she has yet to forgive for getting married 25 years earlier, is paying for the ticket. By the time Maudie arrives in London, she’s in a state. Kind strangers try to help the seemingly weak, upset older woman, but after they feel lashings of her vicious tongue, Maudie is left to fend for herself.

Jean married dentist Edward, and although they’ve been married 25 years, Maudie has only seen her son-in-law twice, and she hasn’t seen her 15-year-old grandson since he was 6 weeks old. For Maudie’s stay, Jean and Edward have converted the attic into a flat complete with basin and cooker, and a sense of obligation drives them to offer Maudie a permanent home. Dallying with the idea that Mauide “might have changed,” and in spite of assuring themselves that they won’t bend to Maudie’s schedule, Edward and Jean find that Maudie’s presence chills and dominates the already fragile household.

Maudie consoles herself that life with daughter Sally will be better as there are 5 grandchildren in the house:  ages 15 months to 7 years old. Maudie has one soft spot: and that is for children. “She couldn’t remember having experienced what one would call pleasure in the bringing up of her children,” there were too many worries and concerns, but now it’s known in the neighbourhood that she “wasn’t right in the head about children.” Her home is the neighbourhood hangout for children, but she tells her neighbours “that she didn’t want anything to do with them [the children] and didn’t know how they got into her kitchen.”

They accepted the food and the judgments as gospel, and took Maudie’s breath away with their simplicity. They plagued her with questions, but they never queried any final pronouncement. They told her anything and everything and caused her endless, heavily concealed mirth

As miserable as Maudie’s visit was to Jean, there are fresh tortures in store at Sally’s. Sally is a fertile woman who drinks, carouses with her ‘cleaner,’ and lives in filth and squalor while the children haphazardly raise themselves. Moving from Jean’s prim, clean affluent middle class London life to the chaos of Sally’s country cottage is a shock, but at least Maudie is needed.

They all crammed into the kitchen and Sally began shouting at them to sit themselves down and be ready to eat. Maudie was pushed on to a rickety bench between Sammy and Richard, the next in age, who plucked immediately at her sleeve to show her how far he could get his index finger up his nostril. Feeling faint, Maudie wrenched the finger out, only to see it plunged into the mound of shepherd’s pie which had suddenly appeared before him. As she opened her mouth to protest, a scalding helping appeared on her own plate, grazing her right ear as it passed from Sally’s hands over her shoulder. To the left and right and all around children were devouring the mixture without forks or knives, shovelling it in with spoons, or like Richard, with their fingers. She felt she might faint. 

Even Maudie’s iron will is eroded by Sally’s wanton fecklessness and then it’s onto son Robert, who is living a Bohemian lifestyle as a painter in a primitive hut on a remote island. Robert is Maudie’s favourite, and he seems to pay her a lot of attention through his lengthy weekly letters. Yet Maudie is baffled when she meets Robert again, and there are even more shocks in store.

Robert’s relationship with Maudie was a very strange one. His letters to her were designed to be famous, but they were not, as anyone with any knowledge of Robert ought to have realized, letters to her at all. They were essays, weekly essays most painstakingly executed, beautifully written,. They were stylistically perfect–and quite unreal. They were, in fact, letters from Robert to Robert. True, they showed a most touching concern for the person they were ostensibly sent to, but on examination this concern consisted mainly of a string of endearments, quite foreign to Robert’s nature, and certainly to Maudie’s. But he enjoyed putting them in. He thought they read well, and he liked to begin and end with something informal. When he read the copy over, as he regularly did, he thought them rather a master touch. They would look well in book form when the collected edition was published. 

Maudie has many admirable characteristics, but when the book begins they are swamped by rigid piety, judgement and inflexibility. By the time the book ends, I had sympathy for Maudie thanks to the behavior of her children (Sally and Robert). But it’s with Robert’s girlfriend, Eleanor, that Maudie is at her worst (rude) and her best, and it’s also through this relationship that we see how parents and children all too often fail to connect as individuals. Perhaps the collective weight of childhood and parenting is too heavy, perhaps it obfuscates individualism.  How can we spend decades as parents and children and not know each other? Whatever the reasons, in The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff, an extremely witty, lively book, Margaret Forster argues that parenting–being a parent, being a child, isn’t easy.

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Filed under Fiction, Forster Margaret