Category Archives: Fiction

Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.

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Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.

“Single.”

“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

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The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

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The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

review copy

translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

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The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

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We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

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Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.

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A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,”  has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.

You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life. 

The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:

But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.

Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”  

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Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….

This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs.  Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm: Gil North (1960)

“Of course it couldn’t be murder. Not in Gunnarshaw.”

When the body of married woman, Amy Wright is found in her gas-filled home, everyone in the small Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw assumes it’s a case of suicide. After years of nursing her ailing mother, Amy, a woman in her 40s, married a man many years her junior, a ne’er-do-well and a known womanizer. The consensus of the town is that Amy’s death is the sad conclusion to a bad mistake. Everyone from the police surgeon to Inspector Mole tells Sgt Cluff that Amy’s death is sad, yes, but nothing to get worked up about. But Sgt Cluff, a Yorkshire man of very strong opinions, is deeply troubled by Amy’s death.

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm from Gil North shows a world in flux. The market town of Gunnarshaw has many houses in which bedrooms have been converted into that perennial luxury: an indoor bathroom. Cottages are being demolished to make way for businesses. This is a time when suicide is illegal, before the birth control  pill became “available for all” on the NHS. This was also the end of the age when it was common for children to nurse their ailing parents until death.

In Cluff, we have a hero who hates his car, loves his dog (who accompanies him on his investigations), a solitary man who’s bonded to the land and has a solid moral core when it comes to right and wrong. Cluff isn’t entirely convinced that Amy’s death was suicide, and yet even if it was, can justice be brought to the callous husband who pushed her so far? Cluff takes a holiday to pursue the case, and that means keeping a close eye on Amy’s philandering husband in this tale of marital strife and revenge.There’s more than a dash of misogyny in the novel–but this is clearly not from the author but from some of more ungracious characters who pass judgments on Amy who is seen, by some, as foolish for marrying a man so much younger than herself in an ‘well-she-asked-for-it’ sort of way. The author makes it easy to delineate characters into those we should like and those we should dislike by their treatment of Cluff’s dog.

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is the first in a series of 11 novels. Gil North (1916-1988) whose real name was Geoffrey Horne was, like his protagonist, from Yorkshire, and his Cluff books were very popular in the sixties, spawning a television series. Sgt Caleb Cluff, a heavy-set bachelor who lives with a Persian cat and a dog named Clive (one in a series of Clives) is a solid character who inspires respect from the locals and fear in the baddies. Inspector Mole, Cluff’s superior, dislikes animals and is a snob. He is “at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch.” Mole underestimates Cluff, and yet Mole also dismisses the darker aspects of the Amy Wright case in his eagerness to end the investigation. According to Mole, “there’s nothing to get excited about,” and even the police surgeon chalks the woman’s suicide up to “the menopause.

This is a short, cinematic novel–not really a whodunnit. Instead the plot shows two people who made marriages for material gain–a young, ambitious woman who married a much older farmer, and the sleazy Wright who married Amy for the security she offered. Cluff is positioned in the novel, unusually for a policeman, as a wrathful, vengeful man who intends to get ‘justice’ for Amy–a woman who was neglected and ignored by everyone who knew her. As a crime novel, Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is an unusual pick for British Library Crime Classics, but then that’s part of the attraction of the series which introduces readers to British crime classics that were formerly OOP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s a competently plotted novel–although I did find some of the descriptive sentence pacing on the annoying side:

He was meagre under his gaberdine raincoat, his knees pointed, his shanks like sticks under their covering. His eyes were shifty, never still. His lips were hardly perceptible. His nose was sharp like a ferret’s. He gave the impression of being suddenly trapped. He opened his mouth. His teeth were needles.

The novel’s strength comes in the force of Cluff’s personality and battle between good and evil. Analytically, given the times, Cluff could be seen as a bastion of moral values. He doesn’t approve of a young woman in the book who appears to be a quasi-prostitute, so perhaps Cluff’s popularity was partly in response to what was perceived as the erosion of morality in the 60s. We have no doubt that crime would run amok in Yorkshire if not for Cluff’s impressive presence, and as always with a series, it’s affection for the main character that guarantees success.

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The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

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Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

“You just collect religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it?” 

The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel from Irish author Lisa McInerney portrays a handful of lives immersed in crime, drugs, and violence. Over the course of a five-year period, these characters intersect, criss-crossing back and forth over a murder. This is Cork post Celtic Tiger, an Ireland populated by characters whose troubled lives rankle with conscience for past deeds and current acts, and yet turning to the church or family brings no answers.

the-glorious-heresies

The book has a bit of a dodgy opening with fifteen year old Ryan about to have sex with his girlfriend Karine for the first time. Ryan, already a very successful drug dealer, initially feels that he has few choices in life, and as the plot continues he becomes arguably the most interesting character in novel. Ryan’s boss, a man with “an arctic disposition punctuated by explosions of lurid temper,” treats the boy like a “pet.” Ryan lives with his violent, abusive, alcoholic father, Tony Cusack whose “charming laziness […] had morphed into dusty apathy.” Cusack is a pitiful creature whose Italian wife died in a car accident some years earlier leaving Tony to raise their six children on his own. Tony who hits the bottle and Ryan regularly, isn’t doing at all well with this monumental responsibility. It’s hardly a happy home:

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from his home (with a measure of screaming fishwife thrown in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

Then there’s Georgie, a drug-addicted prostitute who tries to find religion but runs foul of crime boss Jimmy Phelan. Meanwhile tough guy Phelan may terrify everyone else in Cork, but his mother Maureen is the bane of his existence.

The book has a strong emphasis on fractured familial relationships (Ryan and his father, Jimmy and his mother, Maureen), and we see how family structure has failed these characters, and how that old reliable fall back, religion, seems impotent in today’s Ireland.

McInerney argues that her characters, running foul of various vices, pressured by economic realities, are still capable of making moral choices, even though they think otherwise. At one point in the novel, a maturer Ryan argues that “there’s always a choice,” and while at one point in Ryan’s life, he abdicated from the notion of personal responsibility, ultimately he must make a stand.

Although the writing spits with raucous life through, the novel’s plot sagged a little after the halfway point. There’s one scene in which Jimmy’s mother Maureen, angry that she was forced to give up her baby years ago, takes on a priest, and her long speech (extract here) seems forced and not up to the author’s very natural style:

I might have died in your asylums, me with my smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies. 

It’s hard not to love McInerney’s troubled, flawed, vice addled characters, and it’s harder still not to hope that they will manage to turn their lives around before the last page. There’s a character here, shit-stirrer Tara Duane, whose malicious meanness separates her from the rest of the troubled, wounded cast.

The bitch had always maintained she didn’t have a bob to her name but with only one kid and a frame that suggested she only ate on Thursdays, it was obvious she was hawking the poor mouth.

McInerney’s writing and characterization seem so well-assured, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel, and in spite of the novel’s flaws, I loved the writing style. I hope we see a second book soon.

Maureen was seeking redemption.

Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up. 

Thanks to Gert for pointing me in the direction of this book in the first place.

Review copy

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The High Life: Jean-Pierre Martinet

In The High Life from Jean-Pierre Martinet, Adolphe Marlaud (and the first name gains significance as the story plays out) is an unattractive man–a mere “four-and-a half feet tall (in heels) runt barely weighing eight-five pounds.” He lives alone on the rue Froidevaux, a “joyless” street he hates, where his main object in life is to guard and tend his father’s grave in the cemetery he can see from his window. The asthmatic Adolphe, who suffers from panic attacks, works part-time for the funerary shop on the corner. It’s a dreary existence, for this repressed, stunted man refuses to delve into life beyond its miserable surface. Arguably the most exciting parts of  Adolphe’s life are the sexual fantasies he harbours for all the widows that come into the shop, but apart from that he accepts the tedium.

My rule of conduct was simple: live as little as possible so as to suffer as little as possible.

Adolphe’s boring routine is disrupted when the morbidly obese concierge of his building, a widow known as Madame C makes it clear that they will be lovers.

It was a hostage situation. Maybe Madame C was part of a Palestinian commando group.

The widow will not be refused and so mild-mannered Adolphe whose timidity dictates his actions finds himself in this strange relationship as a phallus man”  with Madame C dominating their relations and Adolphe submitting with mixed feelings. He tries to share books which she rejects, she confides that she reads everyone’s mail (“you wouldn’t believe the filth I read.“) A crisis emerges when they attend the cinema together:

One evening Madame C wanted us to go out together to the movies. I wasn’t that keen on being seen with her, but as she insisted, I ended up giving in. It was a porno that someone had recommended to her, Barbara Broadcast, which they were playing at the “Maine,” just behind the lodge. I personally don’t have anything against pornos–quite the contrary–and I obediently followed Madame C. After all, a bad porno is better than a good film by Lelouche, or racking your brains over whether Romy Schneider is going to have an abortion or not in Sautet’s latest film. 

The High Life

The High Life, from Wakefield Press, is a slim volume. The story itself is a mere 26 pages, but don’t let the brevity deter you. Author Jean-Pierre Martinet packs a lot of subversive material into a story that another author would stretch out to 300 pages: the sordid history of collaboration, the sexual urges of a timid, unattractive man, and the pathological relationship between Adolphe and his obese mistress. The depths of the story ripple out far beyond the 26 pages. But at the same time I’ll include a few warnings for any potential readers: at one point, Adolphe attempts to serve a pert 12-year-old girl in the shop. In the hands of another author, Adolphe would be the sexual predator, but in this case, the 12 year old makes mincemeat of a drooling Adolphe. Other scenes hint as the repulsiveness of sex between Adolphe and Madame C, but I’ll emphasize hint. I found myself unfolding these scenes but then I folded them back up again–I didn’t want these images of “the ogre’s vagina,”  placed by the author in my head any longer than necessary. And finally, animals do not fare well in this tale.

My edition includes an introduction and a bio of the author who apparently only wrote a handful of novels. Jean-Pierre Martinet (1944-1993) also owned a bookshop (which failed) and I immediately felt a connection with him for stocking the shelves with “classic crime fiction.” 

Overall, I loved this transgressive story for its bleak, black, subversive humour and rather nasty outlook on one pathetic, twisted man’s life. Plus, Martinet could write. Here’s Adolphe chatting up a young widow:

I could have talked forever, the young woman didn’t know how to get rid of me, my tongue swelled in my mouth, it swelled enough to choke me, and my boss was obliged to chase me off into the back room, giving me little kicks, like I was some poodle that has had an accident in the living room.

Translated by Henry Vale

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The A-26: Pascal Garnier

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of Pascal Garnier. With A-26, I’ve now read 8 of his novels, and sad to say, I finally found one I disliked. Of course, I was forewarned by Max’s review. A-26 was, unfortunately, Max’s first Garnier, and if it had been my first Garnier, it might well have been my last…

A-26 is the story of two siblings: Bernard and his insane sister Yolande. Wait a minute … I’ve made it sound as though Bernard is sane. He’s employed, takes care of Yolande (in a very loosely defined way) and even has a relationship with a former girlfriend, the resentful Jacqueline (now unhappily married to some other sucker). But Bernard isn’t normal at all … he’s a serial killer, and a sick one at that.

A26

A-26 had some of the hallmark signs of the other Garnier novels I’ve read (and loved)–the idea that when you kill someone you are doing them a favour by sparing them more time in this horrible world, a sparse yet descriptive style and the continual motif of death and decay. Yolande (otherwise known rather appropriately as Yoyo) is a hoarder who has refused to step outside of her home since her head was shaved for sleeping with a German during WWII. As far as Yoyo’s concerned WWII still rages outside her door and while Bernard may say he’s going off to work, he’s really part the Resistance. Yoyo’s only contact with the outside world is through a hole drilled for her benefit in the shutter.

Depending on her mood, she called it the ‘bellybutton’ or the ‘world’s arsehole.’

Yolande and Bernard’s world spins to its end stage when Bernard is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He isn’t afraid to die, and neither is he particularly sorry to leave the world behind. Living with his insane sister who spends her days concocting the most appalling meals, death will be a release for Bernard. Meanwhile Yoyo’s big concern is where to find the space for his body:

‘Bernard’s not gone to work today, he wasn’t up for it. He’s getting tireder and tireder, thinner and thinner. His body’s like this house, coming apart at the seams. Where am I going to put him when he’s dead? There’s not a bit of space left anywhere. We’ll get by, we’ve always got by, ever since I can remember. Nothing has ever left this house, even the toilet’s blacked up. We keep everything. Some day, we won’t need anything else, it’ll all be here, for ever.’

For this reader, while the themes of A-26 certainly fit with the other Garnier novels I’ve read, the black humour, so characteristic in his novels, couldn’t wash away the bad taste of several scenes: the death of victims and the cruelty to animals. While I often feel as though I don’t care what happens to Garnier’s despicable characters, I am, at least, interested in their destructive and self-destructive journeys as the novels careen towards the grand finales. In the case of A-26, I couldn’t care less.

Both Moon in a Dead Eye and Too Close to the Edge concern people who make disastrous retirement decisions, and as it turns out life in a gated community and in the bucolic countryside (respectively) is far more dangerous than living in the big city. While bad things happen to people, there’s the nagging feeling that they’ve brought it upon themselves–at least partly. How’s the Pain? is the story of a dying hit man who hooks up with a rather guileless young man. The juxtaposition of these two characters–dark and light–brings balance to the tale. In The Front Seat Passenger, the main character deserves what he gets. The Islanders concerns another whacko set of siblings, and while the novel takes a turn towards madness, plied with disgusting details, these characters, for the most part, turn on each other. The Panda Theory pushed my acceptance in a couple of scenes, but IMO A-26 went over the edge in its descriptions. Yoyo’s madness is intriguing, but the scenes involving animals left me with no room to care about these people who are a waste of oxygen. I get that Bernard and Yoyo’s life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a motorway, but A-26 for this reader was just unpleasant.

I delayed reading A-26 as I’d read Max’s negative review and had no new Garnier novels in sight. I didn’t want the last one I read to leave a bad memory, but The Eskimo Solution is due to be released 9/16.

So for anyone interested, here’s an order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Panda Theory

A-26

translated by Melanie Florence.

 

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