Category Archives: Fiction

The Way We Die Now: Charles Willeford (1988)

“That’s my life’s ambition, to grow old and be a burden on someone.”

In The Way We Die Now, Hoke Moseley is back for the fourth and final (sob) novel. This is a phenomenal, hard-boiled crime series from Charles Willeford, and The Way We Die Now is the darkest, most violent and bleakest of the novels. Hoke’s world vision hasn’t improved with the years spent with Miami homicide. His career has spanned some incredible changes in Miami: gentrification of Miami neighbourhoods, inflation and the influx of Cuban refugees. But the changes have also been personal for Hoke: first a female partner, Alita Sanchez in the second novel, New Hope for the Dead. Then his ex-wife departs for California with her new husband and dumps Hoke’s two daughters on his doorstep. Professionally, affirmative action begins in the workplace and Hoke rolls with all the changes, but the hardest of all … laws about cigarette smoking.

The Way We Die Now finds Hoke still working cold cases. When the book opens, he’s chewing over the cold-case murder of a doctor. 3 years ago, the doctor’s garage door opener was stolen, and about a week after that, the doctor was shot as he exited his car. The murder seemed like a professional hit, and the case quickly grew cold. But the doctor’s widow married one of her husband’s partners, and that, to Hoke, seems to point towards motive. On the personal front, Hoke is still living with Alita Sanchez, her baby son, and his two daughters. Trouble arrives in the form of a convicted murderer who, thanks to a technicality, has been released after serving just a fraction of his sentence. The man, Donald Dutton, who was accused, tried and convicted of murdering his brother, swore to get even with Hoke, the homicide detective on the case. In the time that has passed since Donald’s conviction, Hoke hasn’t aged well. He’s lost most of his hair, all his teeth, and he has a paunch. Donald, on the other hand, is dashing and loaded. When Donald moves in across the street from Hoke, you know that revenge is brewing.

As with all Willeford novels, nothing is ever predictable, so what happens with Donald blindsides Hoke. Plus he’s too busy working homicide and going undercover as a favour to Major Brownley investigating missing Haitians who worked picking melons in a remote area. The novel begins with horrific violence which is then connected later to Hoke’s explosive undercover gig. Hoke discovers the hard way what happens when you are dropped in rural Florida with just a few dollars, tatty clothes, no gun and no teeth. As for what happens to Hoke, think those banjoes in Deliverance and you’d just about have it. Mention is made earlier in the tale about burglars who break into empty homes that are tented for termites and then drop like the cockroaches thanks to the poisonous fumes. This tidbit of valuable information seems random, but again it ties into Hoke’s undercover gig later.

In the earlier novels, Hoke had an anemic sex life, and at one point in The Way We Die Now, he’s offered a hand-job by a trailer park hooker. He turns down her offer. His reply: “If I wanted a hand job, I could do it myself. Women don’t do know how to do it right anyway” And somehow this mirrors Hoke’s narrow, meagre sex life which has declined and become increasingly difficult as the series continues. Hoke is an incredible creation: overweight, balding, no teeth and as we would say these days, a fashion victim, but he’s an excellent detective.

The humour in this dark, gritty novel comes partly from Hoke’s conviction that anti-smoking laws and fines in the workplace will never work. But since Charles Willeford died in 1988, at age 69, the year this novel was published, the anti smoking rifts were not meant to be funny. This is only in hindsight. But there’s other humour: Willeford twisted humour: I’ll call them Hokeisms: from yuppies, parenting, voting, marriage, and women. Also there’s the continuing saga of Hoke’s false teeth which he must part with due to his undercover gig. The trailer park hooker keeps a small coke-drinking handicapped child stuffed in a box in a cupboard inside her trailer. At one point, Hoke calls in a favour to have the child removed. Thank god, you think as a reader. But then Hoke follows the request with his opinion that the child is ruining his mother’s life. That’s a Hokeism for you. The World According to Hoke. … There are some loose ends in the novel, and yet there’s also the sense of an ending. Sadly this is the last we see of Hoke and his bleak outlook on life.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Willeford, Charles

Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

“Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”

Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third Lucy Barton novel; Lucy’s story begins in My Name is Lucy Barton, and she also appears in Anything is Possible. In this third novel, Lucy, a successful writer living in New York, is newly widowed following the death of her much-loved second husband, David. In the aftermath of David’s death, Lucy finds herself thinking back over her life–in particular her complicated relationship with her first husband, William.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a–oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

Lucy and William were married for almost 20 years, and they had 2 daughters together. Lucy came from “terribly bleak poverty,” and from snippets she drops, there’s a past of horrible abuse. The feeling of security and love that her relationship with William initially gave her was blasted into outer space when she discovered his serial infidelities which ended with William marrying, and subsequently divorcing, the ‘other woman,’ Joanne. William and Joanne had an affair for at least 6 years and were married for just 7 years. William “understood this about Joanne, that her intelligence was moderate and his attraction to her all those years had simply been the fact that she was not his wife, Lucy.”

For many years William, who works at NYU, has been married to his third wife, Estelle, 22 years his senior, and they have a child together. Lucy, who has the occasional social contact with William at social events held at his home and sometimes meetings with just William, begins to sniff that there are issues afoot. She notices that at 69, William is beginning to show his age, and at first attributes this to the night terrors William is experiencing– night terrors that are connected to his mother, Catherine. William confides in Lucy–not Estelle– about the night terrors, but perhaps he’s motivated by the fact that Lucy knew Catherine who was long dead before wife number 3 popped up. Later, Lucy overhears Estelle making an odd comment to a party guest; it’s a remark that causes Lucy a vague disquiet. Lucy’s husband dies and so Lucy shelves concerns about William, but later, Estelle, who has the most sanguine temperament, departs, possibly for younger pastures. Hardly a shock given the huge age difference. Suddenly it’s all hands on deck as both of Lucy and William’s adult daughters and Lucy begin to be concerned about William’s mental and physical well-being.

William’s mother, Catherine, was a strange creature, and while Lucy says “we loved her. Oh, we loved her; she seemed central to our marriage,” I can’t help but wonder if Lucy loved the idea of loving her mother-in-law. Catherine, who also came from harsh poverty and seemed to ‘get this’ about Lucy, didn’t always use that knowledge well. She patronized Lucy and occasionally acted in ways that could be construed as deliberately cruel. Loved the bit about how William and his mother dumped Lucy with the two small kids while they sat “somewhere else on the plane.” But that’s the thing about Lucy, her great ability to forgive and to understand people. Catherine is long-dead when the tale begins, but some great mystery from her past rears its head and causes William to ask Lucy to accompany him on a road trip to Maine. Meanwhile William and Lucy’s 2 adult daughters wonder if their parents will get back together,

While I really enjoyed the novel, I felt some frustration with Lucy, so I was glad when, on the Maine trip she pushed back on his swollen sense of self-importance. William turned out to be such a dick during their marriage, and still seems oblivious about that, so there’s a lot to forgive. Lucy manages to do just that. With William’s latest crisis, Lucy comes to the rescue and it’s all about William. Lucy is newly widowed and devastated but William’s troubles selfishly trump all in the manner emotion eaters apply to dominate the lives of others. Things are only important if William thinks they are important. No one else’s problems register–only William’s problems. William is lonely. Well, boo-hoo. Lucy is lonely too, but William is always the only important person–according to William, Lucy and their daughters. Of course, these things happen in every family. Emotional hierarchy: Handle someone with kid gloves as they are sensitive, make sure you call so-and-so as they will be put out if you don’t blah blah. Back to one of my favourite all-time quotes from Amy Witting:

This world. This human race. It isn’t divided into sexes. Everybody thinks it’s divided into sexes but it isn’t. It’s the givers and the takers. The diners and the dinners.

This may be William’s story, but I think it’s more Lucy’s. She weaves in so many marvelous memories, and one thing that comes through loud and clear is that this woman who could be bitter and hard, instead has managed to cherish the positive in her life. The door is closed on many painful subjects, and I’m all for that. She tells her tale tentatively, creating a sort of intimacy with the reader, as if she’s still working out things in her head, so she uses phrases such as ““I need to say this,” and “please try to understand this.” She comes to revise her opinions about several people she thought she knew. I have to add here–the horrible comment Lucy made to Catherine as she was dying. Was this revenge? Or naivety?

Probably not the best idea to go on a road trip with one’s EX. Especially if he spent years deceiving you and now expects you to hold his hand and give him moral support:

As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at time those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room, your throat almost clogged with the knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils–the odor of the other’s thoughts, the self-consciousness of every spoken word, the slight flicker of an eyebrow barely raised, the barely perceptible tilting of the chin; no one but the other one would know what it meant; but you could not be free living like that, not ever.

Finally this wonderful scene illustrates William’s incredible ability to see himself as the centre of everyone’s universe.

“Did you ever have an affair with Estelle? I mean did you ever have an affair while you were married to her?” I was surprised that I asked this, that I even wondered this.

And he stopped chewing the toast he had just bitten into, and then he swallowed and said, “An affair? No, I might have messed around a few times, but I never had an affair.

“You messed around?” I asked.

“With Pam Carlson. But only because I’d known her for years and years, and we’d had a stupid thing way back, so it didn’t feel like anything–because it wasn’t”

“Pam Carlson?” I said. “You mean that woman at your party?”

He glanced at me, chewing. “Yeah. You know, not a lot or anything. I mean I knew her from years ago, back when she was married to Bob Burgess.” “You were doing her then?”

“Oh, a little.” He must not have realized as he said this that he had been married to me at the time. And then I saw it arrive on his face, I felt I saw this. He said, “Oh Lucy, what can I say?”

Indeed.

The upbeat, life-affirming conclusion brings an epiphany to Lucy, and she deserves it. She experiences many shifting emotions throughout the book and finds still at this late stage in life, there is always new knowledge to be gained about people:

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

Olive Kitteridge (I must bring Olive into this) and Lucy are opposites in many ways. Olive is caustic while Lucy is loving and generous. But both Olive and Lucy are outsiders for different reasons. Olive Kitteridge should have had dinner with Lucy and her EX. I would have liked to have been there for the fireworks.

Review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Strout Elizabeth

The Small House at Allington: Anthony Trollope

Back to Barsetshire for the 5th novel in the 6 book series: The Small House at Allington. From the plot description, I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy this book as much as the others in the series, but this book, while it has one subplot that’s rather sad, is also full of humour. Plus some characters get their just desserts, and that’s always satisfying. The theme of marriage dominates here, and there are many aspects to the subject: young women compromising men into marriage, a toxic marriage between two combatants, a man who thinks he’s been cheated by the absence of a dowry he expected, and a couple of old bachelors who have managed to avoid marriage.

At the centre of the novel are two sisters: Lily and Bell Dale. They are the daughters of Mary Dale, a widow whose husband died and left her with little means of support. She has accepted the ‘small house’ at Allington from Squire Christopher Dale, her dead husband’s brother, who lives at the big house. Squire Dale did not approve of his younger brother’s marriage to Mary Dale, and while he loves his nieces and allows the widow and her daughter to live on his bounty, there is no love lost between the squire and his widowed sister-in-law. Squire Dale is unmarried and his nephew Bernard will eventually inherit his uncle’s estate. Squire Dale hopes that Bernard will marry Bell, his favourite niece.

Bernard brings a friend, Adolphus Crosbie, to stay at Allington, and while the Dale sisters at first make gentle fun of Crosbie, even thinking he gives himself “airs,” he all too soon wins Lily’s heart. Crosbie proposes to Lily assuming that she will receive some sort of dowry from her uncle. Crosbie, playfully nicknamed “Adonis” by the two Dale sisters, is a bit of a dandy. He earns 800 pounds a year and while he lives well on that amount as a bachelor, it’s insufficient income to support a wife–at least not without significant sacrifices: such as Crosbie’s clubs and clothes, and Crosbie, a self-worshipping creature, winces at the idea of any self-deprivation. Getting cold feet, Crosbie asks the Squire flatly if Lily is to receive a dowry, and when he discovers that she will not, Crosbie feels that he’s been tricked, or deceived somehow into making a proposal. His ‘love’ for Lily is overshadowed by his resentment, and he immediately starts backpedaling. He accepts an invitation to de Courcy Castle and there, feeling resentment about the lack of Lily’s dowry, he’s lured into the snares of Lady de Courcy and one of her unmarried daughters. …

Continuing on the theme of the turbulent layers of matrimony, John Eames, another young man who loves Lily, has become embroiled with his landlady’s wily daughter, Amelia Roper, while fellow lodger Cradell has foolishly fallen into the snares of Mrs Lupex, a conniving married woman who also lives at the boarding house. Mrs. Lupex is married to a drunkard, but there are indications that he’s been driven to drink. The prompt for Mr. Lupex’s vice is of little importance as both Mr and Mrs Lupex are trouble and are only too happy to drag others into the drama of their marital torture chamber.

On the subject of marital torture chambers, mention must be made of the ghastly Earl de Courcy. Before Trollope gives us a peek at the de Courcys’ miserable marriage, Lady de Courcy is not a sympathetic character at all. She manipulates and mistreats Crosbie (not that we mind that much) and pokes fun at Lily Dale (a low blow). Lady de Courcy is seen primarily as a snob who rides high on local society when in reality the de Courcys are an awful family–one might even say trashy. Lord de Courcy is a nasty old man, a tyrant, who insists that he has an audience with his wife every morning. These conferences, which are ostensibly to discuss the household, were “almost too much for her,” as her spouse shouts and gnashes his teeth. She tells her daughter that sometimes she is “going mad” while she listens to his tirades. Here he is exploding about his son, George.

“How long is George going to remain here with that woman?” he asked.

“I’m sure she is very harmless,” pleaded the countess.

“I always think when I see her that I’m sitting down to dinner with my own housemaid. I never saw such a woman. How can he put up with it! But I don’t suppose he cares for anything.”

“It has made him very steady.”

“And so he means to live here altogether, does he? I’ll tell you what it is–I won’t have it. He’s better able to keep a house over his own head and his wife’s than I am to do it for them, and so you may tell them. I won’t have it. D’ye hear?” he shouted at her.

Yes, of course, I hear. I was only thinking you wouldn’t wish me to turn them out –just as her confinement is coming on.”

I know what that means. Then they’d never go. I won’t have it; and if you don’t tell them I will.

The de Courcys create the idea of the power of hierarchy within relationships: Crosbie could lord it over Lily Dale and act as though he’s doing her a favour by agreeing to marriage, but the de Courcys act as though Crosbie’s lucky to share their oxygen. In other words, some characters are nice when subordinate and they have to be pleasant but then they are nasty when off leash. Lady de Courcy treats Crosbie like some sort of peasant go-fer whenever she gets a chance, but then she stands there and takes it when her husband rails at her daily just for fun. Gazebee is in awe of the de Courcys, his in-laws, and yet when it’s his job to reel Crosbie into the family web, he relishes the role, and Crosbie, who used to look down on Gazebee, finds that he’s lower on the de Courcy ladder than even Gazebee.

Crosbie, leaning on the questionable models of Lothario, Don Juan, and Lovelace, abandons Lily in favour of an alliance with the de Courcys. He erroneously thinks he’s made the better bargain but all too soon finds that he is firmly on the “grindstone of his matrimonial settlement.” Serves him right. While some characters dive to the lowest depths of their characters, others rise: Squire Dale learns some painful lessons, and Johnny Eames has his heart broken but grows up in the process. And the de Guests, who are bystanders on the sidelines of others’ lives, become involved in the fallout of Crosbie’s scandalous behaviour, but in their case, it turns out to be a fortuitous arrangement. The de Guests, Bernard’s relations, are not particularly interesting characters–in fact Trollope tells us that Lady de Guest is a “tedious, dull, virtuous old woman” and yet she has a heart. Her brother, the Earl de Guest, has great sympathy for Lily and considers Crosbie to be a blackguard. The initially uninteresting de Guests rise in the reader’s estimation while the de Courcys plummet.

I was a little annoyed with Lily after she is jilted. I wanted her to be angry. I wanted her to heal. But then I decided that perhaps she’s a little mad. Her behavior rings alarm bells in spite of her outward serenity (or even because of it?). There’s also a subplot concerning Plantagenet Palliser and Griselda Dumbello which is a segue into the Palliser series. Towards the end of the book, the Battle of the Manure which involves Hopkins the loyal, territorial, irascible, gardener is very funny, and his character emphasizes the good, true, steady side of life.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, posts, Trollope, Anthony

The Fortnight in September: R.C. Sherriff (1931)

R.C. Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September lingered for too long on my TBR list, and now there’s a rerelease of this gentle, classic tale. This wonderful story follows the annual two-week holiday of the Stevens family: 20-year-old Mary, 17-year-old Dick,10-year-old Ernie and their parents. Mr and Mrs Stevens took their honeymoon in Bognor Regis 20 years earlier, and they return here every year for their annual holiday. They even stay at the same guesthouse, Seaview. The first few chapters set the stage for the night before the holiday–it’s a prequel of sorts. It’s packed full of planning rituals which are repeated, faithfully, every year. Mr. Stevens is a creature of habit. Everything must be ‘just so,’ and perhaps this explains why the holiday destination never varies.

They had often talked of a change–of Brighton, Bexhill–even Lowestoft–but Bognor always won in the end.

It’s Mary’s job to deliver the canary to neighbour, Mrs Haykin. It’s a dreaded task as poor Mrs Haykin, who has no social life, is pathetically eager to take care of the canary as:

the Stevenses holiday had become Mrs. Haykin’s holiday: she lived every moment of it from her little house in Corunna Road. Soon she would watch them pass on their way to the station. She would not settle to her morning’s work until she had seen their train go by and satisfied herself that they had had ample time to catch it. She always hoped one of them might wave from the window.

Over the course of twenty years, Seaview hasn’t changed–except that it’s steadily become shabbier.

The Stevenses had not definitely noticed anything amiss in Seaview in the years that followed. Mrs Huggett remained as flustered, as tremblingly anxious to please as ever. Molly seemed on the go all day–and yet—-there was just something different: some little thing each year. few years back the bath plug had broken from its chain: it had never been recaptured, and lay each year in freedom at the bottom of the bath. Year by year the sheets grew more cottony and frail: and Mr Stevens, happenings one night to have a sharp toenail, slit his top sheet down the centre, and enlarged it accidentally with his foot each night as he got into bed.

Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.

Review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sherriff R C, Sherriff R. C.

The Dark Remains: William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin

Glasgow’s crime world of the 70s has three main crime boss figures: John Rhodes, Cam Colvin and the up-and-coming Matt Mason. When lawyer Bobby Carter, money man for Cam Colvin, is found stabbed to death behind a pub in Rhodes territory, naturally suspicion falls onto Rhodes and his men. Carter was a “career criminal. Or rather, a venally clever lawyer who didn’t so much rub shoulders with criminals as steep in the same polluted bathwater.” Carter’s death could be a message, a signal of war, yet to D.C Jack Laidlaw it’s just too obvious and he suspects that there’s more to the murder. Given the power-grab ramifications of the murder, it’s a sensitive case that must be handled carefully. Laidlaw already has a reputation for ‘rubbing people the wrong way,’ and he isn’t easy to work with. His skill as a detective though is respected and it’s acknowledged that he “seems to have a sixth sense for what’s happening on the streets.”

As Laidlaw investigates, he learns that Carter, with a gorgeous wife Cam Colvin is all-too happy to console, was a womaniser. And one name in the harem sticks out: Jennifer Love, a go-go dancer at Whiskies. The crime world is tightly-knit and it’s hard to penetrate when it comes to solving this murder, but Laidlaw, obsessive when it comes to his cases, keeps digging, and the same names keep floating up.

All cities are riddled with crime. It comes with the territory. Gather enough people together in one place and malignancy is guaranteed to manifest in some form or other. It’s the nature of the beast. In the awareness of the citizens the condition usually lies dormant. The preoccupations of our daily lives obscure any dramatic sense of threat.

The Dark Remains is a prequel to the other Laidlaw books. This was unfinished at the time of author William McIlvanney’s death and the book was subsequently finished by Ian Rankin. The gloomy world of 1972 Glasgow, divided into separate worlds by crime territory, is full of seedy pubs, low-rent hotels, lonely, neglected wives, and violent crims hoping to do their boss a favour before the boss even knows he wants one. Laidlaw is a troubled character who does everything possible to avoid his home life and family responsibilities. But the division of the two worlds, home and crime, are created in such a way that’s it’s understandable (but not forgivable) that Laidlaw finds it uncomfortable to straddle both worlds in one day. Going domestic takes the edge off of Laidlaw’s predatory drive plus it’s much easier to check out of his troubled domestic life, avoid those difficulties, and submerge himself into the dark side of Glasgow. I’m not a huge fan of police procedurals but the case kept my interest here. Laidlaw is a strange one–he likes to cowboy his cases solo, and then he tends to philosophize about human nature. This is tedious to Laidlaw’s workmates, but Laidlaw’s approach, when applied to human nature, works.

Review copy

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, McIlvanney William, posts, Rankin Ian

Rider on the Rain: Sèbastien Japrisot (1992)

First: Rider on the Rain, the book was published in French in 1969 (per Goodreads), but Sèbastien Japrisot also wrote the screen play for the 1970 film which featured Charles Bronson with Jill Ireland in a supporting role. They met during filming while she was married to David McCallum. Bronson married Jill Ireland in 1968, and they were together until her death in 1990. The film showcases Bronson “at his brutal best,” and this period was the beginning of his film heyday, with the cult film, Death Wish still in his future in 1974.

So now onto the book: 25-year-old Mélancolie Mau, Mellie, lives in the dreary seaside resort town of Le Caps-des-pins. It’s the sort of place with one road in and one road out.

A peal of thunder, a grey river spattering in a downpour, a horizon blurred by autumn. And then the wheels of a bus send up great glistening sprays of water, and the river becomes a road running the length of a desolate peninsula, somewhere between Toulon and Saint-Tropez.

There’s the idea that not much happens here–at least it doesn’t until a stranger gets off the bus. Mellie sees the man, a man with a shaven head, carrying a bright red bag, get off the bus. Later, she tries on a dress in a shop owned by a friend. In the casual atmosphere, Mellie neglects to close the cubicle curtain and she catches the stranger staring at her through the shop window:

She is transfixed, as if mesmerized by his own fascination.

The stranger breaks into Mellie’s home and brutally rapes her. Mellie, who seems like a fragile young woman, calls the police but changes her mind. When she discovers the rapist in her basement, she strikes back. …. From this point, life changes for Mellie. She has discovered exactly what she is capable of, but in spite of this incredibly powerful knowledge, she chooses to sink back into her role as a wife, a rather docile wife to her macho dickhead of a husband. But then another man arrives on the scene, an American, Harry Dobbs. He’s looking for the stranger, and the bag he carried, and he knows that Mellie is hiding something. …

The dialogue is written in screenplay format, and the descriptive passages evoke images of the film. The novel is probably going to mean more to you (it did to me), if you’re a fan of the film. Harry’s relationship with Mellie, which becomes a sort of cat-and-mouse, is intriguing. It’s also fascinating that Mellie chooses to NOT tell her husband about the rape. On one level, this seems logical as her husband would go ballistic and probably start accusing her of somehow inviting the incident and ‘liking it.’ So ultimately it’s just easier not to tell him, but then also there’s the idea that Mellie keeps a certain section of herself submerged and secret. She has a “serene and well-groomed appearance” and yet “her nails are bitten to the quick.” There’s a level of protection, especially when dealing with a husband such as Tony, of withholding part of the self. He has no idea who she is–he’s constructed a version of her in his mind and then demands she conform to that. Yet Harry penetrates Mellie’s wall, her defenses. He intuitively knows that her outward fragility is a disguise, a bluff, a method of dealing with her surroundings. Ultimately: do we ever want people to know what we are capable of ?

Review copy. Translated by Linda Coverdale

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Japrisot Sébastien, posts

Isa and May: Margaret Forster (2010)

In Margaret Forster’s Isa and May, Isamay, looking at 30, is struggling to focus on her thesis, and no wonder–the vast subject is grandmothers in history. She has landed on a few significant figures, including Elizabeth Fry, George Sand, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Victoria and has several questions that she chews over: such as how do grandmothers view their roles? She’s looking for “links, consequences, direct connections” between grandmothers and their grandchildren. Isamay’s research, so far, draws no solid conclusion. Some grandmothers are “figures of authority” while others see being a grandmother as a chance to ‘do over’ motherhood. Some just enjoy it. It’s clear that Isamay’s thesis is unmanageable and her unsatisfying meetings with her advisor Claudia, usually don’t go well. Claudia, however, doesn’t dismiss Isamay’s project completely, and tries to add direction:

When someone assumed a new role in life, she said, they tend to copy or to reject the example of whoever has filled that role for them.

But at the heart of Isamay’s thesis is her desire to understand her own grandmothers: Isa and May. They are two very different women.

It will be obvious by now that I am obsessed with Isa and May, my grandmothers, or more precisely, I am obsessed by their significance without being sure what it is.

May is solidly, proudly, working class. She left school at 14 and worked in a factory. She tends to hide her personality in frustrating statements that block any discussion so that it’s impossible to know her beliefs or tell if she has an inner life. Here’s Isamay trying to discover May’s opinions on god.

“God is supposed to be a spiritual power,” I said, “Not actually a person.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“He is supposed to be an almighty spirit who created the universe and sent his son Jesus Christ to save us all.”

“Very kind of him.”

“But the point is, as I said, he is a spiritual presence, or idea…”

“Make your mind up.”

“…whose existence we can’t properly grasp because our minds can’t fully comprehend–“

“Oh, for Gawd’s sake, stop it! You’re making me poorly. Haven’t I gone through enough?”

“All I’m saying is that some very clever people believe in God…”

“Good luck to them.”

“So you don’t, then?”

“Don’t what?”

“Believe in God.”

“Did I say that?”

“No, but…”

“Well then, don’t twist my words.

Isa is the complete opposite. Whereas it’s ok to drop in on May, Isa requires appointments. Isa is always immaculately groomed and lives a much more affluent lifestyle. May calls Isa, “Lady Muck,” while Isa calls May “Mrs. Wright.” “They were mutually suspicious” of each other from the moment they met. It’s no surprise that the two grandmothers don’t like each other and that Isamay is their battleground. Both grandmothers contributed a great deal to Isamay’s life and outlook. When the grandmothers become ill, Isamay steps in, and she’s also hot on the trail of some deep dark secret that Isa keeps deeply buried. Another subplot concerns Ian, Isamay’s boyfriend. On one hand he’s extremely supportive, but on the other, when it comes to the subject of family, he’s downright hostile, so there are secrets there too.

Not the best Forster I’ve read. The sections regarding Isamay’s research were interesting but Isamay’s inability to harness her thesis and batter it into shape impacts the novel. That said, the warring grandmothers are great. While these two women could not be more different, there’s a connection when it comes to walling off their inner lives.

My money’s on May any day.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Forster Margaret

The Family Plot: Megan Collins

In The Family Plot by Megan Collins “Our family was unnatural,” a phrase spoken by Andy, one of the four Lighthouse siblings, is a vast understatement. The Lighthouse children, Charlie, Dahlia (our narrator), Andy and Tate, are all named after murder victims, so it’s obvious from page one that all the members of the Lighthouse family are obsessed with the subject of murder. But perhaps that makes sense as their mother’s parents were brutally murdered during a home invasion in Connecticut at the family estate. Following the murder, she moved to Blackburn island, to their summer home, a “drafty, secluded mansion,” where their father, Daniel, “indulged her eccentricities, and did not protest as she turned the mansion into something of a mausoleum.” A mausoleum for murder victims. Add to that the fact that the Lighthouse children are homeschooled, and … the main focus of the curriculum … you guessed it … is murder. Making those murder dioramas must have been so much fun. Let’s pile on that the disturbing fact Blackburn Island has a serial killer of its own, and the killer has never been caught. The Lighthouse home is nicknamed the Murder Mansion by the locals and the family members are considered weird. No wonder these kids are screwed up.

When the novel opens, the children, now adults, understandably are scattered, (I’d have changed my name,) and Dahlia returns to the island after an absence of 7 years. She has returned only because her father died, and this reunion isn’t going to be any fun. Tate is an artist, Charlie is an actor, Dahlia is the narrator, and Andy… well he went missing at age 16, and it was assumed that he ran away (not that anyone could blame him). The loyal family employee, Fritz, is busy digging a grave for Dad (yes, he’s being buried on the island) when he discovers a body in the plot that was saved for dear old dad. As to what happened to missing brother Andy, well the mystery is solved. He’s been lying 6 feet under in the back garden all this time. But who killed him?

The premise of the book sounded interesting with its underlying theme that those touched by murder are never the same, and the internet is full of stories about people who become obsessed with murders and then go off the rails in various interesting ways. But for this reader, the entire setup was hard to swallow. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s just plain cuckoo. I stopped many times, put the book down and asked myself whether or not these damaged people, raised in this toxic environment would have kept acting like idiots? It’s understandable that mummy is a nutjob: her parents were murdered and then her whole life became murder, but even with that in mind, I couldn’t accept the plot. Wouldn’t you at least wonder what the hell happened to your twin brother, a teen who was clearly unhappy at home? Wouldn’t you ask yourself why you never heard from him again, and why your parents moan a bit but then quickly move on? The family members are all freaky weird but in the first pages after finding Andy’s body in the grave, there they are all in the kitchen eating cookies. No one is saying WTF, packing their bags and hightailing it off that miserable island.

With many books, willing suspension of disbelief is engaged, albeit this tacit agreement by the reader may be fragile, or challenged, but in The Family Plot the willing suspension of disbelief must be resuscitated repeatedly. I found it impossible to accept the behavior of the characters, so if you are about to embark on this book, be prepared to toss your disbelief out the window and then watch it bounce back. I just went with the plot and then I found myself saying things such as “what sickos,” or “as if,” “oh come off it” and even “wtf.” That said, it’s an easy, quick read that keeps you barreling along to the last page. Some readers loved the book, so perhaps I’m in the minority here.

Review copy.

2 Comments

Filed under Collins Megan, Fiction

Trap for Cinderella: Sébastien Japrisot (1962)

Sèbastien Japrisot’s mystery novel starts like a fairy tale with that familiar phrase: “Once upon a time, long ago,” but this is no fairy tale. The first chapter, following the fairy tale format but with the title, I Would Have Murdered, describes the relationship between a godmother, Aunt Midola, and three little girls, Mi (Michèle), Do (Dominque) and La. Mi, the godmother’s favourite is “the prettiest, and Do is the most intelligent. La will soon be dead.” The godmother leaves and returns rich. Again that fairy tale mythos as it’s revealed that all the trappings of the story may simply be the way in which the children rationalise things in the adult world that they cannot understand. The chapter ends with a touch of reality and the information that Mi is the rich one while Do, the less favoured girl, grows up seeing pictures of Mi in “glossy magazines.”

Then the novel segues into the real story when a young girl wakes up in a hospital room. She has amnesia and is told by her doctor that she was horribly burned in a fire 3 months previously. She is told that Domenica is dead, killed by the fire in the villa that also burned her (Michèle). She is told by a woman named Jeanne that the two girls, Michèle and Domenica, grew up together with Domenica’s mother the laundress for Michèle’s mother. Right away, of course, it’s all very creepy. Imagine you recover from some prolonged drug-induced period to be told who you are, to have your character explained to you. Michèle remembers nothing and she’s ‘fed’ her past by Jeanne, the woman who claims to have cared for Michèle since she was a baby.

In spite of the gaps, I gradually formed an image of myself which did not tally with the person I had become. I was not so foolish, so vain, so violent. I had no desire to drink, to hit a stupid maid, to dance on top of a car, to fall into the arms of a Swedish runner or the first boy who came along with a pretty face. But all that might seem incomprehensible to me because of the accident; that was not what bothered me the most. Above all I could not believe myself capable of the lack of feeling that had enabled me to go out drinking the night I learned of my aunt’s death and even to miss her funeral.

Jeanne removes Michèle from the hospital; she’s taken to a house and kept in isolation with just a handful of servants in attendance. Shaking off Jeanne’s constant presence, Michèle decides to confront her past and try to understand why Jeanne is keeping her in isolation. Is it for her protection as Jeanne insists? Or is something else afoot? Trap for Cinderella is one of those mysteries that doesn’t have a simple conclusion. It would have been a perfect book for the Pushkin Vertigo line as the main character sinks into a personal hell from which there is no escape. The burn/amnesia thing is not an uncommon plot device, so there was little freshness there, but the ending, if it can be called that, was intriguing.

Review copy

Translated by Helen Weaver

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Japrisot Sébastien, posts

People Who Knock On the Door: Patricia Highsmith (1983)

I tend to associate Patricia Highsmith with crime novels, but People Who Knock on the Door is a study of human behaviour. This is the story of how one man, a husband and father becomes a religious fanatic. So a story of obsession, self-righteousness, intolerance and hypocrisy. First the disclaimer: I am not religious, but if religion:

1. helps someone be a better/happier person,

2. helps deal with life

3. keeps someone off the streets

4. keeps someone from various deviant behaviours

5. gives your life meaning or structure

then more power to you..

Just don’t come knocking on my door selling your beliefs. It could get ugly. So now that I’ve got that out of the way, onto the book.

The Alderman family consists of insurance salesman dad, Richard, his wife Lois and their two sons: Arthur, who is about to head off to college and Robbie. Richard hasn’t done in well in life as he’d hoped and maybe.. just maybe… there’s a tad of resentment that he married young. Well no matter. Shortly after the novel opens, Robbie has a health crisis and almost dies. He recovers and Richard decides that god intervened. The next thing you know Richard’s a born-again Christian. It’s not so bad at first, but then Richard starts laying down the law regarding Arthur’s love life, and when Arthur won’t bend to his dad’s demands (this involves his girlfriend, Maggie Brewster, getting an abortion, just FYI), Richard closes the purse strings and Arthur’s college plans for Columbia collapse.

There’s the sense that home life chez Alderman wasn’t that much fun before Richard’s conversion, but after that happy event, the domestic atmosphere becomes strained. Lois, who volunteers at a children’s home, becomes Sweden, trying to keep everyone happy (impossible) and Robbie goes along with his dad’s new found faith. And what’s up with Robbie hanging out with all those middle-aged men? (why do I hear banjos?) And why is Irene, a former prostitute, now a born-again waitress, constantly pestering Richard to come over to her place as she’s in desperate need of counseling and may revert to turning tricks if Richard doesn’t come to her house pronto.

And the Brewsters,” Richard went on with faint contempt. “Are they any better? No, Money doesn’t gloss over their life-style. Nice clothes, a fine house, doesn’t hide anything. And you hang out with them.”

His father was maybe jealous, Arthur thought, as well as off the beam. “They’re certainly not the richest people in this town,” Arthur said.” I don’t think they flaunt their money. Not at all.”

“I’m saying that money doesn’t make arrogance look any nicer. What they flaunt is a lack of human decency, basic morals. I wouldn’t have the Brewsters as my clients. Just tonight, I’m looking through my list again, getting rid of two families, one of them every bit as well-off as the Brewsters. I’m suggesting they go to another insurance investment in town.

Everything in the Alderman house goes downhill. I must say that Arthur showed remarkable restraint towards his father especially after other members of the church, and the ex-prostitute, keep popping up with advice and salient bible quotes. The plot shows how when one member of the family takes the moral highground, using religion, their position becomes unassailable. This story resonated with me as I once worked with a woman whose husband had an affair. Their marriage ‘survived’ but in the aftermath she became born-again and was constantly quoting her pastor at her husband. He was never going to be allowed to forget what he did. I don’t know how he kept sane, but then again perhaps it was their private purgatory. Why knows? I didn’t care for any of the characters at all with the exception of the boozy neighbour next door. Not my favourite Highsmith. Not even close.

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Highsmith Patricia, posts