Category Archives: Dean Louise

2011–It’s a Wrap

It’s never easy to whittle a year of some truly great books down to just a few personal preferences, but here goes my completely arbitrary categories anyway (in no particular order):

Novels that continue to haunt me: Little Monsters by Charles Lambert and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Perhaps the best Simenon I’ve read to date: Dirty Snow

Best of the seven Jim Thompson novels read for my noirfest: Pop 1280. The Killer Inside Me came a very close second, but the nasty sense of humour in Pop 1280 ultimately won the day.

Speaking of nasty sense of humour, the award has to go to Henry Sutton’s FABULOUS Get Me Out of Here and The Pets by Bragi Olafsson

For crime, it doesn’t get better than Drive by James Sallis.

Best classic noir: Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes and Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams (both made into films, btw).

Best 20th C American: The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone by Tennessee Williams

Best Classics, French: Gobseck  by Balzac. Russian: The Duel by Chekhov and The Eternal Husband by Dostoevsky. British: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

Best new American release: Calling Mr King by Ronald de Feo

Best new British Fiction: The Old Romantic by Louise Dean, King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher–both of these were the second books I’d read by these authors and the reading enjoyment firmly sealed me as a fan of both.

Best non-fiction: The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

So thanks to all my readers and all those who left comments, and also thanks to the authors who sweated blood and tears over the novels that enriched my life beyond measure in 2011.  With a good book, life is never boring.

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The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:

The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.

The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.

If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics.  Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:

Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.

Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.

‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’

But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.

‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’

‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’

Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.

‘Just fucking order something, all right?’

Ken closed his eyes.

A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:

Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’

‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.

‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’

Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.

‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’

‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.

‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.

‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’

So two winners in a row from Dean. 

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Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

“Look, I’m not the sort who goes around shagging willy-nilly like that.”

After finishing The Tartar Steppe, I needed a complete change of pace–preferably something funny. I stood there staring at my overcrowded shelves and then I saw Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. I’d bought this book after reading a glowing review of Dean’s latest book, The Old Romantic at A Common Reader. The cover looked promising–two deck chairs (not exactly positioned to indicate compatibility) on the beach. Surely I told myself, Becoming Strangers would be light and funny, right?

Becoming Strangers has its light, funny sections (mostly mined from scenes of marriage and adultery), but it’s also about death and dying. The first few pages reveal Jan–a Belgium man in his 50s whose six-year battle with cancer has reached its final lap. He’s been told it’s inoperable (it has spread to his liver and pancreas), and that nothing more can be done. In a sombre scene, his two adult sons arrive with tickets for Jan and his wife, Annemieke to an expensive, Caribbean resort. “This was going to be their last holiday.” That simple short sentence made a depressing impact, and on that note, I went to bed.

Well so much for light and funny.

The next day brought a flush of optimism and the memory of how much Tom at A Common Reader enjoyed Dean’s other novel, so I picked up Becoming Strangers once again and was very glad I did. Dean’s novel is funny, yet sad & serious–a powerful combination which offers an unusual look at marriage’s till-death-do-us-part phase.

The main character is Jan–a man whose life hasn’t been easy for the past few years, but there’s one thing that’s served him well through illness and operation after operation, and that’s his belief that “good manners” go a long way. He treats everyone with the same degree of courtesy–from his appalling wife, Annemieke, to his concerned doctors and his dutiful sons–they all get the same treatment. This polite distancing is how Jan deals with his imminent death, but no one seems to notice that this is Jan’s coping mechanism–a buoy that enables him to float (with the help of morphine) through the last few months.

Unfortunately Jan isn’t treated with the same courtesy he extends to others. The main culprit here is Annemieke–a woman who at 49 is bursting with life and health and who is fed up with waiting for her husband to die. She’s also desperate to not appear to be her age, and that includes some outrageously funny and obnoxious sexual behaviour. Normally, a “last holiday” would be filled with poignancy and sadness, but when Jan and Annemieke land at the resort, she hits the ground running:

“She was going to have a holiday that suited her. She would make the most of the spa. Her own health deserved some attention. Hadn’t the doctors said that it’s often the carer’s well-being that gets completely neglected.”

 Annemieke has no intention of wasting time hanging out with Jan, and his feeble attempts to go sightseeing are met with nimble avoidance:

“I thought we might make an excursion, he said pleasantly. We could hire a car. Have a look round the island.”

“I’m not a sightseer, Jan,” she said, “as you know.”

She gave herself a good wash; she wanted to feel just right when she lay down on that massage couch. These indulgences were fraught in so many ways. Money and time ticking away while you tried to feel good. An indifferent masseur or beautician, an unpleasant manner, a painfully deep rub or treatment, thin towels, or the sight of herself, under bright lights in a full-length mirror–any of these could ruin it.

He was standing when she left.

“We might have lunch together” he said.

“You look after yourself, I shouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Annemieke, on a mission to prove her sexual attractiveness, prowls around the resort, and when she’s not milking her husband’s illness for sympathy, she’s showing off her breasts as often as possible. She strikes up an acquaintance with a couple of Americans, Jason and Missy while Jan is drawn to an elderly British couple, George and his wife Dorothy. Jan and George, bound to lives they don’t quite connect with, form an unlikely relationship:

“She wasn’t keen to come, the missus,” he admitted to Jan. “She’s a stay-at-home sort. She’s sitting in the room now. Blimey, we might as well be at home. She’s got her book and a cup of tea, she’s all right. I’ve always had to drag her along with me to whatever we did. She wasn’t always a homebody but she’s got worse lately, likes to sit on her arse all day; thinking she says she is, or reading,”  he raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Always seems as if she’s on the same page.”

“I suppose my wife feels the same way about me,” Jan said, finishing his drink.

“Oh yes?”

“Sure. I also like my own company.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case with the old girl. Sometimes it’s hard to get through to someone even if you’ve known them your whole life. The years seem to make it harder, as a matter of fact. Like you’ve found thousands of ways to get around them, detours, you know, road closed, follow diversion. Do you know what I mean?”

There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, and I can’t describe them all, but my favourite section occurs when Annemieke goes off with Jason and Missy on a yacht while Jan leaves with George & Dorothy, and fellow guests Laurie and born-again christian Bill Moloney. Jan’s wonderful day is contrasted with Annemieke’s experience listening to Jason waffle on with his obsession: locking people up.

 Another marvellous aspect of the novel is its characters. One of my favourites is poor beleaguered resort manager (“Total Experience Manager”), Steve Burns. While Jan opts to maintain his relationships through polite, distanced behaviour, Steve is forced to wear the same polite mask with the guests. He’s forced to walk a very thin line between keeping the guests happy and keeping his job, and the pushy American guest, Jason, treats Burns with scorn at every opportunity. As events at the resort play out, and the behaviour of the guests degenerates, Steve, who isn’t particularly likeable, finds his job increasingly difficult and repugnant at times with this load of holidaymakers:

Burns felt like a fruit, handing out leaflets, drawing pencilled circles on maps, reminding the punters of the Saturday night events they left the hotel. He’d spotted two women of a more mature persuasion, ‘Silvers’ as they called them in the business, passing comment on him from their huddled position in two cane armchairs, looking at him over their fishing expedition leaflets. He’d asked if he could help them and heard snorts of laughter as he’d walked away. He’d fucking sashayed, he was sure of it, it was the trousers, and then he’d turned around like some Butlin’s poof and told them off with a very camp, ‘now, now ladies, none of that. it was a loathsome business at times.

Holidays are peculiar things. So much is invested in making them a good experience and holidaymakers are supposed to go home with good memories along with the customary souvenirs. Holidays also have a way of highlighting problems in relationships–after all, some relationships are unravelling and forced intimacy isn’t going to help. Becoming Strangers explores the forced interactions, the relationships which grow from proximity, and the behaviour of the guests who feel unleashed far from home.

Some people may not enjoy this novel. There’s no resolution and the plot tosses together some elements that are not ‘handled’ in a traditional way–more power to Louise Dean, I say.  The sharp inner dialogues blend well with the outward behaviour of these diverse characters and the roles they’ve long tired of.

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