Category Archives: Lambert Charles

The Childrens Home: Charles Lambert

I was introduced to the work of Charles Lambert in 2010 through the novel, Any Human Face.  In 2011 I read Little Monsters, The Slave House in 2013, and A View from the Tower in 2014. The Children’s Home was my first book for 2016, and it’s a complete change of pace for this author. Following the trajectory of a nightmare, the book starts with the feeling of a fairy tale, morphs into fable and then the mirror cracks to reveal a dystopian horror. This genre-defying book is being compared to the work of Neil Gaiman, and although I’m not that familiar with Gaiman’s work to make a comparison, I think it’s best to judge the novel on its own merit.

The novel concerns a hideously disfigured recluse, Morgan, who lives in a rambling, elaborate walled country estate, in a house designed by his grandfather. Very little information is given at first about Morgan, his life, his family’s fortune or why he has chosen to isolate himself, but gradually over the course of the novel, some of the mystery is peeled away. Although each chapter begins with a childlike tagline, this is not a children’s book.

The Children's HomeMorgan lives with a housekeeper named Engel, and shortly after she arrives, the outside world begins to penetrate through the gated estate when children inexplicably begin to appear. The first one, named Moira, is left on the steps in a basket:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages.

Even though the number of children grows, it remains a mystery just how they arrive in this walled estate, and then as Morgan stands by the drawing-room window

a square of air above the lawn seemed to ripple as though it were silk and a knife had been drawn across it, and a child appeared on the lawn and began to walk towards the house, perfectly confident it seemed, that she would be received.

The children increase in number, until the house begins to resemble an unofficial orphanage, and there’s something strange about the children–especially a little boy named David who arrives with a cardboard tag tied to his wrist. Morgan notes the children don’t seem quite normal.

“Have you ever noticed.” he said, “that the children seem to know when they’re not wanted, not in the ministerial sense, of course, but, you know, when somebody simply wants to be quiet, I suppose I mean when I want to quiet? They just disappear, they make themselves scare, as though they’ve never been in the house at all, as though they’ve never existed. And then. just when you notice and start to wonder where they are, when you start to worry about them, I suppose, although you might not realize it’s worry, it registers as a sort of apprehension, they reappear as miraculously as they disappeared. They pop up from behind the sofa or you hear them crying or calling things out in the garden. But haven’t you sometimes ever wondered just where they go?” He paused for a moment. When he continued his voice was hesitant. “It’s as though they came from the air,” he said.

Although Morgan doesn’t know it, the arrival of the children signals an end to his chosen isolation. Soon Doctor Crane is called to visit the children, and gradually Morgan is forced back into the world he has chosen to abandon even as the children explore the house and discover secrets Morgan is unaware of. As Morgan is forced to deal with his past, the horrific present arrives and brings catastrophe….

The Children’s Home has an eerie ability to get under one’s skin. It’s a nightmarish tale of dysfunctional families, cruelty, greed, sinister government agencies, and global ruin that starts ever so simply with the appearance of a fairy tale and then expands as Morgan’s chosen isolation drops away. In spite of the way this novel began, I knew that Charles Lambert wasn’t going to give us Mary Poppins but that there was some deeper, much darker play at work. There’s a lot going on in this deeply layered novel, and as Morgan’s horrific secret is gradually revealed with the children accepting their adoptive father for his kindness and loving qualities, we learn that there’s more than one reason to stay behind the high walls of Morgan’s protected estate. Ultimately the novel, which may have difficulty attracting its appropriate audience, makes an irrefutable statement that the measure of any society can be drawn in its attitude towards its children.

Given my fascination with crime novels, The Children’s Home is not my favourite Charles Lambert novel but I shan’t forget it, and it proves what I’ve suspected, that Lambert is capable of a range of work–evident, IMO, in Little Monsters.

Review copy.

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A View from the Tower by Charles Lambert

“No one’s immune, he said, as though the spores of violence were in the air and could settle on anyone.”

With The View from the Tower, Charles Lambert has written an intelligent, page-turner set in Rome–part mystery, part dissection of marriage and friendship, but underlying the story of a life in crisis, the novel examines revolutionary ethics and questions the moral justification of the use of violence. The book’s title, The View from the Tower, is literal and refers to a scene towards the end of the book, but it’s a phrase that also refers to the argument for revolutionary violence and how individuals swayed by the idea of ‘the greater good,’ place themselves on a higher moral ground, above the crowd and there, in isolation decide on that irrevocable step to take human life.

The view from the towerAs with Charles Lambert’s novel, Any Human Face, The View From the Tower is a page-turner, and the story begins powerfully with a long-married couple, now in their 50s saying a casual goodbye as they part for the day, and with neither of them aware that this is the “last morning of their marriage.” British ex-pat Helen and high-powered government official, Frederico, leave their flat and part with plans for a dinner that night–an event, of course, that will never take place:

So she and Frederico have these final moments together, down the dark stairs and across the square, barely time to exchange a dozen words and say goodbye before their separate days begin.

There’s a poignancy here–the illusion of permanence, the fragility of our mortality and a sense of impending loss–a loss that Helen has yet to endure as we read about an evening that exists only in the imagination:

This evening, Helen will set the table and fill up glasses while Frederico cooks and serves. He always cooks; it relaxes him after work. Helen will sit at the breakfast bar with a glass of wine and listen to his stories of the day’s events at the ministry, of people who form an intimate part of Frederico’s world and a less intimate part of hers.

This cleverly constructed introduction sets the scene for the idea that everything we hold dear, everything we assume will happen, all our expectations, can be wiped out in a single moment. Along with that idea, the story describes the spaces Helen and Frederico share, and the way in which their lives separate. These two elements: loss and  the knowledge we think we have of the people in our lives are two of the major themes of the novel.

Within a few minutes, Frederico and his bodyguard are dead–the apparent victims of political assassination, at the very moment that Helen is keeping an assignation with her long-time lover, and Fredrico’s best friend, aging rockstar revolutionary, Giacomo….

Author Charles Lambert takes some terrific risks with his characters by making them all flawed and, at times, unpleasant and unlikable. Frederico, Helen, and Giacomo are not perfect people–and certainly their relationships with one another are complex and intertwined with some sort of latent competitiveness lurking between the 2 men who see themselves reflected through the prism of politics. The novel goes back and forth in time, exploring these relationships–from Rome in 2004, back to Turin in the 70s and Giacomo and Frederico’s involvement in the war against the State.

What’s so interesting about the novel is the way the three characters appear to need each other; when Helen first meets Frederico in the 70s, she hears all these stories about Giacomo, his best friend, and it’s clear that Frederico has no small amount of admiration for Giacomo,–a man he sees as the ‘real thing,’ not just a theorist. If Giacomo appears to be the one who physically embodies the nomadic life of the untamed revolutionary, then Frederico is the intellectual arm of the revolution, and where does that leave Helen? How about smack in the middle? Even before meeting Giacomo, Helen feels that she will instinctively dislike him:

You’ll love him, Frederic said whenever he mentioned him. I know you will. Everybody does. Helen examined the small creased strips of photographs and other photographs of him Frederico showed her, always surrounded by people, and wondered if she would like him as much as Frederico expected her to. She didn’t like doing what everyone else did, or feeling what they felt. Besides, there was something over-masculine and swaggering about him she didn’t take to. Always standing in the centre, the largest smile, the others more often looking at him than at the camera, to see what he wanted, from them. She wouldn’t give him what he wanted, she decided, whatever that might be.

As the main female protagonist of the novel, Helen goes through various stages of grief when her husband is murdered: denial, shock, anger and acceptance, but whereas in a simpler novel, the character of Helen would be a vehicle for our sympathy, here she’s difficult to like. As the days pass after Frederico’s death, she turns to Giacomo for support, and it becomes increasingly apparent that Frederico, who seemed distracted and troubled weeks before his death, was keeping some very big secrets from his wife. As she uncovers layers of lies, her anger and feelings of betrayal, while very real, fail to garner much sympathy due to the fact that her relationship with Frederico has been tainted by duplicity for decades. In a lesser novel, this could be a plot flaw, but here the result is a pervasive sadness that these three people who profess to feel more for each other than anyone else on the planet, lived lives of tangled deceit and half-truths which all come spilling out only after Frederico’s death.

Underneath this drama involving murder, betrayal and infidelity, The View from the Tower tackles the question of revolutionary violence. Part of this comes through from the 70s backdrop of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro–an event that Helen notes mainly as white noise, but an event, as it turns out, that may involve Frederico and Giacomo. Several decades later, Giacomo has morphed from the dashing, charismatic radical and is now a middle-aged man who has turned author, tending to the heaviness of his sedentary lifestyle. He makes the lecture circuit on the merit of his past exploits, and his current rockstar status is thanks to his past which includes a jail sentence. Now he’s wealthy, jets around the world and has an anorexic, high-maintenance Parisian trophy wife. These days, Giacomo is about as revolutionary as a Che Guevara T-shirt. The fact that he arrives in Rome on the very day of Frederico’s murder is enough for those investigating the assassination to be suspicious of his involvement. Meanwhile, Frederico’s death suddenly becomes a matter of State, and Helen finds herself fighting over his corpse with her mother-in-law. The real fight, of course, goes much deeper than this.

While I can’t say that I liked the characters in this tale of tangled loyalties twisted with bitter betrayals,  I wanted to see what happened to them as Helen and a friend dig around looking for answers to Frederic’s murder. I should interject that I really liked the adulterous twist that removed Helen from the devastated widow figure. This throws a wrench in her role as a tragic wife, and since I don’t like books that milk my emotions, ‘nice’ people who do bad things always add to the interest of any story.

Politics is a dirty game, and here we see those layers at all levels: world, state and personal. Just who comes out as a winner in this well-written, engaging story isn’t who you’d expect. While the very-human drama plays out against the underbelly of Rome’s political structure, ultimately, the biggest question is: who has the moral right to decide to end of the life of another in order to secure political goals?  

Review copy & purchased copy.

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The Slave House by Charles Lambert

A few years ago, I became a Charles Lambert fan. First with Any Human Face –a novel I enjoyed so much that I sought out  Little Monsters which was shamefully OOP and not that easy to find. So imagine my delight when the author released a Kindle single (read novella) called The Slave House.  The story, although strictly fiction, obviously springs from some personal experience, and on his blog, Charles Lambert explains just what he was doing in Portugal in 1978, and why it was a difficult time for him. The time and place, along with a malignant sense of displacement and unease, are apparent in this tale of a young man who inadvertently steps into a deceptive, dangerous world he doesn’t understand. This story hit a chord for me–perhaps because as part of my mis-spent life, I was an ESL teacher for a time, and so I know from first-hand experience how some of the shoddier, third-rate schools operate. Perhaps part of the attraction can be explained by the fact that as an ex-pat, I’ve also experienced the dizzying results of displacement in a culture that you think you understand, but then discover one day, that rather shockingly you have no clue about the people you thought you knew.

The Slave HouseSimon is a young British man, armed with a fresh degree in English, who lands in Portugal for a marginal teaching job. You know trouble is ahead when the customs officer begins pulling out Simon’s books from his suitcase and then crosschecks the titles against a blacklist. But Simon doesn’t rethink his decision about being in a country with obvious political problems, and while part of this is due to Simon’s youth and inexperience, it’s also partly due to Simon’s lack of career choices. There’s the sense that he has to do something with his life and move on after university.

Well, says his father, at least you’ve got a job after all this time spent lounging around on the sofa and looking at pornographic magazines. I was starting to wonder what your degree was good for.

The job in Portugal solves some problems: it gets him out of his parents’ home, takes him somewhere new, interesting and possibly exotic, and buys him time until he decides what the next step is. Later in the novella, we learn that the title, The Slave House, comes from the name given to a “transitory place,” and this lack of grounding and absence of permanence underscores both the story of a country in a state of flux and Simon’s alienation from his surroundings and his own decisions.

Joe Santos, the “brightly aggressive,” rather unsavoury director of the school where Simon is contracted to teach, was supposed to have arranged a flat for Simon, but this is yet another signal of what is to come. The flat isn’t ready, and by default, Simon falls to the care of another teacher, Elaine–a woman who places a proprietal claim on Simon.

She’s the kind of woman he normally does his best to avoid: humourless, intense. She’s lightly built with frail, curved shoulders that give her a closed-off, vulnerable air.

Simon, excited by the life that appears to have opened up for him, doesn’t realise that he has inadvertently stepped into a minefield of politics. He’s unaware that Portugal had a revolution in its recent past, and that tensions between the fascists and communists are still high. The politics aren’t just distant, impersonal state issues, however, for the politics at the school are also treacherous. But these are all things that Simon doesn’t really want to know about, and while he admires Elaine’s political ardour, he feels as though he’s a tourist passing through a country that is a strange, discordant blend of the half-finished glamorous dreams of an ejected fascist government and a depressed economy in which milk rarely appears for sale.

Simon is happy to sit beside her and listen, without reciprocating. He wrote once, on a wall, at university: The unexamined life is the only life worth living.

With that attitude of detachment burying demands for commitment–both political and personal, Simon misses some warning clues thrown his way. These clues are signposts, warnings about what he should and shouldn’t do in Portugal. What happened to Simon’s predecessor? Why exactly is Joe, a  “jumped-up barman,”  dining with prominent members of PIDE? What is Joe’s relationship with his job-hungry female teachers? Simon has landed in a nest of intrigue, a political and personal quagmire in which estrangement may act as a safety net but also takes him skirting dangerously close to betrayals on several levels.

While we don’t learn much at all about Simon’s day job (and there’s room here to expand this into a novel), or the shoddy school, we learn a great deal about Simon’s night life–the white noise of his drinking binges and sexual encounters. Simon’s blurry, unfocused detachment encompasses both politics and his personal relationships, but in this volatile situation it’s not clear where politics end and the personal begins. Not too surprisingly, Simon soon finds himself in too deep on several fronts. There are some great characters here, and my favourite is Sabrina, the sexually liberated, sexually generous “German tart” who’s Simon’s female counterpart and the antithesis of Elaine:

Sabrina has been chosen on the basis of the full-length photograph she sent with her CV. Joe likes blondes with substantial figures, Elaine tells Simon. Joe’s already talked about women to Simon more than once, telling him what he looks for in the fairer sex, as he calls them. He dips and rises round their imaginary forms, shaping their hips and shoulders with his leathery little hands, a cut-price Pygmalion, his lips thrust out. So Sabrina is no surprise. She has a pudding-basin cut of heavy dark blonde hair; she wears skin-tight blouses and pencil skirts and spike-heeled shoes that force her round high bottom into torturous circuits when she walks. The cobblestones of the narrow streets in the old centre are agony to her.

“How can I possibly move around this town under my own steam?” she asks Simon as the two of them walk down to the sea one afternoon soon after her arrival. “I shall have to ask Mr Santos to pick me up and carry me in his short but virile arms.”

One of the dangerous things about people who are tourists in their own lives is that they have no idea about their impact upon others or the footprints they leave behind. Perhaps this can be chalked up to youth or perhaps this is Simon’s approach to life. Anyway, a great little novella for remarkably little on both AmazonUK on both Amazon US. Author Charles Lambert illustrates how experience is not equal to engagement, and intensity and involvement do not equal maturity or integrity.

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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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Filed under Balzac, Blogging, Chekhov, De Feo Ronald, Dean Louise, Dostoevsky, du Maurier Daphne, Fiction, Hardy, Thomas, Hensher Philip, Homes Geoffrey, Lambert Charles, Olafsson Bragi, Sallis James, Simenon, Sutton Henry, Thompson Jim, Williams Charles, Williams Tennessee

All These Little Worlds: A Fiction Desk Anthology II ed. Rob Redman

I freely admit that I bought a kindle version of All These Little Worlds–an collection of short stories from The Fiction Desk–primarily for the promised short story from Charles Lambert. I’ve throughly enjoyed two novels from this author: Little Monsters and Any Human Face, and considered it worth the purchase of the collection for his short story alone. But I had a second motive afoot….Something exciting and rather daunting is happening in the world of publishing. It’s a paradigm shift of seismic proportions, and people are taking charge of their own writing careers through blogs and e-publishing. Conan Kennedy’s book: The Colour of Her Eyes–a superior crime novel in my opinion–and one that certainly surpasses many crime novels that went through regular channels of committee selection and publicity campaigns etc–is a prime example of an author acting on his own initiative and getting his book out there.

While publishing giants merge together, we’ve also seen a number of fascinating small presses spring to life: Pushkin Press, Archipelago Books, Dalkey Press, Europa Editions, Melville House, Oneworld Classics, Hesperus Press (I’m sure I forgot some names), and for those of us who don’t care for the bestseller lists, these small presses give an alternative. And that brings me to my second reason for buying All These Little Worlds–because it’s an effort by an independent voice. I’ll also admit to a sense of curiosity; I read a lot of short story collections, and some of the big names always get a showing. What about those who are not so famous?

All These Little Worlds includes nine stories, and as editor Rob Redman states in the introduction, while “it’s sometimes tempting to publish a themed volume,” it’s also a limiting choice. Whatever the selection process was, the result is superior, and if there is a dominant undercurrent in this volume, it’s arguably an underlying subversivenes that challenges our notions of traditional relationships

So here’s the story rundown:

Jaggers and Crown by James Benmore is the story of a comic team who rather like an an old married couple battled themselves and their demons through the course of several decades. It’s 2011 and Kevin Crown recalls his turbulent relationship with Sonny Jaggers. They first teamed together in the early fifties, and enjoyed a successful radio career before making the leap to television. A few years later, with Sonny’s drinking increasingly out-of-control, there’s a lucrative contract from ITV, and while Kevin is ambitious and conscientious, Sonny’s binges are taking a toll on the team. On the Fiction Desk blog , Benmore  explains that the story grew from his interest in British comedy programmes, and that if Jaggers is based on anyone, then that person would be Kenneth Williams. For this reader, the references to the scenes in which Jaggers and Crown share a bed is reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise, a remarkable duo who also shared a bed (you can find the skits on youtube). The story explores the turbulence behind the comedy and also shows how when one member of a comedy duo dies the survivor dies by default too.

Jennifer Moore’s Swimming with the Fishes is an odd but delightful tale of a couple of children whose sibling rivalry fixates on a fish tank. You’re not going to get any more info than that as I don’t want to spoil the story for those who’ve yet to read it. I don’t usually care for stories told by child narrators so I was skeptical at first, but the story is so perfectly written that I was never quite sure exactly what was ‘real’ and what was the child narrator’s imagination.

The third story is Charles Lambert’s Pretty Vacant–a title certainly inspired by one of my favourite bands–the Sex Pistols. It’s set in the 70s and here’s how it begins:

Three days before my fifteen birthday my father kisses me on the lips, pinches my left cheek until it hurts, says he’ll always love me and flies off to Madagascar with his new girlfriend, Mia. I’ve seen her once or twice in the back of his car or waiting outside his secretary’s office with a magazine, Bella or Chi, chewing the inside of her mouth, and I’ve wondered who she is. Someone who needs a job and is scared she might not get it, I thought at first, so I was half right; living with my father is a sort of job. My mother’s pretended not to notice . She’s getting ready to move into our summer house near Alghero.

The narrator, Francesca, is shipped off to a boarding school in England with the weak excuse that she needs to “perfect” her English. She’s angry and out-of-place, and so perhaps it’s not surprising that she hooks up with an admirer of the Red Brigades, Gary, a young man who hangs out in a nearby squat. Just as in Little Monsters, Lambert explores the adolescent world in which adults rarely venture, here we see the fallout of Francesca’s summer in exile.

Room 307 is from novelist Mischa Hiller. It’s the story of Callum, a married traveling salesman who runs into temptation. I loved this story for its moral complexities and the exploration of one event that will have lifetime consequences. Callum finds himself in a situation in which the choice he makes doesn’t bring quite the result he expects. Here’s Callum sitting in the hotel restaurant, lonely and bored as he waits for his unexciting meal to arrive:

He sipped at his half pint of lager and studied the generic artwork on the walls. he had stayed in many of this chain’s hotels and they all looked the same. same faux-traditional pub decor in the restaurant, same anodyne and inoffensive prints on the walls, same bored staff in white and black, same tiny en-suite bathrooms with mouldy grouting round the shower end of the bath. They didn’t even have a newspaper at reception he could hide behind, and he had left his petrol-station thriller in his room.

But Callum’s evening is about to change for the better… or so it seems….

Dress Code by Halimah Marcus, a wonderful story about a teacher who goes off the rails big-time, tied in very well to the recent reading of You Deserve Nothing. As the title suggests, this is a story that involves the element of school uniforms, and the story evolves around Episcopal Academy’s Casual Fridays“–the one day of the week when students are allowed to wear something other than their uniforms.  To English teacher, Linus, he “knew there’d be problems as soon as he read the letter [from admin], which included a list of forbidden garments and areas of flesh.” What happens to poor Linus is funny in a strange sort of way because as readers we can see it coming as we witness Linus stepping right into a PR/PC nightmare. Author Halimah Marcus captures perfectly the sense that teachers sometimes have that the best way to reach students is through honesty and utter equality, but that idea is a philosophical mirage as there are two sets of standards in the power-dynamic for students and teachers and Linus finds that out the hard way.

The Romantic by Colin Corrigan is the rather sad story of an Irish  one-armed poet who meets a lonely American woman in a pub. It’s a painful reality check evening in more ways than one.

In After all the Fun We Had by Ryan Shoemaker, a desperate school administrator, terrified by dwindling attendance figures goes all out to lure pupils back to the classroom. His methods become increasingly outrageous, and all this bribery devolves to its natural and comic conclusion.

In Glenda by Alan Jury, Charlie a young man whose wife has left him finds himself embroiled in a complicated relationship with his mother-in-law. Meanwhile his wife, Kathy is living with an “over-groomed sales director in Bristol.”

Glenda had first come to the house on the Saturday after Kathy had left him, and that same night the two of them had gotten riotously drunk together for the first time.

There’s another child narrator in Get on Green by Jason Atkinson. The child narrator is 4-year-old Tonya, and the story follows Tonya’s day at school as she moves from reality to sleep, role models to rebellion, and all this while school dominates with images of conformity.

Hunting for new authors, I read a lot of short story collections, and this is the best overall collection I’ve read this year. The 3rd issue of anthology is due out in the new year, and you bet I’ll be buying it. The anthology is available via subscription but I bought mine via the kindle. Rock on 21st century….

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Filed under Atkinson Jason, Benmore James, Corrigan Colin, Fiction, Hiller Mischa, Jury Alan, Lambert Charles, Marcus Halimah, Moore Jennifer, Shoemaker Ryan

Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

A few years later, Jozef said that I could make my life whatever I wanted, but I didn’t believe him. I thought he was simply repeating words that other people had said to him, words of consolation. I sometimes think most consolation comes to that, repeating things we know are unlikely to be true, and will almost certainly never be true for us, because otherwise everything we have lived through will be meaningless.

First the backstory to the review: Last year I won a copy of Charles Lambert’s novel Any Human Face from The Fiction Desk and enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to read the author’s first novel Little Monsters which came highly recommended by Kevin. Unfortunately and annoyingly Little Monsters is now OOP. A trek through several bookshops yielded a big zero, but I finally found a copy and meant to read it in 2010. Fast forward to 2011.

Little Monsters is an intriguing book and certainly one I can’t neatly slot into some genre category. This is an intensely readable book, and part of that readability is due to the fact I had no idea where the book was taking me. Another reason that  Little Monsters is such a good read is explained by the explosive plot bombs dropped on the pages. More of that later. Here’s the book’s first line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

How’s that for a grabber first-line?

The novel’s narrator is Carol. After her mother’s murder and her father’s arrest, she’s sent to live with an aunt, her mother’s sister, Aunt Margot–a cold, bitter, unpleasant woman who runs a pub, rather romantically called The Mermaid. Under better circumstances, perhaps Carol would see life at The Mermaid as an adventure, but when she arrives there, hustled through the procedure by strangers who drop her off with a hastily packed suitcase, Carol is really too numbed to feel much at all. She heard her parents’ last fight–one of many as it turns out, and feels partially responsible for what happened. When she first arrives, she’s in a state of shock and cannot really grasp the direction her life is about to take.

Aunt Margot doesn’t exactly welcome Carol with open arms, and Carol’s first days at The Mermaid are painful. Margot is married to a Polish man named Jozef, and it’s an arrangement of convenience. Margot’s husband was killed in WWII, and as a single woman she’s not allowed to run a pub. She marries Jozef, and he has an underling role in the relationship. Margot also has a son, Nicholas–a boy about Carol’s age who’s obsessed with the army and can’t wait to sign up.  Margot introduces Carol to Jozef, “Uncle Joey,” and then follows up the politeness with curt work orders. This clever scene signifies Margot’s utilitarian attitude to relationships and also lets the newcomer (Carol in this case) know just how Jozef rates in the scheme of things. If there’s any doubt about Jozef’s lowly status, it’s further clarified by Nicholas who describes Jozef : “He’s nothing. He’s a bloody Pole.” Margot’s bald, unemotional approach to her relationships sets the tone for the novel, and while it appears that the relationships between the main characters are clearly and bleakly defined by impenetrable demarcations, as the story unfolds, there’s a dark eerie undercurrent of things not known and not fully understood running beneath this splendid, unsettling story.

There are some people who are so unpleasant, they dominate and set the tone for the household, and this is true of Aunt Margot. She shows no tenderness to anyone, and she directs her acidic, critical comments to her family while her sly smiles and well-worn flirtations are reserved for male customers. Jozef responds by hiding out in the basement and working on gliders. Nicholas’s refuge is his dream of escape & promise of masculinity through enlistment in the army, and no one in the family seems to find the fact that Nicholas covers his walls with pictures of Churchill, Stalin & Hitler in the least bit disturbing.

Life at the pub is contaminated by the toxic atmosphere of resentments, anger, and disappointments.  There are no emotional bonds between the people who live there, and their relationships function solely to run the pub:

Nowhere was worth staying in for more than a few moments; nowhere held me. I though at the time that it was the bareness, the shabbiness, the way the furniture was pushed up against the walls. But now I think it was because the pub took over everything. Boxes of crisps in the corner of the living room, which was never used except for storing things; crates filled with ginger beer and tonic water behind the kitchen door; even when The Mermaid was closed you could smell the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke. before long my clothes were permeated with it, although I didn’t realize this until I was outside and suddenly smelt myself, shocked.

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know that we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

At 13, Carol is dropped into a household where she has no place–no defined role. Carol isn’t ready to accede to her aunt’s dominance, and that’s partly because the dominance includes a very nasty view of Carol’s mother. Sensing Nicholas’s loneliness, she strikes up a tepid friendship with him, but the relationship between Carol and Jozef is that of equals. Margot directs her taut, bitter disappointments towards Carol, and while Carol doesn’t set out to defy Margot, the two inevitably clash. To Margot, Carol is a “little monster.” Here’s a rather terrifying portrait of Margot tarted up for a night in the pub flirting with the male customers who are passing through:

The first time she walked downstairs I didn’t recognize her. She had piled her hair on top of her head and sprayed it with lacquer. With the light of the landing behind her, it shone like candyfloss. She wore a lot of make-up, more than anyone wears today, green eyeshadow, thick mascara and pale pink lipstick. She had on what she called a cocktail dress, stiff shiny material that reached to her knees, with lacy white stockings beneath, but nothing on her feet. I found out later that she kept a pair of slippers behind the bar and a pair of white patent high heels by the flap that led to the other side, so she could put them on when she had to go out into the lounge and collect glasses, or join a customer for a drink. She often did that, sitting on a stool with her legs crossed at the thigh, letting a shoe swing from her foot.

 Little Monsters taps into 60s Britain, and in this well-crafted, multilayered novel, nothing occurs without a reason. The insertion of the seminal film Whistle Down the Wind, for example, is no chance selection. Is there a better film that portrays children caught up in events beyond their moral comprehension?

I don’t care for a child-narrator, but in this case the story is told by a now-adult Carol who’s living in Italy with Jozef (yes, one of those plot bombs I mentioned earlier). The novel goes back forth between Carol’s life at The Mermaid and decades later when she meets her own “little monster,” a 13-year-old refugee named Kakuna. Unfortunately Carol’s childhood experiences have created a void of vulnerability, and in an effort to repair her own childhood, she’s unable to deal with Kakuna objectively. Author Charles Lambert asks whether we ever completely heal from our darkest & most tragic experiences:

Sometimes I think there in only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.

The plot-bombs planted in the story render this tale a great deal of its power, and the fact that the author does not feel compelled to connect all the dots only increases the novel’s readability and subtle air of mystery. This powerful, quietly disturbing tale of displacement is forgivably marred only by the last few pages, but apart from that, this really is an excellent novel.

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Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

I had a bit of luck recently when I won a book give-away held by The Fiction Desk. The book, Any Human Face by Charles Lambert arrived and I almost immediately picked it up. I planned to read the back cover and perhaps a page or two as I had another book I intended to get to first. I ended up devouring this book in two separate readings over the course of a twenty-four hour period. The blurb on the front of the novel promises: A dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder, and the book certainly lives up to all those qualities.

The main character of the novel is Andrew Caruso, a man in his 50s who owns a sad little bookshop in Rome. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish, but Andrew manages to be neither. It’s 2008, and he’s lived in Rome now for decades. While he ‘fits’ in when it comes to adaptability, there’s a sense of impermanence to his life. This is expressed in the squalor of his neglected apartment (shared with a “half-starved” cat) and his complete indifference to his appearance. Even though he barely scrapes a living from the bookshop, he’s too kind to chase away the occasional shoplifter.

Andrew lives in a world of dilapidated, permeable borders. The books inside the shop, on the shelves and outside the shop, on the bargain table, are fluid categories, the membrane between his home and his place of work as punched with holes as a long-distance train ticket. Half the time, he doesn’t know where he’s put things and it’s a source of constant niggling disquiet that something important–but what?-might have gone missing.

Andrew is working on an article about one of his past lovers, a passionate explosive young Belgium photographer named Michel who killed himself back in 1983. Andrew has ‘moved on’ from the relationship, but he’s still deeply wounded by the affair. Searching through a box of Michel’s possessions brings back painful memories, but then he discovers some packages of photos he was unaware of. Pushy neurotic art director Daniela dell’ Orto comes up with the idea of holding an exhibition of Michel’s work. And from this point, things go rapidly downhill….

The narrative goes back and forth over time with each section focusing on one of the handful of characters. In 1983, for example, a young hustler named Alex has a close brush with violent death when his older lover, Bruno, is brutally murdered. Alex takes shelter at the home of former actor, the Birdman, a strange character who lives in the Piazza Vittorio. Gradually the segments of the novel show the connections between the characters, and the mystery of the photos deepens. This doling out of information makes the novel intense and an addictive read. At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that this is a yarn–mainly due to the novel’s structure, but it’s a yarn in the best sense of the word. Any Human Face is described as “part thriller, part love story,” and while I wasn’t crazy about the love part, the story is far richer than a thriller. Yes there is a faceless power structure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but this is a book that primarily examines the shifting relationships between its characters as they cope with corruption, fear and monolithic abuse of power. How does the average person endure when they are surrounded by corruption? Well if you are lucky, you have family and friends you can count on. If you’re alone, you’re screwed.

Any Human Face tracks the way in which some characters mature or disintegrate. Alex, for example, morphs from being a selfish hustler to a decent human being, and in the process he learns to appreciate the generosity of caring relationships.  The novel also explores the idea that fringe-dwellers like the Birdman are quite aware of the darker, seamier side of life, but while they rub elbows with these elements, they manage to maintain some ethics in their personal behaviour. The Birdman dabbles in pornographic photography, and yet he is one of the kindest people in the book. He’s a marvellous friend, generous, forgiving and unselfish, yet he hardly fits into any sort of acceptable societal rules. He’s the one character who immediately grasps just what’s going on and the dangers involved of plunging in too deep. Here’s the Birdman warning Alex:

 “I don’t mean decent, respectable working-class homes like yours. I’m talking about our ruling classes. Bureaucrats, pimps, upholders of the faith. The worst kind of scum, but they don’t know that because nobody has the nerve to tell them, and if they do they’re branded as mad, or bad. As I have been, to my cost.  I’m talking about people with money and power.”

In one part of the novel, Andrew engages in anonymous wanking via an internet video, and while it’s a pseudo encounter with very little risk, it’s bleak, lonely and ultimately unsatisfying. Andrew catches himself trying to read the book titles in the background behind the anonymous man who’s wanking for an unknown audience.  There’s an emptiness to the experience that echoes through Andrew’s life. Any Human Face is a novel of connections and contrasts–anonymous sex and pornographic photographs, a missing girl snatched from the streets of Rome, sex and power, sex and vulnerability, human beings who use and exploit each other and relationships that endure.

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