Category Archives: Owens Agnes

A Working Mother: Agnes Owens

“You never realise how much you detest your kids until you take them somewhere.”

When A Working Mother opens, mother-of-two, Betty decides to return to work. It’s a decision based on need, and as Betty tells her husband Adam, “we need money. The kids need clothes, apart from the fact that we like to eat.” For the record, Adam doesn’t work and seems to be maladjusted, according to Betty, from his war experiences. Betty’s decision to get a job, while practical, just becomes another weapon in the arsenal of marital skirmishes. Their bitter marriage is full of recriminations, but there’s one thing Adam and Betty agree on: Booze. Drinking is their only shared interest, and their social life is composed of ditching the kids, going to the pub and boozing it up with Adam’s best friend, Brendan. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to learn that a great deal of Betty’s wages go towards alcohol.

a working mother

But back to Betty’s search for work. … She contacts the mysterious Mrs Rossi, the fortune-telling owner of an employment agency, and in spite of having no experience in the legal field, Betty is temporarily employed by an elderly lawyer, Mr Robson. Although there are several women in the typing pool, he favours Betty–perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that he fondles her and discusses his book which is a study of “human behaviour in animals.” Mr Robson soon wants to know how the war affected Adam sexually, and then he offers Betty a permanent job. She’s invited to his home to do extra typing on the weekends.

Betty’s life (and story) is split between work where she hits Mr Robson up for money, her home life: fighting with Adam and ignoring the children, spending time with workmate Mai, and Betty’s surreptitious trysts with Brendan. Yes, he may be “backwards,” and have greasy hair, but Betty has chosen him for a lover. Perhaps access is the main reason for her choice. Betty is the driving force in this relationship, and naturally Mr Robson is fascinated by this aspect of Betty’s private life:

“Sorry I’m late,” I said to Mr. Robson, smoothing down my crumpled blouse. “I’ve had a terrible weekend.”

“Dear, dear,” he said. He was reaching up for a book on one of the sleeves called The Joys and Fears of Extra-marital Bliss.”

Gradually we see Betty is an unreliable narrator. On one hand, Adam is supposedly damaged by the war, but then she admits at one point, they married right after he was released from prison. Mai certainly seems to have a different opinion of Adam. And what about Mr Robson? Is he getting his thrills at Betty’s expense or is he being exploited?

The activities of this deluded old man made me want to puke. It seemed I had displayed my soul to him for a few paltry pounds. On the way home I calmed down. There was no harm done really. I would display a lot more than that if the price was right.

I’ve read a few books by Agnes Owens and thoroughly enjoyed them all. Betty is a wonderful narrator: tart, bitter, self-promoting–this is a woman who is having sex with her husband’s best friend, a youth with diminished capacity. She’s a neglectful, disinterested mother, a backstabbing, false friend, a worker who extorts from her employer, and as the story develops, she sinks into a seedy, possibly fabricated, version of events. Is she a victim or the instigator?

As for Mr. Robson, I have done nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that anyone can prove anyway, and as for Brendan, if I’ve done anything to be ashamed of it was more out of pity than anything else. Surely it is only fair that I leave all this confusion for a better life. After all, we’re only here for a few fleeting moments, as Adam often says. 

Darkly funny, this is a twisted look at subversive female behaviour. A Working Mother should appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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Best of 2015

December again, and it’s time to compile my best of 2015 reading list.

Best Classic Russian:

Notes From a Dead House: Dostoevsky

Want to know what life was like in a Siberian prison camp? … read this. Human nature at its best and its worst. Sentencing to a Siberian prison camp must have come as a terrible blow to Dostoevsky, but this book–a gift to the world–is the result.

Best Non Fiction:

This House of Grief: Helen Garner. This emotionally wrenching non-fiction book gives the reader an insider look at the Farquharson case in which a divorced man was accused of murdering his three sons. While this is the story of the trial, Helen Garner gives us so much more than this–an eyewitness account but also the torturous cost of the trial on those involved. Again–the best and worst of human nature. I want to read Joe Cinque’s Consolation, but after reading This House of Grief, I think it’s best to put some distance between the two books.

Best New American Crime Fiction:

Canary: Duane Swierczynski

I enjoyed Swierczynski’s fantastic Charlie Hardie trilogy, so I was eager to see what he’d achieved with Canary the story of how a college student gets in over her head when she’s roped in by the police as a ‘confidential informer.’ This is a topical subject and with his usual wizardry Swierczynski creates a formidable, unforgettable heroine in a tale which has many surprises.

Best Classic American Crime Fiction:

The Big Heat: by William McGivern

This moody, hard-hitting tale of corruption involves a lone cop who goes rogue while following a violent path for revenge. Read the book. See the film. Gloria Grahame…. enough said.

The big heat

Best New American Fiction:

Eileen : Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen was one of the most interesting fiction books I read this year. Not sure what I expected with this one, but someone did a great job with the cover design which drew me to the book in the first place. This is the story of a strange, disconnected young woman who works at a local prison as an office worker. With a horrible home life and no social life whatsoever, something has to give for Eileen, and just what sets her free is the substance of this marvelous, dark tale.

eileen

Best Australian Fiction:

Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop: Amy Witting. A sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop is set in a TB sanitorium, and Isobel, ill, stuck in bed, is forced to interact with people she likes as well as those she dislikes. This is a heroine we cheer for as she finds a place for herself in an institution, and receives more kindness from strangers than she ever received from her family. People who’ve never been given love, aren’t sure how to receive it, and Witting knows just how to create this on paper. Read both novels.

Best New British Fiction:

A Pleasure and a Calling: Phil Hogan. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for unreliable narrators. Phil Hogan’s novel is told by a middle-aged, successful estate agent– trustworthy, respectable, reliable…  but is he?… cross this man and your life will suddenly take a turn for the worse. Wickedly funny and dark, this book is nothing less than creepily delightful.

a pleasure and a callling

Best Reprinted British Fiction:

A View of the Harbour: Elizabeth Taylor

I read two Elizabeth Taylor novels this year, both from NYRBs–A Game of Hide and Seek and A View of the Harbour. A View of the Harbour, IMO, was the better novel. Perhaps the seaside setting helped, but overall, I found the characters in A View of the Harbour much more interesting.

Best new Crime Series: Glasgow Underworld Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

How a Gunman Says Goodbye

The Sudden Arrival of Violence

A punchy trilogy… but wait… Now there’s Every Night I dream of Hell which includes some of the same characters. Will we see this series extended?

Best Irish Crime Fiction:

Gun Street Girl: Adrian McKinty. Sean Duffy struggles with an open-and-shut case which reeks of a staged crime.

Best Scottish Fiction:

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens

I’m a long-term fan of the criminally under-appreciated Scottish author Agnes Owens; she hasn’t written a great deal but if you pick a book by Owen, you can’t go wrong.   For the Love of Willie is narrated by a woman who lives in a mental hospital, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a fondness for this type of setting. Draw your own conclusions.

for the love of willie

Bext French Crime Fiction:

Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narejac. This two writers, working as a collaborative team, wrote crime with the idea that the ‘nightmare would never end’ for the protagonist. Most of us have seen the Hitchcok film made from the book, but there are many differences, so crime fans shouldn’t miss this. This is one of the titles in the very impressive, new Pushkin Press Vertigo line.

Funniest Book:

Crane Mansions: Gert Loveday

I don’t normally go for books featuring children, but I’ll read anything Gert Loveday writes. This mischievous tale involves a child who ends up at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent. If you think this sounds like a horrible place, you’d be right, but this very funny tale subverts all reader expectations.

crane mansions

Best reread:

Birds of the Air: Alice Thomas Ellis. I never tire of this book. A wonderful story of grief, secrets and family relationships.

A novel I meant to read for a long time:

Pale Blue Ink in a Lady’s Hand: Franz Werfel. The story of a successful bureaucrat who is forced to revisit the sins of his past.

Pale Blue Ink

Best Short Story Collection:

Marseille Noir . Crime stories which give the flavor of this city. I moved from watching the French-Belgian film The Connection to reading about crime in Marseille. Review to follow.

marseille noir

 

 

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction, Garner Helen, Hogan Phil, Loveday Gert, Mackay Malcolm, McGivern William P, McKinty Adrian, Moshfegh Eileen, Owens Agnes, Swierczynski Duane, Taylor, Elizabeth, Werfel Franz, Witting Amy

For the Love of Willie: Agnes Owens (1998)

“You could be Alice in Wonderland and me the White Rabbit for all you know.”

It’s taken me too long to return to Scottish author Agnes Owens, but sorting through book stacks revealed the novella: For the Love of Willie, the tragi-comic story of a young girl’s infatuation with a creepy shop owner named Willie Roper. The story is narrated by now middle-aged Peggy who lives in a mental hospital and whose major relationship is with a much older resident named the Duchess, a woman who may or may not have had a husband. Peggy, stealing paper from wherever she can find it, is determined to write her life story, and equally determined to make the Duchess, who’d much rather obsess on a Mills and Boon romance, read it. So the story goes back and forth with some scenes between Peggy and the Duchess and other scenes that tell Peggy’s story.  The big question here, in this story of abdicated responsibility, power and conformity, is what happened to land Peggy in a mental hospital.

Peggy’s story begins during WWII,  a gloomy world of air raids and rationing, with her first day delivering papers. She’s eager and proud to have landed the job which pays six shillings a week, and pleased that Willie Roper, the shop owner, makes special concessions for her. Plus there are those caramels which she, the only girl delivering papers, gets daily while the boys go without. Life at the newspaper shop is peculiar, and the reclusive Mrs Roper who lives above the shop with her husband rarely appears, although she arranges for sherry deliveries, against her husband’s wishes, courtesy of the paper boys. There are some ugly rumours about Willie but that doesn’t stop Peggy developing a crush on a man more than twice her age, and when she leaves school, she’s employed as his assistant….

for the love of willieWhile it’s fairly easy to guess where this story is going, it’s the author’s style that makes this story such a delight.  Peggy’s powerful voice combined with Agnes Owens’ dark tart humour make this tragicomic tale a marvelous read.  At sixteen Peggy is innocent and powerless, or so the adults who surround her think until Peggy’s quirkiness erupts in an unexpected way. In a world in which options are controlled and limited, immature Peggy makes her own tragic decision–the only one she thinks she can live with. Now in middle age, Peggy is in the position, once again, of being controlled by those in power, so we see her shouting through the railings desperately trying to catch the attention of a passing male, locked in the ‘punishment room’ and tranquilized for causing trouble. Even though Peggy is in many ways a victim, somehow she transcends that description, remaining uniquely defiant, obstinately independent, and brutally sane.

In the asylum, the Duchess and Peggy are women whose lives have shrunk to a routine of medication and boredom. The Duchess consoles herself with her dreams, saying “I dream a lot myself. It’s like going to the cinema in a way.” It suddenly seems vitally important to Peggy that she tell her story, but the Duchess, theoretically a captive audience, isn’t impressed:

‘I think people might want to read it if you put some romance into it,’ said the Duchess. “I mean if you wrote about falling in love with someone. Women always like to read about things like that.’

‘For God’s sake’ said Peggy, ‘you should know by this time that there’s no such thing as falling in love. It’s only sex with a sugar coating round it. I once thought I was in love, but on looking back I can see it was nature’s way of getting the female pregnant. We’re just like animals, you know. Do you think they fall in love?’

‘How can I tell what they’re thinking?’ said the Duchess haughtily. ‘But I’m quite sure they do in their own way.’

Her mouth closed firmly as she turned her attention to the film on television. Peggy shook her head and went into a reverie which had nothing to do with her present circumstances.

As with Bad Attitudes, there’s something a little off kilter about the characters in the book. Peggy’s mother and Willie are the main adult figures here, and they both act badly with Peggy’s mother abdicating responsibility when it comes to protecting her vulnerable daughter, and Willie taking advantage of an immature mind. Peggy is seen as a bizarre nuisance mainly for her refusal to conform to convenience. This theme is also continued in the mental hospital where the nurses bully and brutalize the patients and harass the poor old Duchess for wetting her bed. When various women in the book react emotionally to the circumstances in their lives, then they’re locked up or if they’re lucky, as Willie says about his wife, it’s all blamed on their hormones:

She’s been acting very funny lately. I’m just hoping that it’s her time of life.

16-year-old Peggy is a quirky character, someone who seems uncomplicated until suddenly she shocks us in a way we didn’t anticipate, and that’s exactly what makes this novella so brilliant. We’re left puzzling over the question of Peggy’s sanity, but certainly the adults in Peggy’s life have a great deal of responsibility here. Agnes Owens is an author who will definitely appeal to fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

122 pages

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Bad Attitudes by Agnes Owens

bad attitudesAs a fan of the books of Alasdair Gray and Robin Jenkins, I always hope I can find another Scottish author to read, so when I came across the name Agnes Owens, I decided to try one of her books. This led me to Bad Attitudes–a book that includes two unconnected novellas: Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party. I read some reviews that praised one of the novellas while finding the other tale lacking. I thoroughly enjoyed them both, and while the stories were quite different, they also shared some common characteristics.

There’s something a little off about the characters in Owens’ grim, darkly funny stories, and if you like the novels of Beryl Bainbridge or Muriel Spark (I’m a fan of both), then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy Owens. Although, Owens’ characters are working class–not quite the genteel crowd you might expect to find in a Muriel Spark novel.

Even though Bad Attitudes and Jen’s Party are novellas and not full novels, the characters are very well developed, larger than life, strong, and distinct people. The most disturbing feature of the stories is that these characters–a little off, a little strange, all varying degrees of antisocial–seem very real and could very well be people who live next door or very like people you know. But more of that later….

In Bad Attitudes, the Dawson family is relocated from a slum scheduled for demolition to a new block of flats. This is, I suppose, a process of gentrification as the Dawsons are moved from the slum to a bright new shiny upstairs flat, but according to the fussy, nosy elderly Mrs Webb who claims she hasn’t had a “minute’s peace” since the family moved in, the Dawsons have a “seedy, untrustworthy look.” The Dawsons–mother Rita , father Harry and two sons: Peter and Jim really just want to mind their own business and be left alone, but Mrs Webb begins gathering complaints against the family. In her vendetta against the Dawsons, Mrs Webb looks for support from a neighbour named Frances. But  according to Mrs Webb, Frances remains blissfully unaware (or chooses to remain unaware) of any wrongdoing on the part of the Dawsons.

Unfortunately, Mrs Webb’s persistent complaints pay off, and the Dawson’s dog is the first victim of gentrification. This sets off a nasty chain of events as Peter Dawson begins ditching school to visit his old neighbourhood and Shanky Devine, an old neighbour who refuses to leave the derelict building. Meanwhile the Dawson’s marriage, now subject to a number of new pressures begins to collapse, and Mrs Dawson, desperate to leave her husband, needs a different roof over her head. This leads Rita Dawson into the lecherous schemes of an opportunistic, unscrupulous councillor–a man who fancies himself as Marlon Brando and whose wife isn’t quite as dull and stupid as he imagines.

In Jen’s Party,13-year-old Jen Boulting lives with her mother Maude and her derelict Aunt Belle. With Jen’s 14 th birthday on the horizon, Aunt Belle decides to organize a party for her niece. Both Maude and Jen should know that any party ‘organised’ by Aunt Belle is going to be at best–haphazard–at worst–a total disaster, but fueled by excitement and hope, Jen prepares for the best birthday party of her life….

In a different world, Aunt Belle would be a Mary Poppins type who makes magical things happen for her unpopular, dumpy niece, but here in Agnes Owen’s poverty-stricken working class world, Aunt Belle is a bizarre, middle aged delinquent who shoplifts, and sometimes trades sex for numerous favours:

“Everything had seemed so cheerful when Belle arrived on the doorstep like a plump gaudy fairy bestowing gifts such as cheap perfume and hand cream. It had been like Christmas for weeks on end with wine on the table as regular as sauce bottles and Jen listening to them both as they reminisced, mainly the laughable bits for the past hadn’t been wonderful. She preferred not to think of scenes in the months that followed , particularly the one with the policeman standing in the kitchen and accusing Belle of shoplifting. It was even better to forget how Belle had managed to pay the fines that were always cropping up. Maude visualised her going round the supermarket and filling her bag straight from the shelves. So far she’d got away with that, which wasn’t so bad,  and the tins of salmon came in handy, but it still wasn’t right. Even now she could be arguing with the manager in broken French which she usually assumed to get out of a hole. Then like an apparition she was suddenly present, jarring Maude’s sense with her orange hair and purple eye shadow.”

At the same time, there is something wonderful about Aunt Belle’s unorthodox approach to life–she does makes things happen and she isn’t hampered by the same worries as her much more conventional sister. While Maude worries about what the neighbours might think, Belle isn’t troubled by such “petty bourgeois” concerns. In one scene in the novella, Aunt Belle charges over to the home of the snotty, pretentious Mrs Woods, and convinces her–through an Oscar-worthy acting performance that appeals to Mrs Woods’s snobbery–to allow her daughter to attend Jen’s Party.

The stories are the stuff of everyday life. Owens’ characters don’t worry about the underlying meaning of existence. They are too bogged down in the everyday petty concerns of life: nosy neighbours, paying the rent, dodging government officials,  and putting food on the table. Here hypocrisy joins forces with pettiness, poverty aligns with reality and women are subject to the vagaries of the men in their lives. Owens leaves no corner of privacy for her characters to hide in, and by including very real bickering exchanges, some of the scenes recreate the gossipy claustrophobia of living in poverty–where nothing is private and everyone knows everyone else’s business. In one brilliantly funny scene, social worker Tom goes to the Dawson’s flat to investigate why Peter isn’t attending school, and at first the Dawsons are hostile and uncommunicative. But then Harry and Rita Dawson both sense a potential ally and drag Tom into their simmering domestic dispute:

“Tom decided to intervene. ‘I don’t think belting solves anything. What you both should do is sit down with Peter and find out why he stays off school. Perhaps he’s getting bullied, or perhaps being a new pupil he feels left out of things. I know it can be difficult but -‘

‘You’re bloody right, it can be difficult,’ said Harry. ‘I’ve tried talking to him but he doesn’t listen. His eyes go blank and he stares into the distance. He’s supposed to be my son but I sometimes wonder.’

‘He doesn’t listen because all you do is nark,’ said Rita.

‘And what do you do, give him money for fags so as you can go to bingo.’ He looked at Tom. ‘Do you know, nearly every night she goes to bingo. That’s a lot worse than narking.’ “

Even the characters’ sex lives are not sacrosanct and this creates a sort of humourous, undesirable intimacy with some of the unpleasanter facts of life–when Mr Dawson, for example, reestablishes his rights by repetitive reclamation sex.

This was my first Agnes Owens and what a delightful, marvellous and wickedly funny discovery.

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