Category Archives: Fiction

In the Garden of the Fugitives: Ceridwen Dovey

“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.

So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.

In the garden of the fugitives

As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?

As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:

We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.

We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.

While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:

In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.

The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn  your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”

I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity  I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.

The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.

This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.

This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.

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Little Disasters: Randall Klein

Randall Klein’s debut novel, Little Disasters, is told through the voices of two men: Michael and Paul. These two very different men are connected by the fact that their wives each gave birth on the same day, at the same Brooklyn hospital. That’s how they met, waiting for the news while their wives were in labour. Furniture maker Michael is married to cookie entrepreneur Rebecca, and actor and paralegal Paul is married to writer, Jenny. Rebecca gives birth to a baby boy, but Jenny’s baby dies. Fast forward to a year later and Michael who is now having an affair with Jenny, receives a text saying she can’t meet him. Both men find themselves stranded in the city, unable to get home, and their stories move back and forth in time.

The four characters, with their careers, and personal tics, are well constructed. When we first see Rebecca, she’s preparing to leave for the hospital, and everything is all perfectly done: bags packed, and even a celebratory flask of bourbon for her husband etc. The married couples are so well drawn that’s it’s easy to see why they are together, and how they work together–each partner compensating and/or complementing the other.

The birth of Michael’s son changes his marriage dramatically: chaos reigns and sex is more or less just a memory, and of course, since Jenny and Paul’s baby died, there’s a layer of grief which has damaged their marriage. But was it that great before the loss of the baby? Paul invites Michael and Rebecca over for dinner, ostensibly to discuss bookshelves, but in reality, it’s a desperate move from Paul to inject some healing into his marriage. Ironically, of course, that plan goes haywire and Michael and Jenny embark on an affair. …

Little disasters

While the premise was good, it was difficult to have sympathy with Michael who moans about how his life has changed, especially since the moaning is in light of the fact that they have a healthy child. Then again, he didn’t really plan on having a child that soon, and he feels a bit betrayed that Rebecca stopped taking the pill without his agreement.

Would be nice to have a beer with someone–I didn’t realize that would stop once my wife pushed out a baby. I didn’t realize that having a child would lead to the immediate death of my social life. I’m not an adolescent and I don’t exist in a sitcom; I knew sacrifices would be made. I knew I wasn’t going to be stumbling home while Rebecca provided the 2:00 am feeding, but I didn’t anticipate the full stop at he end of the sentence. Plug up that release valve and it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?

For this reader, the book’s best scene takes place when the two couples meet for dinner for the first time: Rebecca and Michael should have RUN. Rebecca has obviously been drinking and seems determined to embarrass everyone with stories about her sexual past:

She punctuates the story by finally spooning gazpacho between her lips. I give Jennifer an appreciate smirk. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You roped me back in. “What happened to Danny Perlis?” I ask.

“He gave me a lecture that he clearly thought was eviscerating and I thought was directed entirely to my tits. Probably a good thing that we didn’t elope like he wanted . I loved him, but the thing I loved most about him was how much he loved me. I mailed his ring back after graduation. 

Jennifer pushes her virtually untouched bowl of soup forward. She drains another glass of wine and reaches halfway across the table for the bottle but Paul’s arm shoots out and grabs it first. He holds it just out of Jennifer’s reach and the two of them glare at each other. Rebecca has on her no-lipped mortified face, but I cannot imagine a better standoff. Either they will go full George-and-Martha and my wife and I will get home (or to a bar, so long as we have babysitters …) or she’ll wrestle the bottle from his hands and deliver another monologue of her checkered sexual history. Either way, I’m getting dinner and a show. 

While the two marriages were nicely created, and the nuances of the affair (between ‘friends’) well done,  the background setting of the disaster which occurs in NYC was, after a while, a distracting structural device that did not serve the plot.

I recently finished We Don’t live Here Anymore from Andre Dubus (review to follow) which follows  the lives of married couples Hank and Edith & Jack and Terry. The two books, We Don’t Live Here Anymore and Little Disasters were read back-to-back, and as it turned out, this was a fortuitous choice. We Don’t Live Here Anymore has a totally different take on infidelity, and comparing the two books was thought provoking. The infidelity writers of several decades ago (Updike, Dubus, Roth) seem fascinated by the act of infidelity itself, while today infidelity seems so much more wrapped around the pressures of commuting, child-rearing, juggling two careers, oversized mortgages, etc. Little Disasters is infidelity of the 21st century. Still the same act, but the view is a little more domestic-centric than its 70s/80s counterparts.

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The Life to Come: Michelle de Kretzer

Michelle de Kretzer’s The Life to Come wasn’t a quick read. I found myself returning to it, reading it slowly. This wasn’t a fault of the book, but rather a need to chew things over, absorb what was happening. The story is broken into five sections which overlap as we follow Pippa Reynolds, an Australian writer, her friend Cassie, Cassie’s boyfriend, Sri-lankan/Scottish Ash, and translator Céleste who lives in Paris.  There are a handful of secondary characters who move in the same circle, people who belong and yet who don’t belong, people who are seeking something they can’t quite define.

This is a novel with multiple strands–a story that flows picking up and dropping off characters whose stories are continued later.  The novel opens in Australia in the late 90s with George who attends university, writes a novel at night and teaches tutorials for extra money. George would appear destined to be a main character (he isn’t), but then the plot circles its way to Pippa, a young woman who’s determined to be a writer.

The Life to Come

I suspect that many of us know Pippas. She’s not a bad person, but she’s shallow and thoughtless, and as the novel continues (where The Life to Come fits in) we see how she’s this nebulous self-construction, but at this point, she’s still young, working on her image:

George thought back to her essays: a stew of passionate opinion, mangled argument, atrocities of usage and grammar; that Credit had been the purest largesse on his part.

Pippa is never shy with her vacuous opinions:

“I love animals,” she went on.

“That must be why you eat so many of them,” said George. He didn’t intend unkindness but was opposed to illogic. Pippa’s fondness for broad, blurry statements twitched his nerves. “I love India,” she once announced, after watching a documentary on TV. She had never been there. George, who had, most certainly did not love India. He could also see that these declarations weren’t really about animals or India but about Pippa: what they proclaimed was her largeness of heart.

This is a circuitous narrative, with no clear central path (I’m reminded of Ali Smith’s Autumn) a panoramic frieze of various characters who inhabit the borders of Pippa’s life. Pippa’s friend Cassie lives with Ash, and while Cassie tries valiantly to please Ash with various Sri-lankan delights, she only, somewhat clumsily, manages to alienate him. These characters have flashes of insight regarding the future, and also retrospective moments when hazy incidents take on great significance. At one point, for example, Cassie, who loves Ash and works hard to build a life with him, even she “came close to seeing that he was only an instrument in her quest.”

Later in the novel, Pippa, further along in her self-invention project (at one point she sports a carefully angled beret) travels to Paris and meets Australian translator Céleste. Céleste, whose parents became inadvertently embroiled in Algerian politics in the 60s, is having an affair with the married Sabine, but it’s a hopeless affair based on use. But then isn’t that true of most of the relationships in this book?

There’s a quote which hits at the heart of the novel:

It had been explained to Ash that the government funded the Centre of Australian Literature after a ministerial survey of humanities graduates found that 86 percent of English majors had never read an Australian book. 

This is a novel that savagely bites at its characters while at the same time offering a sort of understanding and acceptance, as if the general human condition seems to be blundering through life, using others as they pass through our boundaries. Céleste notes that “Setting out from home, the Australians, like fortunate children, had expected to be loved,” but that the world, human nature, isn’t programmed that way.

Just as Pippa decides to become a writer before she has anything to write about, and Cassie ( a more sympathetic character) doesn’t, can’t understand Ash and his Sri Lankan experiences, things are right in front of our characters, and understanding eludes them. Yes, Australian English majors don’t read Australian books; they don’t read the very things that are in front of them, even as they pursue higher education, further knowledge, while that which is right in front of them remains ignored, of little interest, perhaps not worthy of attention. Similarly the characters here live, love and befriend other people, sharing the most intimate moments  and yet understanding eludes them. Even the title suggests looking forward, and while the plot propels us forward through the lives of its characters, there’s also the sense of these people wanting something more, waiting for what is yet to happen.

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Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo’s novel Macbeth is a departure from the Harry Hole novels, and instead, this is one in the Hogarth Shakespeare series novels. The story is set in the 70s in a grimy unpleasant, town—a dreary port town which has suffered a severe economic downturn–not that the town was ever that great:

The raindrop went from shiny to grey as it penetrated the soot and the poison that lay like a constant lid of mist over the town despite the fact that in recent years the factories had closed one after the other. Despite the fact that the unemployed could no longer afford to light their stoves. In spite of the capricious and stormy wind and the incessant rain that some claimed hadn’t started to fall until the second world world had been ended by two atomic bombs a quarter of a century ago. 

At one time the “country’s second-largest and once most important industrial centre” it’s now a “quagmire of corruption, bankruptcies, crime and chaos.” The former police chief commissioner, now dead, has been replaced by Duncan, and of course, he’s expected to ‘clean up’ the town. The factories may be closed, but the drug trade is booming and the town’s two casinos are more popular than ever.

Macbeth

The dagger-obsessed Inspector Macbeth runs the SWAT team and his wife, known as “lady,” runs a casino. With the stage set (not to mention Shakespeare’s plot) for a power struggle, we know this story is going to be violent and bloody.

The book is at its best with its strong, grim atmosphere, with the glittering Inverness casino and Obelisk, a “twenty-storey glass hotel and casino that stood up like an illuminated index finger from the brownish-black four-storey wretchedness that constituted the rest of the town.” The imagery of these casinos as alluring lighthouses for the desperate depressed is strong, but for this reader, other aspects of the tale did not work:

So that was why Banquo waited until he saw Macbeth reappear on the other side of the square and walk into the light by the entrance to the casino, from which a tall woman with flowing flame-red hair in a long red dress emerged and hugged him, as though a phantom had warned her that her beloved was on his way.

The names alone interfered in the tale with the result that the gritty update seems to be artificially glommed onto Shakespeare’s great tragedy.

Translated by Don Bartlett

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Bats in the Belfry: E. C. R Lorac (1937)

E. C. R. Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry begins with a handful of people gathered together following the funeral of a young Australian. The topic of death holds sway, and then a young woman, Elizabeth, brings up “an intellectual exercise” set for discussion at her club:

If you were landed with a corpse on your hands, by what method could you dispose of it so as to avoid any liabilities?

A lively discussion ensues with various methods suggested, but oddly, actress Sybilla, the bored, unhappy wife of author Bruce Attleton has the best suggestion. In fact, her method seems to have been refined –almost as though she has given it some thought. Sybilla’s husband, Bruce, notes that one of the guests appears shocked by his wife’s calculated approach towards the disposal of  a body, but notes that his wife is “quite in the Borgia and Lady Macbeth tradition, when you thought Sybilla only played drawing-room comedy?” Discussing the best way to get rid of a body is hardly polite talk, but it’s a seemingly harmless discussion that has greater significance when a nasty blackmailer appears on the scene and Bruce vanishes …

Bats in the belfry

Bruce’s suitcase and passport are found in an artist’s studio in Notting Hill, and when a headless and handless corpse is found in the same location, it seems probable that Bruce is dead.

The novel’s main characters (and suspects) are introduced right away: Bruce Attleton and his wife Sybilla, friends Thomas Burroughs, Neil Rockingham, Robert Grenvile and Bruce’s ward Elizabeth. Bruce had more than his share of enemies (including his wife) and so most of the book is devoted to the police procedural with the intrepid Inspector Macdonald at the helm of the investigation and its convoluted solution.

Unfortunately I guessed the villain very early in the novel, so that took away a lot of enjoyment, but I enjoyed the portrayal of Sybilla and her “apparently lazy make-up” (as in character). The novel is also dated with one character who punctuates his sentences with the verbal tic,“what?” a mention of “over-sophisticated, man-hunting pseudo-intellectual females,” and reference to a “queer-looking dago with a pointed beard.” Still I enjoyed the atmosphere of 1930s London and the arty-crowd.

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For Those Who Know the Ending: Malcolm Mackay

“He was a crook, yeah, but there was a limit to that. He took money, but he always left people breathing.”

With a title that has to be the best I’ve come across in years, Malcolm Mackay’s For Those Who Know the Ending opens with Czech transplant, gunman Martin ziptied to a chair in a Glasgow warehouse waiting for a grisly end. The book then takes us back in time to how the laconic Martin, desperate to find serious money in Glasgow, a town full of criminal gangs not interested in working with someone they don’t know, became involved with Usman Kassar. Usman usually works with his older dealer brother, but he also works jobs on the side, and that’s where Martin comes in.  Word is out on the street that Martin is looking for work. Martin doesn’t like the looks of Usman, doesn’t take him seriously and considers him too flashy with “oversized headphones,” and a gangster swagger. Usman is confident that Martin will be desperate enough to take a chance:

Always took men like him a while to realize that their celebrity only burned bright in their own neck of the woods, and now they had left their home city some younger spark would be filling that vacuum. 

Martin left Czechoslovakia under murky, desperate circumstances, and his savings are running out when he meets Joanne, and moves in with her. The pressure is on to start contributing, and so Martin, who’s lived this long because he doesn’t take chances, takes a chance on a job scoped out by Usman Kassar. According to Usman, it’ll be easy: it’s a two-man in-and-out job, hitting a bookie who is a front man for the Jamieson criminal organization. That’s the beauty of the job according to Usman–the fact that it’s dirty money means that the police won’t be involved….

For those who know the ending

The job doesn’t go quite as planned, but Martin is already in deep with Joanne and with bills rolling in, he takes a second job with Usman.

For Those Who Know the Ending reunites us with some of characters we’ve met before: most notably Jamieson ‘security consultant,” Nate Colgan. With Jamieson still in prison, and other criminal organisations always eager to grab Glasgow turf, this is a job that Nate can’t afford to screw up. And when Martin and Usman cross Nate, there will be hell to pay.

The book is written from the criminal view: so while the police are out there somewhere else in Glasgow, they have very little to do with the day-to-day concerns of organised crime. Instead we see the lonely lives of these career criminals (men and a few women) who’ve decided to pass on the complications and exposure of family life. But then there’s also Martin, who would like to be able to afford a family, and Gully, Nate’s ultra calm, aging sidekick whose sad, barren home life is carved by grief. The plot explores the dangers of ego, gangster swagger, and how being a legend in one’s own mind can sabotage clear thinking in an industry in which you survive by keeping quiet and being useful. These men aren’t romanticized; they have no conscience, and killing is just part of the job. Author Malcolm Mackay explores the abyss between robbery, GHB, and the ultimate crime: murder.

Gully knows that you don’t just kill a man and move on from it because you’re making money out of the deal. That isn’t how it works, not for normal people. He’s seen enough in his time, knows they’re not normal people. For men like him, like Nate, and like Usman, killing a man is a step out of the life you know, and there’s no turning back. 

Another marvellous gritty crime novel from Mackay–a writer who continues to dominate Scottish crime fiction.

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The Restorer: Michael Sala

It’s the late 80s and competent, attractive nurse Maryanne is back living at her mother’s Sydney home along with her two children. We know that something must have gone horribly wrong in her marriage to Roy, but when he shows up, hat in hand, all humble and hopeful and tells Maryanne about this bargain of a house he’s found on the coast… she decides to go back to him. Maryanne’s mother doesn’t mince her words and neither does she tamper down her feelings. Meanwhile 14-year-old Freya isn’t thrilled to be leaving while 8 year-old Daniel just goes with the flow.

The house in Newcastle is a disappointment. Gutted after a fire started by squatters, the family have to camp out in a few rooms while Roy slowly restores the house. Maryanne gets a job at the hospital and so the family’s routine falls back into place, There’s a surge of sexual energy between Maryanne and Roy but there’s also underlying violence, and in the case of Maryanne and her husband, the two go hand in hand….

She’d always thought, always believed that if somehow they could learn how to handle it, then everything would fall into place, and all the risks and hardships would have been worth it.

While Maryanne comes to terms with the idea that it was a terrible mistake to return to Roy, Freya begins to run wild in Newcastle, and she makes friends with a local boy named Josh, an equally lost soul. Josh is one of several secondary characters whose lives collide with Freya and Maryanne; these are people who know that there’s something wrong in the household, but they can only offer limited help–in Josh’s case his help is limited by his own youth and inexperience. There’s also Maryanne’s neighbour who can only acknowledge and advise.

The scenes between Maryanne and Roy are chillingly real with escalating violence that will end one of two ways: violent sex or just plain violence. It’s a routine with an outcome which will be decided by Maryanne’s compliance. She knows shortly after she moves to Newcastle that she’s made a horrible mistake, that Roy hasn’t changed, will never change, and yet living back home with her mother was also an acknowledgement of defeat, “every conversation was loaded with allusions to Maryanne’s past failures-the drip, drip, drip of her commentary.” Living back at home with her mother had its own set of problems:

She’d stand and stare out at the streetlight half hidden by the leaves of the tree outside, listening to the formless roar of traffic on distant roads, trapped in her childhood bedroom like she was caught in some perverse winding back of her own life. 

It was terrifying, that sense of hurtling backwards. Sixteen years since that room had been hers. Sixteen years, and now here she was again, all of the struggle and failure behind her. The posters were gone, but her bed remained, and her desk, and there was still a bookcase beside the desk, though the books on it were no longer hers. The memories here were like a smell that you only noticed when you first came in.

This novel is a slow burner; the threat of violence permeates almost every page. Roy must be ‘jollied’ away from his obsessive controlling jealousy, and although it’s something the whole family understands, it’s never talked about. And while Maryanne tries, courageously (and misguidedly) to hold things together, in “the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, how she never gave up in anything even when it hurt her,” Freya encounters undercurrents of violence from young males at school.

It’s an interesting decision on the author’s part to make Freya the novel’s central character. Maryanne’s choices have already been made, but Freya’s path has yet to be determined. The Restorer, a haunting, troubling story, is essentially about male-female relationships and how violence can become an integral, toxic, component.  In one of the saddest moments of this novel, there’s a moment when Freya, unobserved  sees her mother at work:

There was something about Mum, her posture her voice, that same strangeness from before, when they’d walked together to her work. Like she was wearing a disguise-not now, but when she was home. Mum looked unburdened, younger, stronger.

I puzzled a bit over the title of Michael Salas’s book: The Restorer. On one level the restorer is Roy, a man who is restoring his house and supposedly his marriage, and yet far deeper than that, the restorer is a mechanism by which Freya will move beyond male-female violence, rejecting her parents’ model.

review copy

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A Sister in My House: Linda Olsson

“Love is not fair. You don’t get in proportion to what you give. And you can never make someone love you.”

It’s been two years since the death of Maria and Emma’s mother, and it’s also the last time they saw each other. The two women aren’t close–they each had different fathers, and in adulthood, both sisters went their separate ways. Emma, who married and had children, took care of their mother in her final illness. Following the funeral, for reasons she can’t explain, Maria impulsively invites Emma to stay.

When the novel opens, Maria is now living in Spain, and she’s shocked when Emma writes to her accepting her impulsive invitation, and now two years later, Maria acknowledges that the invitation was “ill-considered.

a sister in my house

Maria, now in her 40s, is a very private person, and more than anything else, she resents Emma’s invasion of that privacy–her favourite time of days in the house, her favourite rooms and even her favourite restaurant all become exposed to Emma. Normally we enjoy sharing these sorts of things with people we care about, so what exactly are the issues between Maria and Emma? Maria, who is our first person narrator, considers Emma “just a kind of extra in my personal life drama.”

We had somehow been given parts in the same play, without understanding what it was about. We had played along, year after year, together yet not together at all. Whether we wanted it or not, we were inevitably connected by our common past.

To Maria, Emma’s life is smooth, traditional and uncomplicated. How little these two know about each other …..

A Sister in My House is about familial relationships: how little we know about people we grow up with, how two children who grow up in the same home share some memories while other memories seem diametrically opposed.

Nothing seems to be anybody’s fault when you look back. It’s as if everything just aimlessly happened. Evolved without anybody’s interference, and turned into a hopeless mess. A chaos where all you could do was to sit in the edge, hold on for your life, and hope that eventually a pattern would emerge. That something would point you in some direction. That somehow you would survive.

As Emma’s visit continues, Maria learns that her sister’s life isn’t as perfect as she assumed, and gradually over the course of the visit, layers of memories peel away and reveal that Emma and Maria’s early lives were complicated by stepfathers, their mother’s multiple relationships,  a stolen lover, and a dead sister, Maria’s twin Amanda.

While this is written with great intimacy, there’s a lack of passion, a distance coldness here that trivializes the issues under scrutiny. I didn’t warm to the characters. Perhaps things are resolved too easily.

Review copy.

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A Perfect Sentence: Patrick Starnes

When it comes to reading, I seem to be on a roll with Men Who Leave. This time it’s A Perfect Sentence from Patrick Starnes. Kier Buchan, a married fifty something writer of a series of middling-level detective stories is made redundant from his part-time lecturer position at the Open University. This news couldn’t come at a worse time for Buchan. It’s not that he cares that much about the job–he doesn’t. It’s just one more thing that unmoors him from his already unsatisfying life.

When the novel opens, Buchan is sitting in Gatwick airport waiting for a flight and a holiday in Riva del Garda. He’s with his saintly long-suffering, patient wife Fran, and his two children 21-year-old Charlie and 16-year-old Cat. Charlie was only persuaded to come along for the trip when it was agreed that his American girlfriend, bartender Cassie could join them, and while the family, quickly fractures into their own spaces at the airport, Buchan, obviously already emotionally distant from his family, wonders off alone musing about Cassie’s suitability for Charlie.

A Perfect Sentence, which is narrated by Buchan, by the way, begins with a worn,  bitterly comic tone. He admits that he doesn’t pay “much attention to the political, social, or commercial lurchings of our tired planet.” Think along the lines of Kingsley Amis at his best, but this mood soon passes as the story becomes much much darker, and Buchan finds himself in full Midlife Crisis mode.

What the hell do I think I’m up to? What male menopausal, pre-prostatic madness have I succumbed to? Back off Keir, back right off. Put this afternoon down to anything you want to, put it down to global warming, the Bermuda Triangle, whatever, but don’t get in any deeper, don’t destroy the lives of those you love simply because you’ve fallen for a redhead with world-class tits and legs that won’t give up. But why the hell not?  

It’s not easy to move beyond an almost stomach-churning dislike for this character: tragic past combined with midlife crisis or not. For this reader, there was nothing whatsoever to like about this selfish jerk. An incorrigible snob who dislikes almost everyone in his orbit, he cheats on his wife, abandons his children, and careens around Europe until Fate catches up to him in a big way.

In many ways, this story takes a predictable path (man in his 50s hooks up with a sexually rapacious girl young enough to be his daughter), and yet it’s told with such flair, that it’s impossible to tear our eyes away from Buchan’s train wreck of a life. The author’s choice to tell this tale in the first person dangles the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Is everyone really as small-minded and clichéd as Buchan thinks. Is Fran as saintly as Buchan thinks or has she just learned to tune out and tolerate a man who no longer interests her? There were a couple of characters, for example, Josh and Buchan’s father-in-law, who never move beyond stereotype cardboard-cutouts. Starnes is too good a writer for this to be anything other than Buchan’s narrow, one-dimensional view of two characters who are bit players in his life. At one point, Buchan feels sorry for himself when his long-time lover, Ruth, abruptly tells him to ‘fuck off,’ and Buchan argues that he is unable to understand this behaviour–after all the longtime, no strings-affair, spent in various hotels rooms, seemed to work so well for him. This was an affair that was all about “flying the outer edge of the erotic envelope.” And that’s the root of Buchan’s character: it’s whatever works for him and other people exist as pieces on his chess board.

The novel’s rich imagery is powerful:  “a wasp expiring like some Roman orgy victim in the sticky heel of a beer glass.” Or Buchan’s mother-in-law: “once a handsome serene woman, she is now a dessicated Gordain knot of nerves for whom contact with even her close family, let alone the outside world (her bridge four is a miraculous exception) is painful.” I’m not a writer–I’m a reader and there were times that this extremely polished novel is almost too polished in its imagery. That minor issue aside, I enjoyed reading this knowing that Cosmic Justice or Karma or Fate … (you take your pick) careened towards Buchan on a collision course. This is a man who had everything: his health, a lovely, kind, tolerant wife, no money worries, holidays abroad, two children, a nice home, and way too much time on his hands. Yet it was not enough for Buchan. Ah… the burdens of middle class life. Some people drive fast, expensive cars to glamorize the image of themselves, and Buchan uses his affairs to add some level of excitement to a life he’d rather not be attached to.

There’s another aspect of this novel that I’d love to comment on, but I can’t due to spoilers. I will say that there’s the shadow of an alternate, less dramatic outcome that would also have served Buchan his just desserts. Pick your poison.

Review copy

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