We Begin Our Ascent: Joe Mungo Reed

In these internet times, blurbs are often the entry point for book reading, and that is true in the case of We Begin Our Ascent, a debut fiction novel from Joe Mungo Reed. The description proffered a look into the life of professional cyclist, Sol and his research biologist wife, Liz as they navigate various moral choices. There’s nothing wrong with that description, however, I’ll add for potential readers that the novel follows Sol during the Tour de France, so scenes of Sol and Liz’s married life are mostly seen through memories.

We begin our ascent

If I’d known that the book described Sol’s grueling, punishing days spent on the Tour de France, I might have passed over the novel, and that would have been my loss. The book could be categorized as a sport novel, but that categorization is limiting. Essentially this is a novel about how far we are prepared to go to achieve our goals, and just how much we are willing to sacrifice.

We join Sol on day 12 of the Tour de France. Sol is a “domestique,” It’s his job to support team leader, Fabrice:

We are competing only to get our team leader, Fabrice, across the twenty-one stages of this tour in as little time as possible. This cumulative time, the criteria on which the winner of the tour is judged, is all that matters to us. Our own results are not important. We shade him from the wind, pace him, will give him our own bike if he punctures. These measures have just small effects upon his time, yet this is a sport of fine margins–decided by difference of seconds after days and days of riding–and so small advantages, wrung from our fanatical assistance of our strongest rider, offer our team the best chance of victory. We only think of the ever-rising time it takes Fabrice to make his way through this race, how that time compares to his rivals’, how we may act to lessen it. 

Some days the route is mountainous, and other days the land is flat. Before and after each day’s race, as Sol makes his preparations, he thinks of Liz, a specialist in Zebra fish, and how they met. So we see two people with extremely different career goals pursue an elusive end-point. While Liz’s colleagues “marveled at her fluency” in her specialist field, “in her actual accomplishment of the position she had built so long toward, she was truly faced for the first time with the scant effect of the work she had chosen, the world’s apparent indifference to all her expertise.” In contrast to Liz, to those outside of the cycling world, Sol appears to have some sort of stardom, but Sol realises, like most athletes, that he has a short shelf life, and he will never be a household name.

“It must be nice to be able to succeed to clearly,” she said. “To have such definite parameters. Clear successes. No one is cheering me in my lab.”

I knew next to nothing about the Tour de France before reading this book, and since I’m not that interested in sport, it’s to the author’s credit that I enjoyed this novel. But then again, the plot rises above sport, racing, training and instead hits obsession and moral dilemmas when Sol reveals various strategies involving drugs. We spend days with Sol as part of the peloton, his grueling routine, his life of preparation, deprivation and superstition:

I had assumed, when I became a professional, that things would be more intense, somehow, more vivid, and real. The reality, though was that my life had become smaller. I prohibited myself from many things, set myself a limited pattern of thinking. It is perhaps obvious in hindsight, but obsession does not give you more, but less. 

I loved the vivid scenes when Sol recalls how he tried to explain his career to skeptical his in-laws who don’t get that the Tour de France isn’t about Sol winning, and Sol’s dialogues with former cycling champion, now coach Rafael were simply brilliant. One night, Sol is called to a meeting with his coach in the hotel basement:

“What do women like about men?” he said. “What does your wife like about you?”

“Conversation?” I said.

He shook his head.
“Commitment? Empathy?” He kept shaking.”Jokes? Cooking?

“Okay, okay, okay,” he said. “Perhaps all of those things a little bit, but what they like a lot is height. Of all the James Bonds only Daniel Craig has been under six foot. And what is Daniel Craig?”

He mimed flicking something off the table. “A little goblin.”

“I like Casino Royale,” I said.

“Of all the Bonds, only Roger Moore has the true British style.” Rafael wrinkled his nose. There was rattling from the laundry chute and a ball of towels shot out. “Women like height. So in the chase for this, how you say, ‘hypothetical girl in our village,’ height is important.”

“Okay,” I said, “I can see that.”

“And it is man’s nature to maximize every advantage.”

The novel’s conclusion seems a little moralistic, and prior to that, the plot was much more sophisticated and deserved, IMO, a slightly different ending.  Still, in spite of that, I was glued to every entertaining, thoughtful page.

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Camera: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“In the battle with oneself and reality, don’t try to be courageous.”

Last year I read Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur, the story of a man whose private life places him in a series of predicaments. Camera has some similarities, but of the two, I preferred Camera. This is a simple tale quirky, amusing and light in the beginning, but the plot takes a darker turn. This is the novella’s opening line, and if it appeals to you, you’ll probably like the story:

It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The story begins with an anonymous man showing up at the driver’s ed. office, but it later turns out that this isn’t his first attempt at learning how to drive.  There’s something about this character and boundaries, and we see this almost immediately. Pascale, the young woman at the drivers ed. office needs certain paperwork completed and photos of potential students. The completion of the application becomes a long drawn-out affair which requires numerous trips to the driver’s ed office.

It seemed to me that, in order to be able to turn in the application, the only things that were missing, apart from the self-addressed envelope, were the photos. Before leaving, I let her know that, speaking of photos, a little while ago at my house, I had found some photos of myself when little. Why don’t I show them to you, I said while taking out the envelope from my coat pocket, and, walking around to the other side of her desk, I went through them once by one, leaning over her shoulder in order to point out what I was explaining. 

The next day, he returns, without the required photos, makes himself comfortable in her office and while Pascale can only offer tea, the narrator demands coffee, so off Pascale trots to get coffee. In the meantime, a young student appears at the door. The young man, seeing someone inside the building, during office hours, knocks persistently.

I put my paper down again and  got up to answer the door–this guy was going to get it. What do you want? I asked. I just turned eighteen, he said (as if he was trying to impress me). We’re closed, I said. But I was already here yesterday, he added. I just wanted to drop off my application. Let’s not be stubborn, I said, slowly closing my eyes. I shut the door. 

Gradually the self-obsessed narrator invades Pascale’s life, and she seems the perfect match. He’s charmed by Pascale noting “although she could be very lively, that she permanently challenged life with a lethargy that was just as remarkable.” Whereas the narrator questions everything, dissects every event, Pascale manages to snooze through life. Soon he’s meeting her son and father, has a pedicure, battles for a propane tank and takes a trip to London–all fairly pedestrian events during which a romance begins between Pascale and the narrator. Underneath all of these events, there’s a connective acknowledgement of the passage of time, and a “move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” 

I’ve read some criticisms of the novella stating that nothing really happens in the plot. I don’t agree: this is about the mundane quality of life as observed by a self-obsessed man who worries about decay and who slides into an existential crisis. My edition, from Dalkey Archive Press, contains an interview with the author.

My approach, rather obscure to those unfamiliar, was based on the idea that in my struggle with reality, I could exhaust any opponent with whom I was grappling, like one can wear out an olive, for example, before successfully stabbing it with a fork, and that my propensity not to hasten matters, far from having a negative effect, in fact prepared for me a fertile ground where, when things seemed ripe, I could make my move with ease. 

Translated by Matthew B. Smith

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Ballad of a Mad Girl: Vikki Wakefield

“I sometimes wonder if dreams are like dandelion seeds: once you blow them off they take root somewhere else, with somebody who still believes.”

In Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad for a Mad Girl, 17 year-old Grace Foley who, after the loss of the family farm, lives with her widowed father and brother in Swanston (“Swamptown”) Australia. Nothing has been the same since the death of Grace’s mother.  She was the glue that held the family together, and now Grace’s father seems unable to cope with his teenage daughter.

Grace attends school, and a rivalry exists between students from Swampie Public and the private Sacred Heart school. Swampie Public doesn’t have a library or a gym, and so they ‘share’ Sacred Heart’s facilities.

A solid, eight-foot wall separates Swanston Public and Sacred Heart. They made it arty by placing a thick Perspex panel every thirty metres or so, just to give the illusion that it’s all friendly, that we’re not segregated according to how much money our parents can afford to blow on our education. The wall keeps two castes of baboons from tearing each other apart.

This longstanding rivalry is manifested in many ways, but one of the most dangerous demonstrations of perceived superiority takes place in the local quarry when teens from both schools meet at night to compete. The dangerous goal: to straddle, shuffle or walk across a pipe that crosses the quarry, and if you slip, there’s a long fall to the quarry beneath. Grace is a Swampie Quarry champion, and when the book opens, although she’s grounded (again) she slips out of her house for another quarry challenge. This time, however, something goes horribly wrong. …

Ballad for a Mad Girl

After the failed challenge, Grace is different. Something happened to her when she sat on the pipe attempting to cross the quarry. She felt a presence, and she didn’t come home alone. Now something, someone dead, follows her, lives in the shadows of her room. Grace isn’t the same. Her friends shun her and Grace, finally, realises that the otherworldy presence, wants something from her.

Grace begins to poke around the mystery surrounding the disappearance of a girl named Hannah Holt, a girl who is rumoured to be buried somewhere in the quarry. Her search leads her away from her friends and back into the past, specifically to Hannah Holt’s room, still maintained as a shrine by Hannah’s reclusive mother.

Class, adolescence, peer pressure, loss, all add up to a mystery coming–of-age novel with supernatural elements, and the supernatural elements serve to produce that other problem of adolescence: alienation. Ballad of a Mad Girl is essentially a substantive YA book–not my usual read as I’m not the target audience. Still I appreciated the novel.

An entry in the reading Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Fire in the Thatch: E.C. R. Lorac (1946)

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”

In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her,  persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.

June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.”  The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.

Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….

Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.  Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.

The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:

She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.

Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”

What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.

Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch,  a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.

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The Vanishing: Tim Krabbe

“Smooth as spaceships, the cars full of tourists moved south down the long, wide turnpike. Evening fell over the wavy landscape bordering the Autoroute du Soleil and turned it violet.”

Tim Krabbé’s The Vanishing, made into a film of the same name, is one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, so this novella is recommended if you don’t mind turning the last page and feeling disturbed.

The Vanishing

Rex and Saskia are heading out on their holidays from Holland to France. They have a house booked in Hyères, but it’s a long drive. The drive brings grievances in the relationship to the surface; Rex paid for Saskia’s driving lessons, but she “almost never drove,” and this nettles Rex.

During the past hour their mood had grown prickly. Saskia had to put her knitting aside twice in ten minutes because Rex asked to have an orange peeled and she dropped the second one on the floor.

“Ohh! It fell! Ohh!” she said.

She’s doing that on purpose, Rex thought, but he said nothing.

The car’s fuel gauge isn’t working, and that is a point of contention between the couple. Even though they know they have enough fuel to get to their destination, Rex decides to stop and fill up the car. The broken fuel gauge is a silent reminder of the time when the car ran out of fuel, and Saskia was left alone, terrified, on a dark highway for hours while Rex struck out for petrol.

But the stop lightens the mood. The car is tanked up, and then Saskia decides to step back into the station to get some drinks. Rex waits by the car, and Saskia … never returns. …

The book picks up 8 years later. Rex seems to have moved on and he’s now ready to marry, but the past lingers. He remembers how, as a child, Saskia once dreamt that she was “locked inside a golden egg that flew through the universe. Everything was pitch-black, there weren’t even any stars, she’d have to stay there forever, and she couldn’t even die. There was only one hope. Another golden egg was flying through space. If it collided with her own, both would be destroyed, and everything would be over.” He remembers how when Saskia left his apartment and rode off on her bike, he’d keep her in his sight for as long as he could.

But do you know what the worst thing is? It’s not knowing. Standing by the door with two sodas, and zip, gone! As if someone had decided that her atoms didn’t belong together anymore. To have lost her makes sense, but not this not knowing. That is unbearable. You can play all kinds of mind games. For instance, I am told that she is alive and somewhere and perfectly happy. And I’m given a choice: she goes on living like that, or I get to know everything and she dies. Then I let her die.

The Vanishing, and the term could be a verb or a noun here, shows Rex as someone who cannot move on from Saskia’s disappearance. He harbours guilt, but he also harbours a gnawing feeling of needing to know what happened to Saskia, a vibrant young woman who is spirited away in front of dozens of witnesses. As long as Rex doesn’t know Saskia’s fate, there’s the possibility, however remote, that she could be alive. The author mines this need with the plot which follows Rex’s efforts to go as far as the truth takes him.

It’s been a long time since I saw the film, but the imprint left on my mind is the relationship between Rex and Saskia. For the book, I see a connection between the man responsible for Saskia’s disappearance and Rex: both men want to launch out in an experiment, a compulsion if you will.

A chilling, disturbing read.

Translated from Dutch by Claire Nicolas White.

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Days of Awe: A. M Homes

Over the years, I’ve read a number of short stories, and a few from Laurie Colwin, Margaret Atwood, and A.M. Homes stick in my mind. Homes seems to excel in creating people who behave badly, and that brings me to Days of Awe, a collection of twelve short stories

Days of awe

In the first story, Brother on Sunday, a middle-aged plastic surgeon on holiday with friends from his youth ruminates about his career, his relationships and his own mortality, but the holiday ends with a confrontation with his brother, dentist, Roger. While he wonders if he’d still make friends with his current crowd if given the choice, the bigger question is how much will he take from his brother. This story captures the tone of a successful man who is content with his place in life, comfortable with his choices and yet is disengaged and left an observer. We are inside the mind of a plastic surgeon at the beach as he clinically assesses the bodies of strangers around him:

In front of them, a woman is stepping out of her shorts. One side of her bathing suit is unceremoniously wedged in the crack of her ass; she pulls it out with a loud snap. Her rear end is what Sandy calls “coagulated,” a cottage cheese of cellulite, and, below it spider veins explode down her legs like fireworks. 

“Do you ever look at something like that and think about how you could fix it?” Terri asks.

“The interesting thing is that the woman doesn’t seem bothered by it. The people who come to me are bothered by their bodies. They don’t go to the beach and disrobe in public. They come into my office with a list of what they want fixed–it’s like a scratch-and-dent shop.”

In the second, complex story, Whose Story Is it, and Why Is It Always on Her Mind? a Jewish writer attends a conference on genocide. The “transgressive” fiction writer, Rachel, finds herself on a panel which is like “a quiz show with points awarded for the most authentic answer.” As questions bounce around, the writer’s authenticity, and lack of direct experience, is challenged.

Despite the fact that these panels are supposed to be conversations, they are actually competitions, judged by the audience.

The writer strikes up a relationship with Eric, a war correspondent. While the story pivots on this relationship, undercurrents include the survivor’s need to vocalise witnessed horror, or “relentlessly collect and catalog the personal effects of those who disappeared.” And what of Eric who acknowledges that there’s “something wrong” with him and the compulsion to travel to the world’s nightmare atrocities, “having to go back, again and again,” as though he “needs to be punished.” In spite of the fact that Rachel has a girlfriend, left at home, she embarks on an unpredictable relationship with Eric.

Several of the stories are set in California including Hello Everybody, a story in which Walter returns from university to his friend Cheryl’s posh home in Southern California. This is a glimpse into the world of perpetual California makeovers: Walter wears thick makeup to cover his acne, Cheryl sports a new tattoo and her white, white teeth are the result of a “crushed-pearl polish.”

They are forever marking and unmarking their bodies, as though it were entirely natural to write on them and equally natural to erase any desecration or signs of wear, like scribbling notes to oneself on the palm of the hand. 

They are making their bodies their own–renovating, redecorating, the body not just as corpus but as object of self-expression, a symbiotic relation between imagination and reality.

The story’s blurb describes this as an “anthropological expedition,” and it really is. These are “pool people.” Cheryl’s mother, Sylvia, is dealing with the fallout of having her eye colour changed, and the scenes when the entire family (and Walter) go out to a fancy restaurant for dinner where “they serve tiny, designer-size macrobitoic bites” is hilarious. Sister Abigail is anorexic and demands ten calories per menu item. Cheryl is, of course, in constant therapy and at one point she asks her therapist (in an inversion of the usual question) if it’s her fault that her parents are still together. The same family appears again in She Got Away. I would love an entire novel about these people.

And if we’re talking about California, how could Disneyland be neglected?  The Last Good Time is set in Disneyland, and while the story’s protagonist is unappealing, the plot intrigued me. This is the tale of an adult man who, on the brink of losing his grandmother, decides to take off to Disneyland and capture the last good memory of his childhood. The story resonated as I’ve known many people who make monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, or annual pilgrimages to Disneyland for a range of reasons: sentimental/honouring the dead/treasuring childhood memories etc., and it’s a concept I had to get my mind around.

Not all the stories worked for this reader (The National Bird Cage Show, Your Mother Was a Fish), but that didn’t impact my great enjoyment of the other stories. Reading Homes is like tasting a flavour you’ve never had before. Wonderful.

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The Mars Room: Rachel Kushner

“I sometimes think San Francisco is cursed. I mostly think it’s a sad suckville of a place. People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.”

In Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, 29 year-old Romy Hall is serving two life sentence (plus an additional six years) for something bad, something she actually admits she did. As the old saying goes, prisons are full of innocent men and women, but in this case, Romy is guilty and now lives out her life at the Stanville Women’s Correctional facility in Northern California.

The mars room

The novel opens very strongly with Romy, being transferred from one prison to another, describing a bus ride “up the valley” It’s two a.m., the women are shackled and counted, and Romy watches the world go by from the bus window. One pregnant 15-year-old is “in the cage on account of her age, to protect her from the rest of us,” but her whimpering attracts the attention of a more aggressive prisoner. This scene sets the stage for the story which centres on society’s outcasts: one woman who murdered her own child, trans Conan, and the novel’s central character, Romy Hall who grew up in the Sunset area of San Francisco. Running wild and unchecked, by age 11 Romy meets trouble; soon she’s more or less a street kid, shoplifting, doing drugs and eventually living in the Tenderloin, working in the Mars Room, a seedy strip joint:

If you showered you had a competitive edge at the Mars Room. If your tattoos were misspelled you were hot property. If you weren’t five or six months pregnant, you were the it-girl in the club that night. Girls maced customers in the face and sent us all outside, hacking and choking. One dancer got mad at d’Artagnan. the night manager, and set the dressing room on fire. She was let go, it’s true, but that was exceptional.

In prison, Romy is surrounded by poor, disenfranchised women–women who’ve had terrible things happen to them, terrible things done to them, and who’ve been altered as a result:

I said everything was fine but nothing was. The life was being sucked out of me. The problem was not moral. It was nothing to do with morality. These men dimmed my glow. Made me numb to touch, and angry. I gave, and got something in exchange, but it was never enough. I extracted from the wallets–which was how I thought of the men, as walking wallets–as much as I possible could. The knowledge that it was not a fair exchange coated me in a certain film. 

The novel, which moves from first to third person narrator, goes back over Romy’s past so that we eventually learn the path that led her to prison but then there’s also claustrophobic prison life. The other prisoners Romy mentions seem types rather than individuals: a masculine looking trans and a “butch security force.” 

Another main character is Gordon Hauser, and while he’s a teacher who works in the prison, there’s also something lost about him. He never finished his PhD, was teaching community college as an adjunct, and ends up teaching in prisons because it’s steady work.  Gordon retreats to the Sierra foothills where he reads Ted Kaczynski.

Romy’s strong voice is not entirely unsympathetic, but I suspect this is because her intelligence is evident :

Something brewed in me over the years I worked at the Mars Room, sitting in laps, deep into this flawed exchange. This thing in me brewed and foamed. And when I directed it–a decision that was never made; instead, instincts took over–that was it. 

Through Romy, the novel tackles some big questions, but ultimately, for this reader, the tale was relentlessly depressing and a rather bludgeoning experience. The novel’s message re: justice for poor females who are frequently victims in various ways, and end up behind bars as fodder for American’s prison system, makes a social-conscience novel which is heavy-handed, one directional, and unsubtle. The correctional officers are fat, stupid, abusive etc. Wentworth, a favourite Australian series of mine, in spite of being occasionally over the top, addressed the same issues, but somehow the intimacy, plot, social issues and moral grey areas were much better defined.

I had a friend, a correctional officer, who told me the women were the ‘worst” and he preferred working in a men’s prison. I thought of him as I read this.

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The Governess and Other Stories: Stefan Zweig

I never thought I’d say this: but I was disappointed by two of Zweig’s tales in The Governess and Other Stories. This edition includes Did He Do It? (just over 50 pages long) The Miracles of Life (over 90 long), Downfall of the Heart (almost 50 pages long), and The Governess (just over 20 pages long). This edition is one of Pushkin Press’s attractive pocket-sized books.

The governess

Did He Do It? started out very promisingly indeed. The story is narrated by the wife is a retired government official. They spent their lives in the colonies, and deciding to retire to a small village outside of Bath, they buy a plot of land near the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal. They have a cottage built there, and since there’s not much canal traffic, they look forward to solitude. But of course, their peace doesn’t remain intact for long, and someone builds a house right next door.

Waterweed grows so densely from the bottom of the sluggish, black water that the surface has a shimmer of dark green, like malachite; pale water lilies sway on the smooth surface of the canal, which reflects the flower-grown banks, the bridges and the clouds with photographic accuracy. There is barely a ripple moving on the drowsy waterway. Now and then, half sunk in the water and already overgrown with plants. a broken old boat by the bank recalls the canal’s busy past, of which even visitors who come to take the waters in Bath hardly know anything

A young married couple move in, and while the wife is quiet, self-contained and private, the husband’s boisterous nature grates all too quickly. There’s something off about the couple. Can that be attributed to the mismatch?

Now while the set up sounds good, the denouement is disappointing (and vaguely silly). I can’t say anything else without spoiling the story.

The second piece, The Miracles of Life is an extremely sentimental novella, with loads of religious overtones, about an artist who seeks a model for his painting of the madonna. He ends up finding a young Jewish orphan and persuades her to pose.

The third story Downfall of the Heart is the best of the lot, and if it had been in another collection, I suspect I would have liked it even more than I did. This is the tale of a hardworking man who takes his wife and daughter to Lake Garda instead of following doctor’s advice to “take the waters” at Karlsbad.  He suffers from a number of ailments including gallstones, and during the holiday, he learns, the hard way, how he has spoiled his wife and daughter with the result that that they are ashamed of him and consider him annoying. In some ways, the story reminded me of Bunin’s The Gentleman from San Francisco. Downfall of the Heart is a disillusionment story: here’s a man at the end of his life who discovers, painfully, that he’s slaved and sacrificed for nothing.

I would have liked to be happy myself, just once, feel how beautiful the world of the carefree is for myself, just once, after fifty years of writing and calculating and bargaining and haggling, I would have liked to enjoy a few bright days before they bury me. 

In the last story, The Governess, two children try to make sense of the abrupt dismissal of their beloved Governess. It’s a slightly sentimental story, but doesn’t drip with this emotion as does The Miracles of Life. Two children run headlong into the complex world of adult behaviour and morality, and we know these children will only be able to make sense of this episode when they are adults themselves.

So one really good story, one good story and two not so-hot  tales.

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Lovesong: Elizabeth Jolley

In Elizabeth Jolley’s darkly comic Lovesong  Dalton Foster has been “returned” to his former community. We know there are various officials involved in this ‘return’: some sort of rehabilitation centre, a prison, and “Grayhead” a prison officer. We also know that there’s been “repeated sessions of cure, rehabilitation it was called,” and that a “sentence and a cure in various institutions” have taken up half of Dalton’s life so far. So now, Dalton is back living in his old neighbourhood, just around the corner from his former home. There’s been some sort of arrangement, and he’s living in a drab boarding house, Mrs Porter’s Establishment “a Home away from Home for Homeless Gentlemen,” along with a motley assortment of lodgers: a completely potty piano teacher named Miss Mallow, Miss Emily Vales (who is always on the lookout for “Mr Right”), several painted young men who work as dancers in “the entertainment line,”  and two young men who live together–one a waiter with AIDS and TB and the other, a doorman who is “getting a bust.” 

lovesong

Dalton is alone, depressed, and let’s face: not all there.  He’s been offered a segue into so-called ‘normal life’ and society following his “cure,” through the patronage of a local family who happen to live in his old family home. He’s supposed to visit them upon occasion, but the mother, in loud telephone conversations to her sister, calls him the DP, the Displaced Person. During conditioning, the rehabilitation officer told Dalton about the need for “being sensible or being watchful,” yet Dalton is compulsively drawn to children. …

Life at Mrs Porter’s, “a houseful of discarded men and women,” is bizarre. It’s a “temple devoted to regret,” and there’s the spectacle of dear, departed Mr Porter’s hairball kept under a glass bell. Poor Dalton must wait for hours for the bathroom to be free, and he’s frequently pounced upon by the mad klepto Miss Mallow who repeatedly insists on showing him her incomprehensible references. Dalton is suspicious that Miss Vale, hunting for Mr Right, still recovering from thwarting an attempted kidnapping, is breaking into his room and reading his journals. Perhaps she is….

There’s a deep opacity to the novel. Things are seen through Dalton’s eyes, but he’s at best disturbed and damaged, at worst, deranged. He vacillates, unreliably, between the past and the present with flashes of his childhood, and it’s NOT a childhood that has been illuminated by later adult understanding.  The nomadic household was composed of his mother, his Aunt Dalton, and his father, named derisively Horsefly by his mother and aunt. What is going on between those two women as they shriek and intrigue, accompanied by the running joke that Horsefly is useless “The Excruciating Bore.”

“Like an officer’s boot, my dear,” Dalton’s mother screamed while they were dressing. “Like an officer’s thigh boot,” her voice intense with the pleasure of Aunt Dalton’s exquisite elegance resembling the handsome leg of a cossack, she said then, ‘”descending with virile intentions from his horse.” 

Dalton’s mother and Aunt refer mockingly to Horsefly as the Consul, but this is yet another way to humiliate the timid, gentle man who supports the family through hard, humiliating work.

“A Consul, yes” his mother would say, “but oh! why Trade of all things!” Her wailings were heard frequently from behind closed doors in either rented houses or the less fashionable hotels where they were often obliged to stay.

There are some sections which are notes taken on events within the boarding house, and in other sections depicting Mrs Porter and other guests, speech is written phonetically, so this may be a difficult novel for non-English readers.

I’ve read a few Elizabeth Jolley novels, and my favourite remains, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. Although we read blurbs of novels, reviews etc , it’s rare that we are unprepared for what’s inside the covers, but it’s always a wild ride with Elizabeth Jolley. There’s an eccentricity there that hovers dangerously close to madness. Jolley has a perceptive eye for irony, cruelty, and tragedy but laces it with human frailty and quirkiness. In Lovesong, it’s beyond eccentric, beyond quirky: it’s the Mad describing the Mad. Madness is the natural refuge for the human condition:

The last time he saw Aunt Dalton she was sitting up close to a horrible little plastic table banging a dish with a spoon and wearing a bib decorated with provocative slogans.

And kindness is the saving grace.

This novel is part of Lisa’s Elizabeth Jolley Week and also an entry in the Reading Australian Women Writers challenge.

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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.

Review copy

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Filed under Dovey Ceridwen, Fiction