The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.

the hours before dawn

Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:

I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.

Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.

And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.

“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–

Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”

Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.

This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another  mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’  frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.

“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”

A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.

“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs. 

The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.

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Killer in the Rain: Raymond Chandler (1935)

I wasn’t too far into Raymond Chandler’s Killer in the Rain when screenshots of Humphrey Bogart began popping into my head. Yes! This short story was adapted ‘(‘cannibalizing’ as Chandler called it) into The Big Sleep. The story is atmospheric, and certainly inspires visual images as you read it, and the film … well, the film is unforgettable.

Rain beat very hard against the windows. They were shut tight and it was hot in the room and I had a little fan going on the table. The breeze from it hit Dravec’s face high up, lifted his heavy black hair, moved the longer bristles in the fat path of eyebrow that went across his face in a solid line. He looked like a bouncer who had come into money. 

The story is narrated by a PI, a shamus who is hired by a self-made man, a wealthy Serbian named Dravec. Dravec has been sent to the PI by homicide detective Violets M’Gee. At first Dravec claims that he wants the PI to find his daughter, Carmen, but within a few minutes, Dravec, who is one of those physically powerful but emotionally immature men, admits that Carmen isn’t his daughter.

I just picked her up in Smoky, a little baby in the street. She didn’t have nobody. I guess I steal her, huh?

Carmen isn’t exactly faithful to Dravec who admits that “all the time some new guy and all the time a punk.” Dravec paid one punk 5 grand to clear off, but since there’s no shortage of creepy men, Carmen is now involved with Harold Steiner, a so-called “dealer in rare books” which translates to pornography.

So the narrator takes the case and the next night, during another rain storm, he tails Steiner from his business to his home. Carmen soon arrives, and some time into the stake out, shots are fired. The narrator bursts into the home and finds Carmen drugged, dressed (or undressed) for porno pix, and Steiner dead. Carmen may be the damsel in distress here, but Dravec is the only one who thinks he can ‘save’ her. She gives the narrator the creeps. There’s something not right about this woman:

If she had screeched, or turned white, or even keeled over, that would have been fairly natural. But she just giggled.

I began to hate the sight of her. Just looking at her made me feel dopey.

Her giggles went on, ran around the room like rats. They gradually got hysterical. I got off the desk, took a step towards her, and slapped her face.

“Just like last night” I said.

The giggling stopped at once and the thumb-chewing started again. She still didn’t mind my slaps apparently. I sat on the end of the desk once more. 

A few bodies later, the case is solved but not before the narrator gives us a glimpse into the ugly side of humanity. In this case he steps into a group of people whose behaviour leaves a rotting stench. There’s no joy in the solution of this case; just darkness, hopelessness, an inevitability, and yet at the same time, a determination not to slide down into the sewage with the lowlifes.

Philip Marlowe appeared as a character in the 1939 novel, The Big Sleep. His name does not appear in this short story, but the feeling of Marlowe is still there.

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Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

en are

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Big Little Lies: Liane Moriarty

I watched season 1 of Big Little Lies, and while it was entertaining, there were a couple of things that bothered me. How could someone in Jane’s income bracket afford to live in affluent Monterey? And I couldn’t see Rich-Mos like Renata and Celeste making friends with Jane, so I decided to see how the book handled these troublesome details. The book, it turns out, is set in Australia. 

Big Little lies

But for those one or two people who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll start at the beginning. Big Little Lies (the book) is set in the coastal town of Pirriwee, and begins with some horrible event. At first it’s not clear what has happened but we are given clues through the narrative and also through a series of interviews with the police. It’s then we learn that a murder has occurred on Trivia Night–an annual fundraiser which takes place at the school. Murder at an elementary school fundraiser? It boggles the mind. (Well there was that cheerleading thing in Texas….). Then the book goes back in time to six months before Trivia Night and moves forward. 

The main gist of the story is the arrival in Pirriwee of Jane, a young single mother who has moved to this Australian coastal town with her 5 year old son Ziggy. On Orientation Day she meets Madeleine, the driven, outgoing alpha mother who’s married to Ed and has three children: 14-year-old Abigail (from a failed first marriage to Nathan). Fred and Chloe are her children with Ed.

All the trouble starts when Amabella, daughter of the wealthy Renata Klein says someone choked her, and then in front of the entire class, when prompted by the teacher, she points at Ziggy as the culprit. When school begins, Amabella is continually bullied, unobserved by the teachers, and one parent organizes a petition to boot Ziggy from the school. Opposing factions coalesce on the for/against side. 

While the furor surrounding Ziggy is ostensibly the main thrust here, it’s a segue into the lives and culture of the parents. Certain children are popular. “Walking into school with Chloe was like walking arriving with a golden ticket,” and those sort of status relationships continue into adulthood; Renata for example has Harper for a groupie. Main characters are Jane, Madeline, Renata, Celeste (a woman who seems to have it all),  and if we drop back a bit there’s Bonnie, Nathan’s new wife. As the plot unfolds, it’s clear that Jane isn’t ‘just’ a single mother–her child Ziggy is the result of an unsavory encounter Jane had with a stranger–an encounter which has permanently damaged her. 

The novel tackles the subject of female friendship and competitiveness. Renata and Madeline, who are complete opposites, are natural antagonists. You have to laugh at the mothers who organise a support group for “parents of gifted children.” And of course, the group rubs those who don’t belong the wrong way.

Madeline imagined them all sitting in a circle, wringing their hands while their eyes shone with secret pride.

For those who’ve seen the series (I’ve seen  series 1 & 2) there are some differences in the storylines. The book-version of Madeline is not as well off as she’s portrayed in the TV version, and her screen story is much more developed than in the book. I can see why Madeline’s screen story is developed as she’s a fantastic, witty, tart-mouthed character. Jane’s encounter with the father of Ziggy is also quite different. I’m not sure why the series version was altered from the book version–possibly because the book’s version of events is rather more complex.

Anyway, this was an entertaining read and my favorite sections concerned Madeline’s observations of Nathan and his new wife. It’s particularly galling for Madeline to see her ex Nathan and his second wife and their child at Pirriwee school. He walked out on Madeline when Abigail was a baby and provided no support. Now he appears to be a nauseatingly “upgraded version,” of a husband and father, going to Yoga, volunteering for the homeless. To Madeline, Bonnie who is into “yoga and chakras” and who probably gave “organic blow jobs,” doesn’t seem like a real person:

Even though she’d known Bonnie for years now, even though they’d had a hundred civil conversations, she still didn’t seem like a real person . She felt like a caricature to Madeline. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything normal. Was she ever grumpy? Did she ever yell? Fall about laughing? Eat too much? Drink too much? Call out for someone to bring her toilet paper? Lose her car keys? Was she ever just a human being? Did she ever stop talking in that creepy, singsong yoga teacher voice? 

While this may seem like a ‘beach read’ (and it is highly readable, btw) there are a lot of truisms here. Bullying, dominance, status, parenting and control are all examined here, and author Liane Moriarty knows how to weave suspense. When the book opens, it seems entirely possible that the violence on Trivia Night exploded between some of the mothers, and the tension between Renata’s supporters and Madeline’s supporters could certainly, plausibly, reach the level of violence, but for those of us who’ve seen the series, we know the violence has another root cause. 

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A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.” 

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie.  Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie,  brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…

I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.

Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …

A severed head

While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.” 

There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”

Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness. 

A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose. 

 I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of  a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama. 

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship. 

Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.

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Who Saw Her Die? : Patricia Moyes

It’s Crystal Balaclava’s seventieth birthday, and as usual her three daughters Primrose, Violet and Daffodil travel from various locations to join their mother at the family estate at Plumley Green, Surrey. This year is different. This year Crystal requests police protection and pulls strings to achieve her desire. She specifically requests that Detective Chief Superintendent Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy be present for the birthday celebration. She’s been tipped off by her Ouija board that she’s in danger and since Crystal always listens to her Ouija board, Tibbett and his wife Emmy find themselves staying at Foxes Trot.

Who Saw her die

The Tibbetts are not the usual sort of guests for Crystal. Crystal may be 70 but she’s stuck in her youth as a flapper, and so she tends to surround herself with people who are amusing and giddy. Henry and Emmy are rather pedestrian compared to the usual crowd. Crystal, who has a hard bitchy edge, is well drawn.

It took Henry a moment to register that fact that she was still a beautiful woman, because the overwhelming first impression was so bizarre. The Henna-dyed bobbed hair, the bandeau, the short, unwaisted dress of drooping yellow crepe, the bright red cupid’s bow painted on wrinkled lips, the pearly white-stocking, the foot-long jade cigarette-holder–they all added up not to a parody of the fashion of forty years ago, but to the thing itself.

Crystal is the sort of person who dominates the room, and dislikes female competition, so when she meets Henry and Emmy, she immediately launches some nasty barbs at Emmy. It’s obvious that Emmy is there for window dressing, so poor Emmy suffers from Crystal’s sharp edges.

Crystal fears that death will come in the form of poison, and she expects Henry to act, more or less, as a food taster. One daughter always brings a birthday cake, another a case of champagne, and another roses. In spite of Henry’s best efforts to protect Crystal she dies from poison.

It’s too bad Crystal makes an early exit as she’s a strong character (bet Emmy wasn’t really that upset). In fact the person who seems the most devastated by the murder is Crystal’s life long companion (since becoming a widow) Dolly,  whose “mannish face was coated in a thick layer of pancake make-up, in a grotesque parody of femininity.” (ouch!) Dolly manages the entire household and while Crystal considered Dolly a bit dense, Dolly, in reality,  is an incredible person. There are a limited number of suspects. The estate is tied up until Crystal’s death at which time it will pass to her daughters–each have their own reasons for needing money.

While the characters of Henry and Emmy were pleasant enough, the tale itself rather goes through the motions. With Crystal lying dead, still warm, Henry and the local doc share a chuckle over the body without seeming to realise the innate distastefulness of their actions. The result is a crime book that’s more an exercise for readers who prefer their crime light but puzzling enough they can try to discover the solution as they read.

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A Season in Sinji: J.L. Carr

“Many a time since I’ve wondered if, all at once, and for the first time in his life, he knew that class and rank don’t mean a thing when the cards are down.”

I enjoyed A Month in the Country very much and decided to seek out other novels from J.L. Carr. A Season In Sinji, which almost sounds like a companion novel, is a completely different read, yet the two novels have shared themes: the hell of war, of course, but also companionship between males, and (the price of) survival. A Month in the Country explores the joys and pain of life through a horribly disfigured WWI veteran who retreats to the countryside to restore a medieval mural. A Season in Sinji is set in WWII and is basically the story of three men who vie for the same woman, and then later find themselves in West Africa.

A SEASON IN SINJI

The novel, is narrated by Yorkshire native, Flanders, a man whose farming background and strict religious upbringing forge his strong character. Flanders tells his tale in hindsight, and it’s clear that while Flanders survived the war, that this survival comes with a price. Flanders volunteered to fight and quickly became friends with Wakerly  saying “we were more than mates; he could have been a brother. I shall never forget him. Though I let him down in the end.” 

Whereas Wakerly and Flanders have an instant rapport, they both intensely dislike Turton, who is an excellent photographer with an “absolute unquestioning superiority.” At first ‘war’ is boredom with the men stuck at an RAF camp watching others shipped out. To kill timeWakerly and Flanders begin hanging at the local pub where they meet Caroline, whose parents have been killed in a London air raid. Wakerly courts Caroline (with Flanders as an awkward third). Turton, the most aggressive male of the three men, spots Caroline. Armed with his “utter confidence” he simply takes over, and that would appear to be the end of the episode with Caroline.

Flanders and Wakerly are posted to RAF Sinji in West Africa, “the edge of war,” and it’s on the journey that things begin to unravel. Then Turton arrives, now an officer, and begins to make life hell for Flanders and Wakerly.

And that’s another thing about Africa; it’s never still. There’s always bumping and rustling, birds screaming, and the stir of millions of insects groping around. And feet. Feet padding softly past. The blacks sleep in shifts; they don’t keep regular hours like us, so there’s always someone stirring and watching. It became an obsession with me the longer I stayed there. Everybody had obsessions before they left The Coast. Even the biggest clods began to do crazy things like drawing birds in the sand and the ones with better educations usually cracked completely, and began feeding them. My two obsessions were the sound of feet running, and all the places that went on and on east of us, beyond the tropic rain forests on the other side of the mountains, right across the dry lakes and the deserts to Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, all full of people who slept in shifts stirring and watching and running around in darkness. 

The narrator’s point, in the above quote is that Africa ‘does’ things to the British RAF personnel sent there, and that the educated/upper class are perhaps the worst off. According to Flanders: “Africa either put you flat on your back or else brought out the very devil in you.” Sinji is nothing more than “three beads strung along a gravel road”–some rapidly constructed ‘buildings’ for the men, but there’s simply nowhere to go, nothing to do. The men, however, find that their pay takes them far with the local women–much to Flanders’ disgust. But other men get their entertainment from harassing those they work with and those with lower rank. Turton, in particular, begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Flanders and Wakerly, making their lives living hell.

The nature of war throws various types together who would not cross paths in peacetime, and class plays a huge role here. Concentrating on just a handful of men, Carr examines personality clashes in close quarters, throwing rank in as a weapon in human pathology. One of the great personalities here is ‘the Birdman’

He knew so much that I switched off whenever he began to reel off lists of birds he was looking forward to seeing–the ibis, the calliope humming-bird, the flamingo…His wife probably was missing him in bed and the garden, but I bet she wasn’t sorry to be having a break from the birds.

The other spring of wisdom was a medical orderly known as Blubber, who looked like a dropsical Eskimo and who was a sex fiend. He was at the other end of the boredom scale–just vulgar. The Birdman and he just grated against each other–their birds were not of the same feather.

There’s a pivotal incident that takes place involving the natives which raises certain moral questions. Wakerly and Flanders find themselves disagreeing with each other. Wakerly wants to take a stand and damn the consequences while Flanders differs:

I’ll wait for the right time before I settle with Turton and, when it does come, I’ll choose it and the place and only when I’m sure of winning.

Through Flanders’ eyes we see how these British men cope at RAF Sinji. Some men fall apart and some rise to the occasion. There’s one man, Glapthorn, who Flanders considers a poor excuse for a human being, but even Glapthorn generates some empathy in the end. While Wakerly and Flanders drift apart due to moral differences, Flanders becomes friendly with Slingsby, a fellow Northerner with similar moral values.

Two final notes: Flanders has a strong distaste for homosexuals which permeates some of his relationships. Cricket plays a large role in the book, and those who like the game will probably appreciate the many cricket references.

On the cover of my edition there’s a quote “The best of J.L. Carr’s novels.” It’s certainly strong and memorable. Plus bleak which I always like. A Month in the Country includes the theme of healing from war. There’s no healing in A Season in Sinji.

 

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The Luck of Ginger Coffey: Brian Moore

“Fifteen dollars and three cents. He counted it and put it in his trouser-pocket. Then picked up his Tyrolean hat off the dresser, wondering if the two Alpine buttons and the little brush dingus in the hatband weren’t a shade jaunty for the place he was going. Still, they might be lucky to him. And it was a lovely morning, clear and crisp and clean. Maybe that was a good augury. Maybe today his ship would come in.”

Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne concern female protagonists. The former novel is the story of a married woman who falls into an affair when her husband decides to not join her on holiday. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is the story of a spinster in her 40s, a piano teacher, who moves into a shabby boarding house where she meets the landlady’s shifty brother. Both novels are 5 star reads.

the luck of ginger coffey
The Luck of Ginger Coffey
centres on an Irishman who’s moved to Canada. When the novel opens, it’s 1956 and 39-year-old Ginger Coffey has run out of luck… Ginger, his long-suffering wife, Veronica and daughter live in a third-rate boarding house. So far, Ginger has had a number of lucky breaks. When he left the army, his wife’s family pulled strings to get him a job at a distillery. In a huff, Ginger resigned and so began an odyssey of different jobs in different towns.

Another lucky break: Ginger’s father, a solicitor, died and left his son 2,000 pounds and so Ginger used that money to move to Canada ostensibly as a representative for a distillery. Ginger runs through his inheritance, and now there’s a pittance left. Sensing disaster, Veronica wants him to use the money they have left to return to Ireland where at least relatives “would not let you starve so long as you were one of them.” Trouble is there’s not enough money for the tickets, and Veronica is unaware of this.

The novel follows Ginger’s humiliating attempts to find employment. Since he’s not really trained for anything, he has to start at the bottom and most employers consider him too old for jobs they hire kids for. At first Ginger takes a grandiose stance but soon he’s ready to take whatever comes his way.

He went into the living room with the Montreal Star but he was too upset to read it. He went back into the kitchen and brought out two quarts of beer. Last of the last. He poured himself a glass, lay down on the sofa and switched the radio on, trying to salvage something out of this miserable bloody evening. He searched for music, for music hath charms and had better have, because, looking back on the day, he had a savage bloody breast on him, all right. Hat in hand to younger men, wife sniveling to strangers, asked to lie his way into some job he’d be caught out in, and what else? Oh, a savage bloody breast.

Ginger’s charm worked in his youth, but now he comes across as sad and pathetic. He dresses somewhat inappropriately and the charm that got him places for all those years now seems tired, stale, and inappropriate.

“Hello there,” Coffey said, jovially advancing with his large hand outstretched, the ends of his mustache lifting into a smile. And Beauchemin took the proffered hand, his mind running back, trying to place this guy. He could not recall him at all. A limey type and, like most limey types, sort of queer. Look at this one with his tiny green hat, short bulky car coat and suede boots. A man that age should know better than to dress like a college boy, Beauchemin thought.

Ginger isn’t a bad man; he’s feckless, happy-go-lucky and convinced that he’s upper-management material. Basically Ginger has to suffer humiliations and grow up; his charm has worn thin, and since the day of reckoning has been delayed for over 2 decades, there are a lot of mortifying experiences along the way to his enlightenment. The underlying argument, of course, is that painful life lessons must be learned and the sooner the better. This is a much slighter novel than the other two I read from this author. I liked it but it wasn’t as powerful. The best parts of the plot concern Ginger’s working life at the newspaper and his camaraderie with fellow employees who all refer to their “Scottish Beelzebub” eagle-eyed boss as Hitler.’

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The Ditch: Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s novel The Ditch is narrated by Robert Walter,  the middle-aged Mayor of Amsterdam. Robert is seemingly happily married and yet fault lines appear, subtly, but quickly in the novel. Robert introduces us very quickly to his wife saying “Let me call her Sylvia. That’s not her real name.” We know she’s not from Holland, and Robert adds “where she is from is something I’d rather leave up in the air for the time being,”  so we know we are not getting the full story. Robert tells his story his way, parceling out the information he wants to divulge, telling us his daughter’s name is Diana and then almost immediately retracting it, revealing that “Diana isn’t our daughter’s real name either.”

The ditch

While Robert controls this unreliable narrative, he feeds us clues; his wife is from a country “about which a lot of preconceived notions exist. Notions both favorable and unfavorable. From “passionate” and “temperamental,” it’s only a small step to “hot-tempered.” A crime passionel.” It’s the sort of narrative that encourages the reader to fill in the blanks and to start guessing.

Although married to the mayor, Sylvia doesn’t like “public appearances” but she accompanies her husband to certain events especially when Robert wears his “most pitiful expression” and gives her a “hammy, imploring look.” Telling Robert not to “start crying” Sylvia agrees to attend the new year’s reception, and this is where all the the trouble starts. At the reception, Robert notices his wife, off in a corner with Alderman Maarten van Hoogstraten laughing and talking. The Alderman has his hand on Sylvia’s elbow and is whispering something in her ear. When Robert joins them, the conversation ends, but Robert suspects that his wife is having an affair. These suspicions become an obsession.

An unreliable narrator, a suspected extramarital affair … these are plot ingredients guaranteed to capture my attention. Given that I’ve read and enjoyed (to varying degrees)   The Dinner, Dear Mr. M, Summer House with Swimming Pool I expected to enjoy The Ditch. Robert is an interesting character: a glib, facile politician whose superficial slick social manner hides a somewhat spineless, neurotic individual. Unfortunately Robert’s discursive (rambling) narrative overwhelms the fault lines revealed in Dutch society. Intriguing issues emerge but are drowned out by Robert’s self-obsession and paranoia; he’s a slippery narrator and ultimately his paranoia and frequent digressions leave little to hold onto.

review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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The Thief: Ruth Rendell

My copy of The Thief, which has rather large print, is a morality tale about a young woman named Polly, who learns, as a child, that theft can be a way of exacting revenge. When we first meet Polly, she is 8 years old. Following Polly’s refusal to listen to her aunt, Polly is pulled aside and smacked for her behaviour. This is all done in a rather odd pathological manner, with the aunt leading Polly away, promising to “show” Polly something. Without speaking a word, Auntie Pauline smacks Polly “hard, ten sharp blows across her bottom.” Polly doesn’t tell her mother but instead, in revenge, Polly steals one of her aunt’s library books. …

Freud would probably love that story: Polly’s aunt doesn’t tell Polly WHY she’s smacking her and the incident is never addressed. It’s tucked away neatly into Polly’s psyche and theft becomes a rewarding way of behaving whenever Polly is upset, humiliated or thwarted. It’s a covert way of getting her own back. A method of empowerment.

In adulthood, Polly doesn’t mend her ways … that is until she meets Alex:

She mostly told him the truth. It wasn’t hard to be truthful with him.

He is making me a better person, she said to herself.

Polly flies to New York to attend a wedding and is unfortunate enough to sit next to an obnoxious man called Trevor Lant. He’s a nightmare passenger and these days would be thrown off the plane (serve him right too). He makes a nuisance of himself and then hits on Polly. When she dismisses his advances, Trevor humiliates her, making her journey hell, but what’s even worse, he’s there on the plane for the return trip.

Faced with Trevor’s aggression, Polly strikes back and she reverts to her old behaviour. When the opportunity arises, she steals Trevor’s suitcase. …

Due to the short length of the story, events pile upon each other rapidly. This is not Rendell’s best work but should appeal to fans. Rendell is fascinated with the motivations for crimes, the dirty little secrets that spill out despite efforts to contain and control them. In The Thief, Polly finds it easier to revert to her old behaviours, and then once she is on that old, well-trodden path, she finds it impossible to find another way. In the past Polly has dealt with people by stealing (and lies), and all of these incidents have ended with Polly feeling a hollow triumph, but this time, she crosses paths with someone who makes her look like an amateur.

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