The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

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Disclaimer: Renee Knight

In Disclaimer from Renée Knight, Catherine, a forty-something, married documentary film-maker has just downsized into a maisonette with her husband Robert. Prior to going to sleep one night, she picks up a self-published paperback, A Perfect Stranger and begins to read. Horrified, she realizes that the book tells the story of an incident that occurred years earlier, something she’s deeply ashamed of, and something she thought she’d hidden….

Chapters initially alternate (this changes as Robert is dragged into this drama) between Catherine and another narrator, Stephen Brigstocke, a widowed schoolteacher. I can’t say much more about the plot without revealing too much,  but I will say that chapter two reveals a very disturbed man who’s out for revenge.

disclaimerExactly how these two people are connected : documentary film maker Catherine and the retired teacher is gradually parceled out in small segments of information over the course of the chapters. By about the halfway mark, you know the connection and you also understand it. I have to say that I guessed the connection (not the details) simply by process of elimination and a few clues tossed out there by the author to be picked up and pieced together.

Disclaimer is a domestic thriller of psychological suspense which capitalizes on the fear that something buried in the past will rear up and destroy the present. Early on, we realize that there’s some unspecified rot in Catherine’s marriage to Robert; his role as the supportive husband seems to be long-established as the man who recognizes what Catherine needs before she realises it. There’s a lot of give-and-take there with Robert giving and Catherine taking.

The novel rather cleverly emphasizes that Catherine is more worried about her marriage and her respectable, hard-earned reputation (as a film maker who raises social-consciousness) than she is about the author of The Perfect Stranger who is obviously someone who intends her violence. She’s so terrified that she plays down the danger. Catherine grasps that the story in the book has been fictionalized but she doesn’t perceive the very real threat posed to her–so while she’s worried about her marriage, we readers see the bigger threat barreling straight at her.

Taking the approach of a multiple narrative seems to be a popular approach in domestic crime books these days. This structure certainly provides a framework to move the story and the reader along, but it can also be frustrating and a little false in its delivery. I fall into the latter camp. I became annoyed with the structure and its frank manipulation when it came to parceling out information sometimes placed, it seemed, deliberately to mislead. Others may not feel the same way, and the story certainly is a page turner.

There’s not much more I can say about the book without revealing spoilers, so instead I’ll give a quote.

The whole experience left me with the sensation that I had reached down into a blocked drain and was groping around in the sewage trying to clear it. But there was nothing solid to get hold of. All I felt was soft filth, and it got into my skin and under my fingernails, and its stink invaded my nostrils, clinging to the hairs, soaking up into the tiny blood vessels and polluting my entire system.

I seem to be in the minority opinion about this book as most readers loved it, and here’s a more enthusiastic review from Cleopatra Loves Books.

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Goebbels: Peter Longerich

“We have absolutely no intention of allowing ideas that have been totally eradicated from the new Germany to be reintroduced by film, whether openly or in disguise.”

I came to the new Goebbels biography from Peter Longerich mainly due to my interest in the German film industry during the WWII period. I’ve also seen the film that included excerpts of Goebbels’s diaries (The Goebbels Experiment) and seen various films which depict Goebbels–I’m thinking in particular of Downfall which concentrated on Hitler’s last days in the Bunker and also showed how Goebbels and his wife decided to kill their six children by poisoning before committing suicide themselves.  All this is to say that I had a certain impression of Goebbels rather than solid, intense knowledge. I’m not terribly interested in broad readings of military history, but I am interested in character, and of all the figures in the Third Reich, Goebbels, for his film and propaganda connections, was the one who interested me the most. Now after finishing Peter Longerich’s almost 1000 page biography, I can say that my impression of Goebbels has been altered.

GoebbelsIn this intense, highly readable biography, Goebbels comes across foremost as an empty human being–destined to be a follower of a stronger personality and “given the lack of balance in his personality,” throwing his fate in with Hitler’s “was in a certain sense the logical outcome.” The book certainly presents a solid argument for that. Politics and the Nazi Party gave Goebbels the power and celebrity he craved, and also, equally importantly, gave him a raison d’être. The book charts the unremarkable early life of Goebbels, his first relationships with women, his failed literary ambitions, and his growing anti-Semitism. In 1923, he worked in a bank–a job he loathed and from which he was subsequently fired. He returned home and began keeping those famous diaries. Clearly a “man lacking direction,” he turned to politics and found his niche. I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of Goebbels rise to power and his growing anti-Semitism–for that, read the book, but I will say that Longerich, in charting Goebbels’ career, makes it clear that Goebbels had to make some seismic shifts in his opinions in order to mesh with the Nazi party. While Goebbels initially admired Lenin, “called himself a German Communist, and had seen Russia as a natural ally,” he’s quick to drop that admiration on favour of expediency and eventually “fully internalized Hitler’s arguments.”

His enthusiasm for Hitler as a political “führer” corresponded to messianic sentiments common on the right (we shall return to this theme). His political worldview therefore already bore many of the hallmarks of the “New Right” after the Great War. Accordingly, it is highly improbably that if a political leader of the left had happened to cross his path in the spring of 1924, he would have attached himself so enthusiastically to him and to his ideas. In his burgeoning enthusiasm for National Socialism Goebbels was not alone in the middle-class milieu to which he belonged. Referring to the Reichstag elections scheduled for May 4, he remarked, “All the young people I know are going to vote National Socialist.” His maxim of a few months earlier, that it “does not matter what we believe in, as long as we believe,” cannot therefore be read as proof that Goebbels was a throughgoing relativist or opportunist at this time.

I read one professional review that made the book sound as though it’s packed with Goebbels’s love affairs. This gives a false impression, and while the book initially discusses various love affairs, this focus shifts. While Goebbels always seemed to be in love–“often sustaining two or three affairs at a time,” it’s clear that Goebbels with his gigantic ego and immense self-love, primarily had a love affair with himself.

Full of self-pity, in all these complications he once again saw himself in the role of someone who simply loved everybody and was the victim to the end:

“Little Else, when am I going to see you again? Alma, you lovely minx! Anka, I’ll never forget you! And yet now I’m utterly alone!”

At one point “standing before a portrait of Schiller, he thought he could see physical similarities between himself and the writer,” but then after reading Richard Wagner’s autobiography, he “contemplate[d] the similarities between himself and the composer.” Longerich points out that for Goebbels, “his self-loving reflection .. only had value when it was confirmed by a third person.”

But he had finally reached the conclusion that it was for someone else to be the savior-leader and that his destiny was to be the latter’s first disciple.

This transfer of the role of savior to another person, somebody greater, and the desire for the most perfect possible symbiotic fusion with this idol played to Goebbels’s narcissistic disorder. He himself could only feel great if he had constant confirmation from an idol he had chosen. Hitler was this idol

Longerich argues that Goebbels’s underdog devotion to Hitler was slavish and without limits–as evidenced by his decision to pledge his entire family in the joint suicide–despite the fact that even Magda, at the end, attempted to persuade Hitler to flee.

One of the most intriguing elements to the book is its examination of Goebbels’s weird marriage to Magda with its “triangular relationship” which included Hitler. Before the marriage, Goebbels expresses jealousy regarding the relations between Magda and Hitler, and even questions her “faithfulness.” Some of this could certainly be attributed to Goebbels’s love of drama starring himself, but then again, exactly who was he jealous of? There are too many instances of peculiarity between Magda and Hitler to dismiss entirely any possibly of a love affair.

It is also worth investigating a different version of the marriage plan. A devotee of Hitler’s Otto Wagener, wrote that the plan of a Goebbels-Quandt marriage was conceived in Hitler’s entourage as a way of providing the Party leader with a respectable female partner. According to Wagener, Hitler already had his eye on Magda before he learned to his disappointment that the one he adored was already spoken for by Goebbels. Hitler then developed the notion of building an intimate relationship with Magda who he regarded as the ideal “female opposite pole to my purely masculine instincts.” Hitler believed that a precondition for this was that Magda should be married. Wagener claims that he presented this idea to Magda shortly afterward, simultaneously proposing Goebbels as the candidate for marriage; after some time for reflection both accepted the idea.

Longerich presents the evidence, noting that Wagener’s report “contains one or two chronological inconsistencies” and then lets us decide for ourselves. Given the further information on the marriage with Hitler’s intervention on several occasions, Hitler’s refusal to allow an operation on Magda due to the “bad effects on her face,” and that Magda often “spent days, sometimes weeks, alone with Hitler as his guest,” my money is on Wagener’s version of the Goebbels marriage of convenience.

Longerich juxtaposes and balances excerpts from the diaries, sometimes delusional, with the realities of the war. Goebbels is not completely honest with himself in his diaries; he thought he was writing for posterity–and he was–just not with the magnificent role he’d imagined for himself, but nonetheless it’s made clear, repeatedly by the author through diary entries, that Goebbels was not the intimate confidante of Hitler that he thought he was. Throughout his career and growing role in the Third Reich, Goebbels struggled with party in-fighting, had “to fight for control of propaganda, and also repeatedly, we see Hitler parceling it out.” Goebbels was not privy to Hitler’s war plans and constantly had to play catch up in order to align his ideas with those of Hitler. For example, “it was only on April 8, the day before the invasion of Norway and Denmark, that Hitler considered it fit to inform his propaganda minister about the impending invasion.”  As Longerich notes: “these entries demonstrate yet again how cut off Goebbels was from decision-making in central political matters however hard he might try to maintain the impression that he enjoyed Hitler’s full confidence.” Conversely there is an absence of any “concrete plans for an attack on the Soviet Union” in the diaries until Goebbels was made aware of Operation Barbarossa just a few months before it happened. And here’s a quote to remember:

The whole thing poses certain psychological problems. Parallels with Napoleon etc. But we’ll easily get over them with anti-Bolshevism

And here’s another of my favourites–Goebbels illogically arguing for the Russian invasion when it’s obvious that he’s having to talk himself into it:

But Russia would attack us if we became weak and then we would have  a two-front war, which we shall avoid through this preventive action. Only then shall we have our backs free.

Finally, there was another reason for the attack: “we must also attack Russian in order to free up manpower.”

And:

“It’s rather worrying seeing these piles of snow now even in east Prussia: What will it be like on the eastern front?!”

I’ve always considered Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union insane, and presented here, even with the arguments for invasion, we see the Nazi war machine crumbling and yet even as it deteriorates, the propaganda increases and extermination of the jews increases in its desperate ferocity–almost as if while the Third Reich was being beaten, the puppetmasters hastened their plans in an attempt to accomplish some grotesque manifestation of their sick world vision.

The book charts Hitler’s withdrawal from public view as the war began to look hopeless, and how Goebbels took “on the role of being the regime’s main state orator.” My impression of Goebbels as one of the masterminds of the Third Reich has been eviscerated–although Longerich makes it clear that as it became perfectly obvious that Germany was losing the war, Hitler withdrew from public life, and Goebbels stepped up his role, really exulting in the power and the fact that, finally, he had the role with Hitler he’d craved all those years.

When it comes to books written about some of the more monstrous figures in history–Adolf Hitler, Stalin etc, there’s an enormous difficulty to be overcome by any writer. When you write about the monsters of history, there has to be a very strong interest emanating from the author for a project this size to even get off the ground.  While Goebbels committed horrendous crimes against humanity, the author’s job is to steer the book in an honest, evaluative direction and avoid clichés and easy shots, so the common pitfalls of disgust must be avoided. Peter Longerich does a tremendous job here of uncovering the very flawed, very mediocre man who managed to soar in Germany due to extraordinary times. Goebbels had a very good grasp of some aspects of human nature–especially population control. For example, the way he called a one-day boycott of all jewish businesses to curb the “atrocity propaganda abroad” was most effective in its execution. Goebbels’s used thuggery early on for population suppression tactics, and he modelled propaganda on advertising techniques. Longerich paints a portrait of a man who was not Hitler’s most intimate confidant–even though he desperately longed to be: “Hitler, who had quickly recognized Goebbels’s psychological dependence on him, systematically exploited it during the two decades of their relationship.” As others in Hitler’s circle dropped out, fled, were expelled, Goebbels remained, and the dogged devotion he’d always shown to Hitler initially had its twisted reward:

Thus Goebbels had indulged his narcissistic needs to the limit. By following Hitler’s example and committing suicide with his family, he had confirmed for all time the special relationship he believed he had with his idol

This is a marvelous biography, so beautifully in-depth, and it’s recommended to anyone interested in the subject matter. Finally, and here’s something I never knew: “Goebbels simply disliked crime films.”

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe.

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A Game of Hide and Seek: Elizabeth Taylor

I’ve read four Elizabeth Taylor novels so far. Loved a couple of them and liked the others. A Game of Hide and Seek–a subtle, clever novel about middle-aged regret falls into the latter category.

The novel opens with its two central characters, Vesey and Harriet during the holidays in the countryside. Vesey is going off to Oxford in the autumn, “his next steps would take him over the threshold of a new and promising world” but for the moment he’s staying with his aunt Caroline and Uncle Hugo and their two children, Deirdre and Joseph. Former suffragette Caroline is best friends with Harriet’s mother, Lilian, and both women were once arrested for their beliefs. There’s the sense that there’s an immense gap between generations. Harriet “fulfilled none of the ambitious desires” of her mother, and Vesey is an annoyance to his uncle:

Hugo Macmillan had still much of that poetic ebullience which distinguished so many young men just before the 1914 war. He suggested in middle-age, a type of masculinity now perhaps vanished to the world; the walking tours in perfect spring weather, Theocritus in pocket: an aesthetic virility. He had gone on being Rupert Brooke all through the war–a tremendous achievement–and was only now, much later, finding his enthusiasms hardening into prejudices and, sometimes, especially with Vesey, into a techy disapproval of what he did not understand. His old-fashioned liberalism now contained elements of class-hatred; his patriotism had become the most arrogant nationalism. His love and sympathy for the women of his youth, his support in their fight for a wider kind of life, made him unsympathetic to the younger women who came after. Every feminality these young girls (he even called them Flappers) felt free to adopt and they were fewer than usual at that time) he openly despised.

Although Taylor never overworks this idea, there’s the sense that this younger generation are a disappointment for their elders: Hugo, who fought and survived WWI, feels “antagonism” for Vesey’s “laziness and his cynicism.” These days feminism is “a weird abnormality,” and Caroline and Lillian wonder what they fought for.

a game of hide and seekLong summer days are spent by Vesey and Harriet playing hide-and-seek with the children and while the game spins away the hours, it’s also a way for 18-year-old Vesey and Harriet to spend time together alone. Harriet is in love with Vesey, but Vesey looks forward to what he assumes is his brilliant future. While Caroline predicts a mediocre academic career for Vesey, he imagines himself as an influential “literary figure [rather] than as a man at work.” There’s an arrogance there that translates to occasional cruelty towards Harriet. Harriet’s romance with Vesey is brought to an abrupt halt, and Harriet begins work as a junior shop assistant in a dress shop. The “senior” assistants are all single women, desperate and rather sad, given to extreme beauty treatments geared towards increasing their shelf life–including man-eater Miss Lazenby who “was always plucking her eyebrows ” until she “had scarcely any eyebrows left, only an inflamed expanse.”

Harriet is gently courted by solicitor Charles Jephcott, a much older man who assumes a fatherly role rather than a romantic one. Charles is boring, respectable, courteous–everything probably to balance the outrageousness of his famous actress mother, Julia, whose main goal in life, and one in which she succeeds admirably, is to “draw attention to herself.” And so, at a bad time in her life, and because she has loved and lost,  Harriet agrees to marry Charles.

Fast forward almost twenty years, and Vesey, now a down-on-his-heels, second-rate actor returns, and all of Harriet’s feelings are reawakened….

A Game of Hide and Seek has some marvellously drawn scenes, for example when Charles insists Harriet attend a performance of Hamlet with Vesey playing Laertes. Charles knows full well that the play will be shabby, and he hopes that the performance will take some of the gilt from Vesey. Possibly the best aspect of the novel is its wonderful secondary characters: the shop assistants at the dress shop, the Jephcott’s Dutch servant Elke, who writes long letters home explaining her confusion about the English, Harriet’s daughter, Betsey who appears to have inherited her grandmother’s histrionic tendencies, and Charles’s awful mother Julia who finds Harriet “dull and slavish,” as she “hovers round [Charles] like a Praying Mantis.” She’s waiting for the marriage to crack and is delighted by the idea that her daughter-in-law might have a lover.

The novel, while exploring the depths of a revived love affair, is not sentimental or even romantic. Instead the novel asks questions such as: Do we get second chances in love?  Or is there a point at which it’s too late to begin again? There’s something very poignant about Vesey, twenty years on, stripped of his youthful arrogance, and what of Harriet who is afraid of showing her middle-aged body?

While I really liked the novel, and find that it sits well in my memory, I couldn’t help the sneaking thought that the sum of the story was not equal to its parts. The secondary characters remain very strongly in my mind, and their creation required a sharp, wicked sense of humour. However, for this reader, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Vesey would have fallen for the middle-aged Harriet any more than he fell for the 18-year-old version–although I did contemplate that perhaps she represented, for him, the moment in his youth when he thought he had the world at his feet. Living with Charles for twenty years has caused his dullness to infect Harriet, and although we know that she’s unhappy and unfulfilled, yet still I wasn’t convinced that Vesey was ever serious about Harriet. But then again, perhaps he wasn’t….Back to that game of hide-and-seek.

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The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism

I’m reading the memoirs of Baron Wrangel, and you know, just from the dates in the title, that this man lived through some fantastic, turbulent times. Wrangel was to live through a number of Tsars, but when the book opens, Emperor Nicholas I ruled Russia “like a gamekeeper.”

Under his administration of the empire, based as it was upon a system of flogging, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, the great could indulge their caprices with impunity, and my father, like most men, was cast in the mould of his period. He carefully concealed his feelings under a mask of harshness.

The author argues that although society consisted of master and serf, ” in reality… the masters were also slaves.” People still remember the Décemberistes, but this is not a topic for discussionIn this culture of extreme censorship and conformity, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia. Later Lermontov fell foul of the same Tsar and was exiled to the Caucasus twice only to meet his tragic death in 1841. Nicholas I wasn’t gentle with some of Russia’s greatest writers.

The memoirs begin, naturally enough, with Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. His mother died when he was four and he only has a few fragmented memories of her.  It’s  a large household–four boys, three girls, many serfs, and two aunts. Aunt Ida is “shrewish and spiteful,” but Aunt Jeanne is completely different:

Aunt Jeanne, on the other hand, was a kind soul, simple-minded and good-hearted. Brought up when the Emperor Paul was still alive, at the “convent of Smolny for daughters of the nobility,” she retained the traditions of that period. Through fear of being thought “shameless,” she never spoke to young men, and would blush and cast down her eyes when replying to gentlemen of ripe years. She usually kept to her own apartments, and preferred playing with her pugs and listening to the song of her canaries to taking part in conversation in the drawing room. The amount of sweets she was able to devour was unbelievable. Even to watch her was enough to give one indigestion.

Our great delight was to ask her the time. The answer was invariably the same. “Thank God, I have never been compelled to learn that. For such things I have my women.” And she would ring for her maid.

“Tell me what time it is by this watch.”

What a culture of contrasts. A member of the nobility who calls her maid to tell the time, a nursemaid who faces down Nikolai’s father in order to spare the children a whipping, and serfs married to those “allotted” to them while the idea of free choice is a subject of hilarity.

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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The Crime at Black Dudley: Margery Allingham

I’ve been meaning to read Margery Allingham (1904-1966) for years, and what better way to start than with her first Albert Campion novel, The Crime at Black Dudley (1929).  The best way to describe the story is as a romp; there are elements of thrilling adventure in this tale and lots of humour introduced through the bizarre character of Albert Campion.

Most of the novel is set inside an isolated gothic country mansion–the Black Dudley of the title, and it’s here that guests gather for a weekend houseparty. There’s a small handful of guests: George Abbershaw, who turns out to be the main character, is a famous doctor who specializes in pathology “with special reference to fatal wounds.” George is there to pursue the attractive Margaret Oliphant, another member of the party. Also attending is actress Anne Edgeware, newly qualified doctor, Martin, his fiancée Jeanne, Cambridge rugger player, Chris Kennedy, a “stray young man” named Martin, and Albert Campion, who, according to Margaret is “quite inoffensive, just a silly ass.” The party is hosted by the Black Dudley’s owner, scholar, Wyatt Petrie, the “head of a great public school, a First in Classics at Oxford, a recognized position as a minor poet, and above all a good fellow.” Wyatt’s wheelchair bound elderly uncle, Colonel Gordon Coombe co hosts the event, and he encourages his nephew to bring young people down to the country in order to enjoy their company.

the crime at black dudleyWhat should be a jolly weekend in the country is immediately overshadowed by the atmosphere of the remote forbidding house and its unwelcoming grounds:

The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely. Miles of neglected park-land stretched in an unbroken plain to the horizon and the sea beyond. On all sides it was the same.

The grey-green stretches were hayed once a year, perhaps but otherwise uncropped save by the herd of heavy-shouldered black cattle who wandered about them, their huge forms immense and grotesque in the fast-thickening twilight.

In the centre of this desolation, standing in a thousand acres of its own land, was the mansion, Black Dudley; a great grey building, bare and ugly as a fortress. No creepers hid its nakedness, and the long narrow windows were dark-curtained and uninviting.

But while Black Dudley is a daunting setting, there are definitely other bad vibes in the air, and Abbershaw with a “presentiment–a vague, unaccountable apprehension of trouble ahead” almost immediately senses that two “foreigners” who never leave the Colonel’s side are very unpleasant types who seem out-of-place with the rest of the company.

Well what entertainment is there to be had at night in a vast, forbidding mansion? Someone has the brilliant idea to play a game involving the Black Dudley Ritual dagger which was used to murder a guest back in 1500. Legend has it that the dagger “betrayed” the murderer by appearing to be covered in blood when placed in the guilty man’s hands. But nowadays, the dagger isn’t used in a superstitious way to discover a man’s guilt or innocence; it’s “degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. All the lights are put out, and then the dagger is passed around in the darkness for a period of twenty minutes. The person left with the dagger at the end paid a forfeit.” And so the game begins:

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room.

It’s fairly easy to guess that something horrible is going to happen in the dark, but what isn’t so easy to guess is all that happens afterwards. Crime is blended with suspense and thrilling adventure, so this isn’t a standard who-dun–it.

Since The Crime at Black Dudley is the first Albert Campion novel, it would be reasonable to expect that this character takes centre stage, but no this is primarily Abbershaw’s story. There’s the sense, since Campion is not the main focus, that author Margery Allingham didn’t quite know what she’d created with this character. He comes off initially as a buffoon, a man who performs pathetic little magic tricks which seem to be more for his own amusement than anything else. That mask slips later on, and yet we still don’t know the real Albert Campion, a man whose talents and resourcefulness, under pressure, seem endless:

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason–for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar–quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

This is a novel which features the upper classes of British society, so servants are mostly invisible and the one we see in any detail is as nutty as a fruitcake.  This is 1929, so German phobia–that dreaded “hun” reigns supreme, the women are frail creatures to be protected by the men, and the one bobby who appears towards the end of the book drops the ‘h’s in his speech. All these class, sex, and ethnic prejudices go with the territory, so they must be endured as relics of the age. I read some reviews by readers who found Albert Campion’s character annoying. I didn’t, but I will admit that I was a little surprised when he was initially introduced as a member of the party as he comes across as an upper-class twit, but this is a partially fake persona and Campion really comes into his own when things heat up.

review copy

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The Sudden Arrival of Violence: Malcolm Mackay (Glasgow Trilogy 3)

“You live your life with big secrets and they come to define you.”

Book 1 in the Glasgow Trilogy, The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter introduced main character, the meticulous, laconic freelance gunman, Calum MacLean. In this first novel, Calum is hired by crimelord, Peter Jamieson to kill lowlevel drug dealer, Lewis Winter. Lewis has been part of the Glasgow drug scene for years, but he’s started poaching on Jamieson’s turf. His execution will be a message to Winter’s powerful new friends.

Book 2: How a Gunman Says Goodbye heralds the return of the Jamieson’s organization’s aging gunman, Frank MacLeod to the job following his convalescence in Spain for a knee surgery. Both books examine the individual within the criminal organization with a solid argument to support that a gunman is destined to have a lonely, solitary life due to the nature of his chosen profession. Both Calum and Frank’s stories of how they operate and conduct business are set against the simmering turf war between Jamieson and car dealer Shug Francis, an ambitious man who wants to seize Jamieson’s business concerns. Jamieson is a mid-level gang lord–not a particularly good place to be. It’s easy to be cannibalized by another upward moving competitor.

the sudden arrival of violenceBook 3: The Sudden Arrival of Violence begins with Calum now under the yoke of the Jamieson organization. No longer freelance, he cannot pick and choose his jobs, and the book opens with Calum completing a very unpleasant hit against a civilian. The job confirms Calum’s decision: to leave the business while he still can…

While Calum plots his escape, Jamieson is plotting to bring down Shug Francis and his operation. This involves concocting a story that will implicate Shug in a violent crime, and using key people, carefully placed, to make sure that the police swallow Jamieson’s fiction. On the outside looking in is DI Fisher, busy putting two and two together and coming up, repeatedly, thanks to corrupt coppers, with the wrong numbers. Underneath the murky surface of both Shug and Jamieson’s organization are betrayals, mixed loyalties, and double crosses, and Fisher is picking up the pieces of gingerbread which lead him right to the conclusion Jamieson wants him to make.

Writing a review of the third volume in a trilogy presents a challenge as you can’t say too much about the plot without revealing spoilers from the other books, so instead, I’ll concentrate on characters and quotes.

There are two ways of playing the situation that Calum’s in. The subtle way, and the sledgehammer way. From where Calum’s standing, the subtle way looks like a waste of time. They know he’s running and they’re making moves against him. They must know that he’ll work out what they’re up to. Playing subtle achieves nothing. Can’t trick them, when they know more than he does. So you go down the sledgehammer route. You go aggressive, confrontational, none too subtle. You let them know that they’re in a bloody great big fight. Let the bastards know that if they want to take you down, they’re going to have to work for it. Few people can play that part well. Most aren’t intimidating enough. Calum is one of the few who is. They know how dangerous he can be.

The first two books in the trilogy examine the role of the individual in the criminal organization, and that theme continues here. The organization’s success rests on brilliant strategic planning but also loyalty to the organization plays a crucial role. In these uncertain times, both Jamieson and Shug Francis must appear to be in control, for some gang members may jump ship if they sniff weakness or disaster ahead. Jamieson’s right hand man, the strategical brain of the operation, is Young, an unpopular man, but Jamieson’s trusted lieutenant. Shug Francis has a similar relationship with Fizzy–a man he’s known since his boyhood. In this novel, both Jamieson and Shug question the decisions of their right hand men–can Fizzy grow with Shug’s big new plans? Does Young make a terrible mistake when he tries to block Calum’s exit strategy? Friendships within the organization are not encouraged as loyalty to the organization comes first before any personal feelings, and in book 3, that makes a difficult choice for muscle man, George–a man who’s accompanied Calum on many a job and even took orders from Young to sabotage Calum’s relationship with a woman.

Both George and Calum, still young men, are prime examples of how you ‘can’t be a little bit criminal.’ Both men want to pick and chose their jobs, but by this third volume, they are both being sucked down into the criminal vortex of the Jamieson organization. Here’s Shug mulling over his decision to get into the drug trade:

That’s the problem with things being easy. You think it’s going to stay that way. You think that if you can put together a car-ring, then you can put together a drugs network. Control it top to bottom. You become used to that level of control when you have an untouchable operation. So you plot. You organize. You employ. You identify the weakness in others. Identify the target and the mechanisms you can use to bring it down. Take the target’s share of the market. The  move onto the next. The next one always being slightly bigger than the last. Keep working it that way until you get to the top.

Peppered with memorable, strongly drawn, vivid characters, this excellent, hard-hitting series is highly recommended for crime fans who like their crime novels bleak and dark. This third volume of this gritty, hard-driving trilogy leaves the possibility of a fourth book (removing the ‘trilogy’ from the series) wide open….

Review copy.

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Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

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The Sussex Downs Murder: John Bude

The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.” 

Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.

The Sussex Downs MurderThe Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….

So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.

John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.

Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:

It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.

Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.

Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.

While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:

You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.

Review copy

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The Children’s Crusade: Ann Packer

“I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of a filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added.”

You can’t approach Ann Packer’s novel, The Children’s Crusade without evoking images of the 13th century and the disastrous (and possibly exaggerated) historic event in which thousands of children participated in a crusade to convert Muslims to Christianity. In Ann Packer’s novel, the crusade in the title concerns the desire of four children to try to include their mother in their lives–something that’s far more complicated than it first appears, but I want to back up a bit before going further.

The Children’s Crusade begins in 1954 when Michigan native Dr. Bill Blair, freshly discharged from the navy, discovers the wonders of Portola Valley. He buys a 3.1 acre property, begins a second residency in pediatrics at UCSF, and marries a woman he meets, Penny, when taking in a watch to be repaired. Eventually Bill and Penny have 4 children together: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James, and the children are brought up in what should be an idyllic location in an enviable home. The children's crusadeThe novel goes back and forth in time, so in alternating chapters, we see the children as they grow up and what they have become in adulthood. Robert is a doctor specializing in Geriatrics–married with children, but now middle-aged, depressed and unhappy, he can’t really understand where his life went wrong. Rebecca is a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatrics. Ryan is a teacher happily married to a French-Canadian woman, and the youngest, James, is the black sheep of the family who returns home when things go south in Oregon.

The novel’s main dilemma, wrestled with in the chapters set in the present, is what to do with the family home now that Bill Blair is deceased. The house and the land, worth millions, is currently rented to a wealthy man who wants to buy the property, tear down the original house and build a mega-mansion. It’s tempting to sell it and divide the money, but that decision also involves demolishing the myth of a happy home life and will also involve some agreement between the children and their mother, Penny Blair.

This is a profoundly sad, yet moving novel, for while dysfunctional family stories pop up like weeds, the Blair family is functional–they get by and cope even though things, under the surface, are far from normal. Bill Blair is a wonderful father, but as one of the children’s friends note, he’s more like a mother. Where does the rot in the Blair family begin? Does it begin with Bill Blair’s choice of a wife? His own mother is an excellent housekeeper, but for Penny raising four children, producing meals and cleaning the house are beyond her interests and capabilities. But since this is the 50s, it takes some decades for Penny to break out of the mold. But then what about Bill Blair–a man who cares so much about his patients that there’s very little left over at the end of the day for his wife.

As we read the narrative from each child’s perspective, the Blair family history is gradually revealed with each child assuming some sort of important role in the family’s structure. Always anxious, Robert, for example, lives to make his father proud, but James, the youngest child, becomes the one person who openly acknowledges his mother’s choices, and because he speaks while everyone else is silent, he becomes the family scapegoat and the family mouthpiece who states the things that everyone else avoids. As an adult, James cannot settle down, “a seeker who was seeking the identity of his own grail,” and yet now he returns to the scene where everything went wrong. James’s return heralds a period of discomfort and realignment for the siblings as they each confront their own history.

It’s the female characters here who are the most interesting. First there’s Penny Blair–who hated being a ‘homemaker’ but endured that role, with questionable success for decades, and then there’s her daughter, psychiatrist Rebecca, who enjoys a surprisingly supportive marriage, and who thinks she can pinpoint the moment in her life when she chose her career. She was waiting, along with her mother and siblings, for their father when he stops at the hospital to check on a patient:

I told my mother I wanted to leave, and she said we couldn’t leave, but if I promised to be quiet I could go over to the window. On the other side of the glass window people were moving quickly: doctors in white coats, nurses in caps, regular people in regular clothes. They were alone or in pairs, talking or not. I didn’t know why or how, but I knew they were different from the people in the cafeteria. And to get closer to them all I had to do was be quiet. Was this the moment when the seeds of my vocation were planted? I’ve always thought so. I wanted to be on the other side of the window, away from the sick and the worried. And to get there, I should cease talking. I should listen.

It’s interesting that James, the child who has the most problems with his mother, and the one who is the most confrontational with her, should also be the one who fails to find his way in life. Robert, Rebecca and Ryan all seem to find their vocations, and yet James, the family’s last child, is totally lost.

The Children’s Crusade argues that our characters are shaped in childhood, but there’s a deeper, more troubling question here and that is Penny’s behaviour. At what point do the considerations and desires of the individual exceed the demands of the family that a parent has committed to raise? Is Penny’s behaviour selfish? How difficult is it to be married to a man who gives everything to his patients and has little, emotionally, left to give his wife?

One of the most interesting and arguably the most difficult aspects of marriage is establishing boundaries between the entity of the couple and the individual. Packer’s tale explores the invisible boundaries between the individual, the couple  and the parent. Given that these people live very privileged material lives (the estate to be divided between the four children is worth several million) this  has the strange result of making us conclude that if these people have problems then what chance do other, less materially advantaged people have, and that thought can at once be comforting and disconcerting.

Many people have far worse childhoods than the Blair children, and those readers may find the tale underwhelming. The main dilemma of whether or not to sell the family home and carve up over 3 million is a problem most of us wouldn’t mind dealing with, yet material privilege cannot trump all other deprivations. That brings me to the other issues at play here regarding the terrible burden of Bill Blair’s dream and how his dream didn’t mesh with his wife’s desires. And here’s a quote that defines Penny’s problematic role in her family’s life when she’s found by her husband and children in her private space:

“Bill saw that the children were defining the moment as a rescue operation rather than the act of capture it actually was.”

Review copy.

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