The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

First, an admission: I would never have started the Danish crime novel The Forgotten Girls from author Sara Blaedel if I’d known that it was number 7 in a series. Apparently it’s a number 1 bestseller in Denmark, and due to the current demand for Nordic crime fiction, the book will probably fare well in N. America.

I was well into the book before I began to pick up clues that this was not an introduction to Blaedel’s main character, the feisty, single, Louise Rick. Suddenly backstory began to appear in the crime under investigation, and so I took a look at Goodreads and discovered that The Forgotten Girls is number 7 in the Louise Rick series and while I may be missing something, I can’t see where number 1 in the series has been translated into English–although numbers 2, 3 and 4 appear to be available in English.

Excuse me while I rail at the illogicality of this….

The Forgotten GirlsIn The Forgotten Girls, Louise Rick has left the Copenhagen Homicide Department, and in “an unusual step down,” returns to her home town to become “the technical manager of the Special Search Agency”:

Each year, sixteen to seventeen hundred people were reported missing in Denmark. Many turned up again and some were found dead, but according to the assessment of the National Police, there was a crime behind one out of five of the unsolved missing person reports.

Her department was tasked with investigating these cases.

Investigating missing persons reports is, as it turns out, an important distinction; she’s not supposed to investigate or solve murders, and this becomes quite clear as the plot moves on. As head of the New Special Search agency, Louise arrives at the right moment, for shortly after her arrival, she gets her first case. An autopsy is conducted on a woman found dead in the woods near a lake in mid-Zealand, and although she appeared to die from injuries from a fall, there are some bizarre aspects to the case. The woman was barefoot and dressed in old-fashioned shabby clothing. No one has stepped forward to identify the mystery woman in spite of the fact that she has a huge scar that destroyed one side of her face. She also had horribly neglected teeth and a long-ago broken bone in her forearm that was not treated. Someone must be missing this woman, so why has no one claimed the body?

So this is the central mystery to the story, and eventually Louise and her new partner, Eik Nordstrøm, a man who seems to make a habit out of drinking hard and showing up for work late, find that their investigation takes them back into the past and the archaic attitudes towards treating the mentally handicapped.

Ok, enough of the plot.

There’s a lot of backstory here: some present–some absent–and there were moments when I wondered why on earth Louise decided to go back to her old stomping grounds where everyone is so friggin’ freaky. This a community in which a local bully holds sway over his peers, weirdos live in the woods, and people seem to be either running around hanging themselves or perpetuating rape. Ok, a bit of exaggeration, but as the distant sound of banjos played in my head, there did indeed seem to be a thread here which more than hints that the locals are odd. Not only are the locals strange, but the old gang from school don’t exactly remember Louise fondly. She frequently runs into the old crowd and these encounters just bring back a lot of painful memories. Some catch-up paragraphs helped explain some of the incidents in Louise’s past but her decision to return home, without the backstory, seemed either misguided or a moment of temporary insanity. Perhaps the earlier books fill in that gap.

The mystery of the dead woman is weighed against various personal problems faced by Louise. Her friend, the journalist Camilla, is planning a big wedding to a very wealthy man, and Louise’s involvement in her work may lead to difficulties with establishing boundaries with a neighbour. The ending seemed a little too Hollywood for me (read over-the-top), and I guessed the solution to the mystery way back, and that left me wondering what the hell the police were playing at. In spite of the fact that both the treatment of mentally ill and the mentally handicapped play significant roles in the tale, this is not a deep crime novel. Instead, its appeal probably rests on attachment to the characters and their lives, and since I haven’t read the other 6 books, I can’t comment on the series or how this book stands compared to the rest. However, Louise, as an unsubtle, two-dimensional main character, didn’t have much appeal for this reader–although I did warm to Eik when, after interviewing a particularly bitter, unhappy witness, he states that “that’s enough to make you want a drink,” when we already know that he doesn’t need much of an excuse.

Translated by Signe Rød Golly

Review copy

 

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Filed under Blaedel, Sara, Fiction

Nate in Venice by Richard Russo

In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:

The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.

Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:

Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.

There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.

Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.

Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.

This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man– one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.

As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.

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Happy Are the Happy by Yasmina Reza

Other people’s happiness often seems somehow aggressive.”

Structurally, French author and playwright, Yasmina Reza’s novel Happy Are the Happy reminded me of Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Fame. Both novels do not follow a straight narrative, but instead the book is constructed of multiple interconnected voices. While in Fame, the theme centered on identity, fame and the cell phone, in Reza’s Happy Are the Happy, the focus is happiness. Through 21 chapters and 18 voices, questions regarding the ephemeral nature of happiness emerge: what does it take to make a person happy, why do we sometimes deliberately seem to sabotage ourselves, and is happiness even possible for the sane?

Part of the fun with this book is picking out the connections between the characters who include a bickering married couple: Robert and Odile Toscano, their friends the Hutners, Loula Moreno–an attention-seeking trainwreck of an actress who admits she prefers “the dangerous irrational type,” Chantal–the mistress of a married man, Doctor Chemla, a well-respected oncologist who equates passion with abasement and pain, and a couple of Chemla’s patients.

happy are the happyI’m not going to distill each chapter and every voice into a couple of sentences–instead I’m just going to mention my favourites, and I’ll start with the very first chapter which is told by Robert Toscano, a married man who tells the story of a traumatic trip to the supermarket with his wife Odile. The simple quest for food turns into a debacle over cheese choices and a knock-down-drag-out occurs in the supermarket in front of an audience of amused/appalled innocent spectators. Since I have a fondness for watching bickering couples in the supermarket, this chapter had great appeal. Of course, in the case of the Toscanos, the problem really isn’t about the cheese in the cart; it’s about the power structure of the marriage, and about knowing the other partner so well, it’s all too easy to know which buttons to push to raise the irritation factor to dangerous levels.

I stand close to Odile and say in a low voice, I’m counting to three. You understand? And for some reason, at the moment when I say that, I think about the Hutners, a couple of friends of ours who are curled up together inside a willed state of conjugal well-being. Lately they’ve taken to calling each other “my own.” I don’t know why the Hutners cross my mind at the moment when an opposite madness has come over me, but maybe there isn’t really a whole lot of difference between Let’s eat well tonight, my own, and I’m counting to three, Odile, in both cases the effort to be a couple causes a kind of constriction of the being, I mean there’s no more natural harmony in Let’s eat well, my own, no not at all, and no less disaster either, except that my I’m counting to three causes a shiver to pass over Odile’s face, a wrinkling of the mouth, the infinitesimal beginnings of a smile, while I must absolutely refrain from beginning to smile myself, of course, as long as I don’t receive an unequivocal green light, even though I really feel like smiling, but instead I’ve got to act as if I haven’t noticed a thing, and so I decide to count, I say one, I whisper the word distinctly, the woman right behind Odile has a ringside view, Odile pushes a bit of discarded packaging with the tip of her shoe, the line’s getting longer and not moving at all, its time for me to say two, I say two, openly, generously, the woman behind Odile practically glues herself to us, she’s wearing a hat, a kind of overturned bucket made of soft felt, I can’t stand women who wear that sort of hat, a hat like that’s a very bad sign, I put something in my look intended to make the woman back off a yard or so, but nothing happens, she considers me curiously

The impasse between Robert and Odile, in the queue for the cheese counter, continues… I loved this chapter because it captures the tension, the build-up and the petty bickering only a couple can perfect to such exquisite levels. And this chapter, the first in the book, is a wonderful introduction to all of Reza’s robust, engaging, genuine voices. Odile Toscano has her own chapter, and this one takes place in the bedroom during another back-and-forth squabble. This time it’s over Odile reading late at night. Robert wants the light off and Odile refuses. The tension is high in this latest power struggle, and with the light being turned on and off, Odile can no longer follow the plot to her book.

I’m cold, I want to pull up the comforter, but it’s stuck under Robert, who inadvertently sat on it. I tug at the comforter. He lets me try to pull it out from under him without lifting himself an inch. I haul on it, groaning slightly. It’s a mute and completely idiotic struggle. In the end, Robert gets up and leaves the room. I turn to the preceding page to figure out who Gaylor is. Robert reappears fairly quickly. He’s got his pants back on. He looks for his socks, finds them, puts them back on. He leaves the room again. I hear him in the hall, opening a closet and rummaging around. Then he goes back into the bathroom, or so it seems to me. On the preceding page, Gaylor’s in the back of a garage arguing with a man named Pal. Who’s this Pal?

Yasmina Reza explores the nature of happiness in one of its more bizarre manifestations through a couple of cancer sufferers. Vincent Zawada relates how he takes his elderly mother, Paulette, for radiation therapy:

While waiting for her radiation therapy session at the Tollere Leman clinic, my mother scrutinizes every patient in the waiting room and says in a barely lowered voice, wig, wig, not sure, not a wig, not a wig … Maman, Maman, not so loud, I say, everybody can hear you. What are you saying? my mother asks. You’re muttering under your breath and I can’t understand you. –Have you turned your ear on?–What? –Where’s your hearing aid? Why don’t you have it on?–Because I have to take it off during the radiation

You normally wouldn’t expect much humour in this situation–a room full of people waiting for their cancer treatments–but here we see that Vincent’s mother is facing treatment, but she still delights in certain things. She finds it “reassuring” that she’s not the “oldest person here” while noting that another patient “won’t last a month.” She also delights herself by telling someone that she’s the doctor’s “pet patient–he says, you’re completely atypical, translation, you should have croaked a long time ago.” There’s also happiness to be found in a flirtation with another patient. This episode shows how the things that make us happy–in the case of Paulette, she needs to feel unique and attractive–continue to make us happy throughout our lives. Also we see how Paulette’s ability to live in the moment allows her to feel happy in spite of her disease. Fellow cancer patient Jean Ehrenfried appears twice more in his own chapters, and at one point he has to listen to the woes of Darius, a self-centered friend who’s visiting Jean in the hospital. Darius, according to Jean “cheated” on his wife “night and day,” so why is he sure he can never be happy again now that his wife finally leaves him for the landscaper?

But my favourite chapter, and it wasn’t easy to pick one, concerns the Hunterts who would seem to have the perfect, sickeningly sweet relationship. According to Robert Toscano the Hunterts are curled up in “a willed state of conjugal well-being,” and willed is the operative word here. While it may appear that they have made this firm decision to be happily married, there’s a lot more under the surface. In fact they have to cope with a son locked up in an institution who thinks he’s Céline Dion. Is it best to leave him happy and delusional waiting for the fans to arrive or to try to bring him back to the misery of reality?

Some readers who seek a linear narrative may not like the book’s structure, but for this reader, since the book is more thematically based, the structure was more than acceptable, and the chorus of voices absolutely delightful. While exploring the nature of happiness, Reza establishes an interesting triangular relationship with the reader, for many of these stories show troubled lives of people who are coping with various dilemmas all told in (with one possible exception) a generous amount of humor. Various theories of happiness drift to the surface as the chapters continue: do we have to be insane in order to be happy, why do we cause our own misery, and why do the bad circumstances endured by others give our lives a sense of superiority? And should we, as Jean notes, “refer to happiness as an end in itself“? Happiness, when it appears in the novel, comes in flashes of unexpected moments as these characters traverse their complicated lives and confront infidelity, friendship, passion, illness, marital strife and the never-ending travails of every day life. The book begins with a Borges quote–a quote that says a lot about our chances of happiness:

Happy are those who are beloved and those who love

and those who can do without love.

Happy are the Happy.

In a strange coincidence, Emma from Book Around the Corner saw a play by Yasmina Reza and posted about her experience a day after I picked up the book. After reading the vibrant chorus of voices in Happy Are the Happy, I can only imagine that the author’s plays are every bit as alive and witty as this book.

Review copy.

Translated by John Cullen

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Filed under Fiction, Reza Yasmina

The Kings of London by William Shaw

She’s Leaving Home was the first in a proposed trilogy from British author William Shaw. Set in the 60s, She’s Leaving Home introduced CID CS Cathal (“Paddy” to his workmates) Breen and Temporary Detective (“Probationer,”) Helen Tozer. Breen, an outsider in D Division, and Tozer, a female copper who wants to cross gender boundaries and work in the Murder Squad, make an interesting team. In She’s Leaving Home, Breen and Tozer investigate the murder of a teenage girl found dead under a mattress. While the crime under investigation in this first novel was engaging, the book’s strength came from the crackling dynamic between Tozer and Breen. This is the Swinging 60s and Breen is feeling left behind and out of touch with the new subversive elements of society whereas Tozer, subjected to continual harassment from her male colleagues, opens doors that close in Breen’s face.

She’s Leaving Home is a solid introduction to the Breen-Tozer team, and so here we have the second in the series The Kings of London. Once again, there’s an absence of 60s nostalgia, but this is late ’68, and in this world of shifting morality and changing attitudes, both Breen and Tozer find themselves, once again, butting up against laws and shifting attitudes towards abortion, sexuality, and narcotics.

Kings of LondonBreen investigates the death of Francis Pugh, living on a trust fund, a man who played the field with an endless stream of married women, and who collected art. He’s found dead in his home moments before it, and any possible evidence, explodes into a fire. Francis was the son of a Welsh politician, and so pressure’s on for Breen to solve the case, but also to not make noise when seeking witnesses.

She’s Leaving Home took this reader straight back into the 60s–a strange time–a time when meaningful social change occurred but was somehow tragically derailed by the drug culture. In The Kings of London, the cultural references were occasionally, just occasionally, more like name dropping rather than bricks in the solid wall of genuine atmosphere. The story has a strong 60s feel, and it’s mostly ugly: Tozer’s boss doesn’t hesitate to grope her, Tozer lives in segregated housing, Breen must suffer the bother of feeding the electric meter, people fire up cigarettes casually in restaurants, the now vanished rag-and-bone men (immortalized by Steptoe and Son) make an appearance, and a disabled child is ordered to leave the library by an employee. It’s these well-worked in references that build and create atmosphere, placing us effectively in the attitudes and expectations of the Age. The more obvious references–especially to the rockstars, added too much name-dropping tinsel and felt forced.

The strength of She’s Leaving Home is absolutely in the dynamic between Tozer and Breen. There’s a sexual attraction from Breen towards Tozer, but she, a child of the 60s has an entirely different attitude towards relationships. In The Kings of London, Tozer, who’s decided to leave the force and plans to return to the family farm in Devon, is somewhat sidelined, but every time she appears in the book, that central dynamic resurfaces. And what’s so interesting here is that even though just a few years separate Breen and Tozer, they are clearly the products of a different age. Unfortunately for Breen, he’s caught between floors; he doesn’t fit with the Establishment and its values, but neither can he adjust to this new world of hippies, Hare Krishna, Free Love, and the Psychedelic 60s.

Breen is the main focus here, and we see his character shift as he’s forced to either allow the Establishment to roll over his career or to take steps to manipulate his future. There’s some unfinished business at the end of the novel, but even more intriguingly we see Breen developing and, as he fights for his career, wondering if this is how corruption begins.

He was fifteen minutes early for the 11:52 at Paddington. He stood on the platform end. He was back at work. He was a policeman again. He had something to do. But he was also a little appalled at himself. First Tarpey, now Creamer. This was the way it started. A slow corruption.

Many of the characters first seen in She’s Leaving Home continue their stories in this second volume. The unpopular “old-school policeman,”  Inspector Bailey, who never seems to connect with D Division, is still as out of touch as ever, Division secretary Marilyn still has a thing for Breen, and the ferrety Jones still can’t quite align himself with impending fatherhood. Given that one on-going thread/mystery in this novel concerns Breen’s arch-enemy, bent, but popular copper Sergeant Prosser, to get the full impact of The Kings of London, She’s Leaving Home should be read first. Fundamentally this is a novel about change–at the fore, of course, is the dynamic, constant shift of the 60s. New Scotland Yard has relocated to posh new digs and the Drug Squad is the place for the ambitious to make their careers.

The Drug Squad was still recruiting. Carmichael wanted Breen to follow him into it. But they were a loud team, brash and confident. Always getting in the papers. Not only were they fighting a whole new type of criminal, but the ones they were arresting were usually far more glamorous than the usual CID fare.

Underneath that main emphasis of the shifting 60s, William Shaw creates characters who must face changes in their lives, whether they seek those changes or not. Tozer is very much a New Woman–a woman who rejects the traditional path of marriage and children. Breen sees Inspector Bailey as a good man but largely ineffectual and fossiled in the attitudes of the past. The big questions remaining at the novel’s conclusion: Can Breen change with the times? Are Breen’s aggressive career moves simply self-defense or is he on a slippery moral slope?

Rock on volume 3….

Review copy

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The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated by the book-to-film connection. Films don’t have to slavishly follow the books on which they are based–case in point: Balzac’s  Colonel Chabert. In the film version, the role of the lawyer Derville is greatly expanded, and only the visuals of a film could convey the immense human carnage and the frozen dead at the Battle of Eylau. And this brings me to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds–one of six stories in this excellent collection. The foreword is written by David Thomson, and rather interestingly, it focuses on the Hitchcock-du Maurier connection. I didn’t really expect that, but was very pleased to read this essay in which Thomson explores the relationship between the writer and the director, noting that “they were good to each other,” and then listing the films Hitchcock made from du Maurier’s books and stories. There’s even an anecdote to consider–a conversation that took place between Truffaut and Hitchcock when the former asked Hitchcock “how many times he’d read The Birds.”

What I do is to read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I just forget all about the book and start to create cinema.

The foreword goes on to explain Hitchcock’s dilemmas with Rebecca & Jamaica Inn, and also how Hitchcock’s vision of The Birds gave us the film we have today. Certainly if any film captures an audience with its visuals, then that film must be The Birds. The Birds is, arguably, as iconic a film as Psycho, so there’s really no need to delve into plot other than to say it’s Birds vs Man. Yes there’s plenty of visual imagery in the story (the film was shot at Bodega Bay), but interestingly, for this reader, it’s the silences contrasted with the sounds that resonate in my memory.

the birdsThe book’s main character is Nat, a disabled part-time laborer whose WWII experiences help him to prepare for the birds. He lives on the Cornish coast in a small cottage with his wife and two children

He got up and went out of the back door and stood in the garden, looking down towards the sea. There had been no sun all day, and now, at barely three o’clock, a kind of darkness had already come, the sky sullen, heavy, colorless like salt. He could hear the vicious sea drumming on the rocks. He walked down the path, halfway to the beach. And then he stopped. He could see the tide had turned. The rock that had shown in midmorning was now covered, but it was not the sea that held his eyes. The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring and circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.

Here’s Nat and his family, trapped in their house listening to the birds trying to break in:

The tapping went on and on and a new rasping note struck Nat’s ear, as though a sharper beak than any hitherto had come to take over from its fellows. He tried to remember the names of the birds, he tried to think which species would go for this particular job. It was not the tap of the woodpecker. That would be light and frequent. This was more serious, because if it continued long the wood would splinter as the glass had done. Then he remembered the hawks. Could the hawks have taken over from the gulls? Were there buzzards now upon the sills using talons as well as beaks? Hawks, buzzards, kestrels, falcons–he had forgotten the birds of prey. He had forgotten the gripping power of the birds of prey. Three hours to go, and while they waited the sound of the splintering wood, the talons tearing at the wood.

The second story, Monte Verita, is a sort of blend of Lost Horizons meets Heaven’s Gate. This was my next-to-least favourite in the collection. This is followed by The Apple Tree, a psychological tale of a middle-aged widower who feels nothing but relief when his wife dies. This is an interesting tale as the main character, a man of limited self-evaluation, isn’t exactly nice, and we only get negative memories of his now dead wife, Midge. Delighted to find himself unexpectedly unfettered, the widower remembers his deceased wife as a passive aggressive long-suffering martyr, but there are hints in this story of a stale marriage and that perhaps Midge really did suffer:

So they lived in different worlds, their minds not meeting. Had it been always so? He did not remember. They had been married nearly twenty-five years and were two people who, from force of habit, lived under the same roof.

Through the widower’s memories, we see how he and his wife stumbled through their lives and their marriage, but it was the husband’s retirement that forced them together. Now Midge’s death has relieved her spouse from creating excuses to avoid her company:

The ideal life, of course, was that led by a man out East or in the South Seas, who took a native wife. No problem there. Silence, good service, perfect waiting, excellent cooking, no need for conversation; and then, if you wanted something more than that, there she was, young, warm, a companion for the dark hours. No criticism ever, the obedience of an animal to its master

The Little Photographer is the story of a young, bored, & beautiful married Marquise, so in love with herself, she can’t even imagine the trouble she invites to her doors when left to her own devices while on holiday. Kiss Me Again Stranger is the story of a young man who meets the girl of his dreams–or so he thinks. The Old Man is too tricky to describe and my least favourite story in the collection. This collection of du Maurier stories is well worth reading for the intro and The Birds  alone, but  what’s interesting here is du Maurier’s range: horror, fantasy, crime and the psychological domestic drama.

Review copy/own a copy

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The Long Green Shore: John Hepworth

When I read Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, In Certain Circles, there’s a brief mention that one of the characters has returned home damaged from a POW camp. While this aspect of the plot is just a small detail in the overall storyline, I realized how little I knew about Australia’s involvement in WWII, and that brings me to The Long Green Shore, a novel written by John Hepworth.

At just over 200 pages, this is a short, tense novel which concerns a battalion of Australian soldiers as they fight for control of the Northern Coast of New Guinea, and the book’s intensity and heart-breaking feeling of authenticity are derived from the author’s personal experiences during WWII. Post WWII, the novel was rejected and was not published until after the author’s death, and so here is this classic war novel which focuses mostly on camaraderie, moments of incredible heroism, and as the author notes, “war in its classic wastefulness.” As Hepworth explains in his note at the beginning of the book, “from the last Christmas of the Second World War until that war ended, two brigades of the Sixth Australian Infantry fought an obscure but at times bitter and bloody campaign along the savage north coast of New Guinea.” The author adds that the novel “is not, strictly, the story of this campaign,” but a “framework.” It’s not too surprising then that the novel reads like an episodic, gripping memoir.

the long green shoreIn a  third person omniscient narrator which occasionally lands on a collective ‘we,’ there are definitely some main characters here–Janos, from NSW, and his wingman Pez remain constants in the novel with secondary characters including Regan, a young man who’s afraid, Old Whispering John who stinks and has yellow teeth, Cairo Fleming, fatherly Doc, and the Laird. The emphasis is on the relationships between the enlisted men, and while the officers are present, they are remote–a different species living in another zone. The battalion is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Connell, aka Killer Connell, a man who earned his nickname by killing two stray dogs. The men hate Connell for this, and the immediate repercussions during marching exercises illustrate the enlisted men’s solidarity.

The strange duel went on. A clash between a sullen and savage man with the immense mumbo power of discipline and rank behind him and the vast, silent, stubborn anger of a thousand men who would have forgiven him many worse things but could not forgive him shooting two dogs.

By the time the incidents in the novel occurred, the Australian troops were well aware of the Japanese atrocities taking place, so our soldiers, some hardened by combat and death of mates in earlier campaigns in Greece and Egypt, others fresh young kids, are all too aware of the sort of enemy they are fighting and also the fact that it’s better to die in battle than to be taken prisoner. The Australians are also not going to take prisoners, although at one point, a starving Indian, used as some sort of slave by the Japanese, manages to escape to the Australian side.

The book starts off pre-combat with some down time to play cards, write letters, and the arrival of a touch of back-home:

We had received a comforts parcel the day before–you remember those parcels that a benevolent nation distributed for your cultural relaxation and entertainment on shipboard. There were a great number of inspired novelettes in gaudy paper covers with such titles as The Corpse on Fifth Avenue and the Corpse with the Missing Face and Gunfire at Rustler’s Gulch. And they tried to tell us there was a paper shortage back home.

The contents of the parcels, including toothpaste and a bar of soap,  reveal the ignorance of the situation, and this quote reveals a sense of the novel’s tone:

A grateful country looks after its men when they are going into battle. ‘Nothing,’ as Dick the Barber remarked sourly when we opened the parcels, ‘is too good for the Australian soldier.’

The men land on the Northern coast of New Guinea, and although this battalion is to replace the battle-weary Fourth, things initially move slowly and “the troops are used to this old army habit: run like hell to the start point and then sit on your backside for two hours–move two paces and sit some more.” There are rumours that the enemy–“the Nip” is pinned down and in a bad way. “The young reinforcements are cocky and elated,” while “the old hands are not so complacent” as they know that “a starving man is fierce.” The seasoned troops have developed various philosophical approaches to dealing with their situation; they know to conserve their energy, eat and sleep when given the opportunity and hope that they don’t “go Troppo.”

As the Australians arrive, The American troops are leaving the area and there’s the remains of a bulldozed-over cemetery–the American troop ship is leaving with a mountain of coffins:

The heavy, leaden grey casks of the Yankee dead are stacked over in one corner of the area. There are several hundred of them.

One of the first thing the men do is to “scrounge through” the “Yank camp” as “The Yanks always seem to have too much of everything–compared to us–and they always seem to leave half their gear behind them when they go.”

The Yank rations are so good that even their rubbish dumps have better food than we’ve got in our kitchens. Every tent is crowded now with tins of pineapple and peanut butter and assorted stews and hashes. In some of the field rations there are cigarettes and glucose lollies. At night we drink American coffee and munch American issue chocolate (made in Australia, but not for us) and puff American cigarettes.

All this occurs before the combat begins, and when it begins, it swoops in bringing swift, brutal death. As some men die, the survivors continue to their objective. During down time, there’s discussion of the lives the men left behind which include various women problems–women who haven’t waited for their men, women who’ve been involved in affairs, women who want a divorce and move to America. There’s the strong sense that even if these men survive, the lives they return to will be irrevocably altered.

For foreign readers, some of the dialogue (a relatively small amount) may be difficult to follow for its vocabulary and also for the ‘accents’ that occasionally appear in the text. For example, here’s an American speaking (and I wish writers wouldn’t do this):

‘Say, she’s sharp,’ admired the American. ‘She’s gart class.’

He dug out his own wallet. ‘No, nart that one–that’s muh wife. This other ones–that’s muh Bella.’

As a war novel, The Long Green Shore was the perfect length and conveys the sense of fatigued, sustained combat, hardened moral vision, & intense camaraderie. The moments of dark humour balance the book’s bleaker passages; this is a story that examines how men maintain humanity in a war that heightens the barbarism sparked for necessary survival. The story here feels very real, and although there are beautifully descriptive passages, the plot appears to lack any fictional or literary construct. There’s just one moment of sentimentality, but even that feels as though it’s genuine homage to the men who died. Highly recommended.

Review copy

 

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A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

“The only difference between the sane and the insane is how many people you can get to agree with you.”

An unreliable narrator in a tightly developed, fascinating, claustrophobic tale of escalating madness … within a few lines, I knew I’d love this book. In A Pleasure and a Calling, author Phil Hogan creates a smoothly operating, high-functioning sociopath, the seemingly respectable owner of a prominent, successful small town real estate company who organises his lifelong programme of intense, obsessive voyeurism by collecting  & using keys of the properties he’s sold. Middle-aged Mr Heming is one of those anonymous men who easily fades into the background, and this just makes his activities that much easier to conduct as through his dream job, he uses easily accessible keys to enter into homes and spy on the residents, probing into their lives, their bank accounts, and their correspondence.

Mr. Heming narrates this tale rather as though he’s talking to an old friend, so the tone is light and leans towards camaraderie. After all, he seems to argue, his hobby really doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?

If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others?

That’s the novel’s very first sentence, and in just a few brief revealing words, sociopath Heming immediately appears to subordinate himself, with a hint of self-pity, to his victims when he calls himself a “slave” to the habits of others. In reality, Heming’s “habit” of breaking into people’s homes, spying on them and in a few cases, ruining their lives, is all about power.

a pleasure and a calllingHeming is the very worst type of sociopath–high functioning, seemingly normal, mingling with ease, able to nimbly mimic the socially required emotions, and, of course, completely lacking a conscience. Through the clever narrative, Heming presents himself initially as some sort of invisible protector of his beloved town, a do-gooder, a righter of wrongs wreaked upon the innocent by some of the nastier residents. At one point, for example, Heming observes a local man impatiently walking his dog and failing to pick up the dog’s poo. This incident outrages Heming’s sensibilities, and so he takes revenge in an incident that is to have powerful, long-range consequences.

A great deal of the novel’s success, and IMO, A Pleasure and A Calling is brilliantly conceived and perfect in its execution, comes from the well-realized creation of Heming. Author Phil Hogan slips into Heming’s skin seamlessly, and Heming’s voice and skewed vision never slips. But another large part of the novel’s success is also established through the novel’s black humour–Heming’s tone of reasonableness & logic.  This is particularly true when Heming is describing the foibles of his customers, and it’s here we see author Phil Hogan’s seductively, skillful technique as he takes us into Heming’s sick mind, and we find ourselves uncomfortably agreeing with Heming’s observations and opinions. Here he is complaining about the Cooksons–a particularly difficult married couple who’ve listed their property for sale:

I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour–upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims–hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar–rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming,’ which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances–I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as them stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows–I suppose she was right.

In Heming, author Phil Hogan brilliantly creates an unforgettable character–a man who’s developed his childhood sneakiness and ‘invisibility’ in order to wreak havoc on those who offend him or who cross him in some way, and as the narrative continues, the mask of Heming as a do-gooder, the guardian angel of his town slips and the true monster underneath is revealed through key events in his childhood, his adolescence and his present. It’s clear that Heming’s life could have taken a rocky path to social failure but for the (un)fortunate circumstance of stumbling upon the very job that automatically grants him trust and allows him unfettered, unlimited access to people’s private lives.

I have to smile when newspapers–so predictable in their attempt to explain the behaviour of those transgressing social norms or the workings of the deviant mind–speak of the ‘double life’ led by this furtive criminal or that. In fact the reverse is true. It is normal people who have a ‘double life’. On the outside is your everyday life of going out to work, and going on holiday. Then there is the life you wish you had–the life that keeps you awake at night with hope, ambition, plans, frustration, resentment, envy, regret. This is a more seething life of wants, driven by thoughts of possibility and potential. It is the life you can never have. Always changing, it is always out of reach. Would you like more money? Here, have more! An attractive sexual partner? No problem. Higher status? More intelligence? Whiter teeth? You are obsessed with what is just out of your reach. It is the itch you cannot scratch. Tortured by the principle that the more you can’t have something the more you desire it, you are never happy.

The humour here is deeply and subtly embedded in the plot. At one point, for example, Heming, blithely enjoys a leisurely meal at one of his “favourite breakfast spots,” cooking for himself and reading the newspaper while the unsuspecting family members are away. Elsewhere in the book, he uses his keys to advance an obsession with a female home owner. Towards the end of the book, Heming has occasion to visit a significant figure from his past–another man whose life is ‘a pleasure and a calling.’ The introduction of this element to the book brings Heming’s addictive, compelling story full circle and forms the perfect, ironic conclusion. A Pleasure and a Calling should appeal to fans of Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here –a book that easily made my best of year list in 2011.

review copy/own a copy

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The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith

With the film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January on my watchlist, I moved the novel to the top of the TBR pile. I haven’t read a great deal of Highsmith, and I’ve yet to get to the Ripley novels, but Strangers on a Train was a fantastic read as well as being my favourite Hitchcock film. So I began The Two Faces of January with some high expectations which weren’t quite met.

Rydal Keener is a law school graduate, the son of a Harvard Law professor who’s spending a small inheritance idling in Europe “as long as it lasted.” Now 25, he’s been away for 2 years, and not even the death of his controlling, perfectionist father has persuaded him to return home. Rydal is the black sheep of the family, and with a very unpleasant incident involving a 15-year-old cousin in his past, Rydal is in no hurry to return to America. It’s as though he’s waiting for something to happen. …

The two facesFate throws Rydal into a collision course with married couple: Chester and Colette MacFarland. Middle-aged Chester, a con man whose lucrative specialty is stocks, is in Greece hoping that the heat in America will cool down in his absence. He wants to show his young wife, Colette, on her first trip to Europe, a good time, and he’s stifled her complaints with a “new set of luggage and a mink jacket.

After a few days in Greece, Chester found that he breathed more easily. He enjoyed the strange meals at the tavernas, the little oily dishes of this and that, washed down with ouzo or a bottle of wine that usually neither of them liked, though Chester always finished it. Colette bought five pairs of shoes, and Chester had a suit made of English tweed in a fraction of the time and for less than half what it would have cost him in the States. Still, it was a habit, a nervous habit, for him to glance around the hotel lobby to see if there were anyone who looked like a police agent. He doubted if they would send a man over for him, but the F.B.I had representatives abroad, he supposed. All they would need was a photograph, the collected testimony of a few swindled people, and, by checking with passport authorities, they could discover his name.

Rydal becomes swept up in MacFarland’s affairs when a man is killed. Since Rydal speaks fluent Greek and has plenty of contacts, he helps Chester and Colette with new, forged passports and an escape….

Colette is attracted to Rydal, and the feeling is mutual, so to Chester and even outsiders (the police, Rydal’s friends), Rydal’s involvement is easily explained, and so a triangle emerges with Colette in the middle of a young man she’s attracted to and her much older father-figure of a husband.

Men whom she looked at usually felt transfixed and fascinated by her gaze; there was something speculative in it, and nearly every man, whatever his age, thought, ‘She looks as if she’s falling in love with me. Could it be?’

Highsmith makes it quite clear that this is not a standard love triangle. While Rydal appears to be drawn to Colette (and it’s true that there’s an attraction), she seems to be just another means of resolving Rydal’s past, but primarily she’s an object that ‘belongs’ to Chester with little intrinsic value of her own. We know, from Rydal’s thoughts, that Colette reminds him of his cousin Agnes and the unresolved relationship he had with her years ago, but also, and much more significantly, Chester is almost a mirror image of Rydal’s father. But whereas Rydal’s father was the epitome of self-righteous respectability, Chester is a smarmy con man, and Rydal is drawn to Chester in order to resolve and relive his relationship with his father on a different playing field.

We know almost immediately that Chester and Rydal play games with fate. Chester pressed his luck when he began selling “Walkie Kars,” and “something–temptation, bravado, a sense of humour? had compelled him to try peddling the damned things” even though he had no supply. Rydal is a game player, and allows his choices to be dictated by random events. Rydal’s life was shaped by his domineering father, and Chester’s life took a specific turn after his father’s bankruptcy:

the girl he had been engaged to, had broken the engagement–instantly, on hearing of the bankruptcy–so that the shock of his father’s situation and the loss of Annette had seemed a single, world-shattering catastrophe. Chester had left school and tried to apply what he had learned of business administration to the saving of an artificial-leather factory up in New Hampshire. He hadn’t saved it. Flat broke, he had sworn to himself he would get rich, and fast. So he started to operate, more and more shadily, he could see it now, though when he had started out, he hadn’t intended to get rich by being crooked. It had been a gradual thing. A gradual bad thing, Chester knew. But now he was stuck with it, really deep in it, hooked on it like an addict on dope.

In Strangers on a Train, Highsmith drops remarks about the two main male characters, Bruno and Guy being “opposites,” yet there are also times when they seem to be two halves of the same person. Shades of that sort of strange chemistry exist here in The Two Faces of January, but it’s much less successful. The father-son dynamic is seen through Rydal’s relationship with his father and also in his relationship with Chester, but at the same time there’s the feeling that just as Chester took the road to crime after bitter adversity, Rydal is also capable of making the same sort of poor choices. And in fact that’s just what Rydal does when he becomes involved with the MacFarlands. Could Rydal become like Chester in another 15 years or so?

No shock here since this is Highsmith, but this is a psychologically complex tale. A great deal of the plot is a story of flight as Rydal organizes and arranges escape for the MacFarlands. Unfortunately, for this reader, in spite of the fact that these characters are on the run with the police in hot pursuit, there’s remarkably little tension until the novel’s excellent conclusion. The idea of the plot is good: three characters thrown together by fate who connect for reasons that are both obvious and not so obvious, but the execution lacks tension in spite of the high stakes situation.

The title evokes the image of the two-faced god who looks to the future and the past. When we first meet Rydal, he’s at a crossroads in his life–a phase of non-action that he’s spun out as far as he can, and, while he’s in no hurry to reconnect with his past, he is about to finally return to America. Chester has fled from his past to Europe. Both Chester and Rydal have murky pasts and their futures, whatever futures they may have, are connected. While Chester reminds Rydal of his father, both Chester and Rydal’s father are, in a sense, men with two faces: Chester appears to be an affluent man but in reality, he’s a cheap con man running out of steam, and Rydal’s father, the eminently respectable law professor leaves a monstrous impression on the reader.

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Almayer’s Folly: Conrad

A review copy of Joseph Conrad: The Dover Reader arrived before I finished Before the Party by W. Somerset Maugham. The Maugham short story describes the afternoon of a British family as they prepare to attend a garden party during which the chinese missions are to be discussed. Maugham contrasts some of the realities of colonialism with the very mannered preparations for the party, and so the mood was set to dip into the book which offers quite a bit of Conrad:

The Congo Diary

Almayer’s Folly

An Outpost of Progress

Heart of Darkness

Youth: A Narrative

An Anarchist: A Desperate Tale

The Secret Agent

The Secret Sharer

The Congo Diary is just a few pages and is basically just a sketchy outline of travel with a few details of the journey. That brought me to Almayer’s Folly for a reread.

Almayer’s Folly is Conrad’s first novel, so it’s fitting that it’s included in this anthology. It’s a flawed novel–certainly not perfect, but for Conrad fans, it’s well worth reading if only to fit the novel in the context of Conrad’s later, better work. In its conception, for this reader, the plot is perfect, but the execution is flawed. More of that later.

ConradYou can’t read books about colonialism without coming to the conclusion that it’s bad for everyone involved. Bernardo Atxaga’s  Seven Houses in France, for example, set in the Belgian Congo, shows how the soldiers and officers in the jungle run amok with the natives. While the women are kidnapped, caged and raped, the soldiers have shed whatever humanity they possessed and become bestial. Colonialism says a lot about human nature, exploitation and what we become when removed from our society with its rules of behaviour. Almayer’s Folly,  a tale of identity, displacement and greed, goes in a slightly different direction as the novel portrays a blend of cultures and the unfortunate outcome.

Almayer, born and raised in Java, is the son of Dutch parents. His father was a “subordinate official” and his mother “from the depths of her long easy-chair bewailed the lost glories of Amsterdam, where she had been brought up, and of her position as the daughter of a cigar dealer there.” As a young man with a good head for arithmetic, Almayer is employed in a trading warehouse in Macassar when he meets Tom Lingard, the so-called “King of the Sea,” a wealthy man whose bold adventures include tangles with pirates and the capture of a young girl found on a pirate vessel. Lingard adopted the girl, the pride of his existence, and shipped her off for a convent education in Java.

It’s rumoured that Lingard has discovered a river and that he uses this route in his business ventures, and this rumour, together with the fact that he adopted the child, have contributed to the myth and mystery that surround Lingard. Lingard employs Almayer as a captain’s clerk, but as it turns out, his real purpose in employing Almayer is to persuade him to marry his adopted daughter:

“And don’t you kick because you’re white!” he shouted, suddenly, not giving the surprised young man the time to say a word. “None of that with me! Nobody will see the colour of your wife’s skin. The dollars are too thick for that, I tell you! And mind you, they will be thicker yet before I die. There will be millions, Kaspar! Millions I say! And all for her–and for you, if you do what you are told.”

Startled by the unexpected proposal, Almayer hesitated, and remained silent for a minute. He was gifted with a strong and active imagination, and in that short space of time he saw, as in a flash of dazzling light, great piles of shining guilders, and realized all the possibilities of an opulent existence.

Almayer, thinking that “old Lingard would not live for ever,” agrees to marry to Malay girl.

in the far future gleamed like a fairy palace the big mansion in Amsterdam, that earthly paradise of his dreams, where, made king amongst men by old Lingard’s money, he would pass the evening of his days in inexpressible splendor. As to the other side of the picture–the companionship for life of a Malay girl, that legacy of a boatful of pirates–there was only within him a confused consciousness of shame that he a white man–Still, a convent education of four years!–and then she may mercifully die. He was always lucky, and money is powerful! Go through it. Why not? He had a vague idea of shutting her up somewhere, anywhere, out of his gorgeous future. Easy enough to dispose of a Malay woman, a slave, after all, to his Eastern mind, convent or no convent, ceremony or no ceremony.

This passage shows Almayer’s thought processes as he contemplates the wealth of Lingard weighed against a lifetime with Lingard’s adopted daughter. The dreams of wealth cloud his decision, so we don’t feel too sorry for Almayer when we fast forward and Almayer is very unhappily married to a wife who hates him.

The title Almayer’s Folly could refer to Almayer’s decision to base his life on an elusive future fortune, but it also refers quite literally to his dilapidated, unfinished house built on the Pantai River in expectation of the “big trade Almayer was going to develop,” while his father-in-law Lingard goes on a succession of expeditions, an “exploring craze,”  to discover gold and diamonds in the interior.

Moving to the present, Almayer is a broken man whose hopes of fortune are almost entirely extinguished. He’s terrified of his wife but loves his daughter, Nina. Nina was brought up in a Dutch household in Singapore, but she returns home when her race poses a problem for her caretaker. Circumstances reawaken Almayer’s ambition, but now he focuses on Nina’s future.

Almayer is a fascinating, well-drawn character. Born from Dutch parents, he identifies with a country he’s never visited, and yet even in this displacement, he dreams of returning to a country he does not know. Amsterdam assumes mythical stature in his head, but at the same time, having a Malay wife and a daughter of that marriage presents social problems which Almayer never tackles. Almayer’s wife, shipped off to a convent for four years came away only with superstition,  a hatred of whites , and a sense of her rights, but it’s in the portrayal of Nina that some jarring, patronizing statements occur:

Her young mind having been unskillfully permitted to glance at better things, and then thrown back again into the hopeless quagmire of barbarism, full of strong and uncontrolled passions, had lost the power to discriminate. It seemed to Nina that there was no change and no difference. Whether they traded in brick godowns or on the muddy river band; whether they made love under the shadows of the great trees or in the shadow of the cathedral on the Singapore promenade; whether they plotted for their own ends under the protection of laws and according to the rules of Christian conduct, or whether they sought gratification of their desires with the savage cunning and the unrestrained fierceness of natures as innocent of culture as their own immense and gloomy forests, Nina saw only the same manifestations of love and hate and of sordid greed chasing the uncertain dollar in all its manifestations and vanishing shapes. To her resolute nature, however after all these years, the savage and uncompromising sincerity of purpose shown by her Malay kinsmen seemed at last preferable to the sleek hypocrisy , to the polite disguise, to the virtuous pretences of such white people as she had had the misfortune to come in contact with.

Another problem with the novel is that there are many secondary characters who are mentioned but who never really take shape.  Additionally the writing is occasionally sludgy and slow to plough through.

The novel offers a portrait of a displaced man with a skewed sense of identity who pins his life on the promise of an elusive fortune; he’s yet another man whose dreams and ambitions cause him to be swallowed up by the jungle. While Almayer’s life is a failure, his daughter, Nina, a product of two vastly different cultures, and rejected by white culture, claims her own destiny.

There’s a Chantal Ackerman film version of this. I tried it–couldn’t finish it.

Review copy

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Before the Party: W. Somerset Maugham

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a W. Somerset Maugham fan, so when I saw a 47 page short story available for the kindle for a mere 99 cents, I couldn’t pass it up. Before the Party, published in 1922, is classic Maugham territory–the relationship between a man and a woman set against the backdrop of colonialism.

The Skinners, a middle-aged married couple, are preparing to attend a garden-party, and we know almost immediately that there’s been a death in the family–the Skinners’ “poor” son-in-law Harold has been dead now for 8 months. In attendance at the garden party will be his young widow, Millicent, and her sister, Kathleen. The preparations for the party mostly concern the appropriate clothing and whether or not Millicent intends to appear in mourning.

This central theme of appearances–the keeping up of appearances and also the issue of how appearances can be deceiving–are at the heart of this simple little story in which Millicent who’s been “strange since her return from Borneo,” is clearly holding back a great deal of information about the dearly departed Harold and exactly how he died.

Maugham sets up the story perfectly. It’s a beautiful summer day and the event which the Skinners plan to attend is a garden party organized by Canon Haywood. Here’s a perfect quote that epitomizes the occasion:

It was going to be quite a grand affair. They were having ices, strawberry and vanilla, from Boddy the confectioner, but the Heywoods were making the iced coffee at home. Everyone would be there. They had been asked to meet the Bishop of Hong Kong, who was staying with the Canon, an old college friend of his, and he was going to speak on the Chinese missions. Mrs. Skinner, whose daughter had lived in the East for eight years, and whose son-in-law had been Resident of a district in Borneo, was in a flutter of interest. Naturally it meant more to her than to people who had never had anything to do with the Colonies and that sort of thing.

The English summer day and well-trimmed lawns are a far cry from the jungles of Borneo, but as time wears on before the party, Millicent brings the darkness of her home life in Borneo into the staid, respectable lives of her family and gets little thanks for it. Before the Party is a clever little story for its plot but also its wisdom. Yes those in support of the Empire can attend their little ‘fact-filled’ parties and nod with enthusiasm and self-righteousness about the missions, but when the dark facts behind the glamour are uncovered, ‘decent’ people would rather not know….

In Maugham’s wonderful novel, The Painted Veil, we see how some a couple of British people, far from their home shores, behave rather badly, and that’s the same idea found in Before the Party. Whereas as in The Painted Veil, a tale of adultery turns into a tale of redemption (with an aside into self-destruction), the plot in Before the Party is primarily about appearances. Of course, if the topic is the behaviour of exiles living on far-flung shores, we must also consider that some people who lived abroad were sent there because they either didn’t fit in with society’s norms and that the various colonial outposts are seen as last-ditch attempts to reform. This topic: exile to the colonies and various corners of the Empire for reform is found in M. E. Braddon’s Henry Dunbar , the story of a dissolute banking heir who’s packed off to India as punishment for engaging in forgery. In the non-fiction book, White Mischief, we see a community of ex-pats, many shunned by society, establishing their own notorious culture in Happy Valley.

It’s always fascinating to read about the dominant, ruling races running amok among the natives. Take Bernardo Atxaga’s Seven Houses in France , for example, an excellent novel set in the Belgian Congo. The atrocities against the native population are horrendous, but indulging their bestial natures dehumanizes the officers and the soldiers stationed at the crude outpost. And that’s the thing about colonialism; it’s bad for everyone.

It’s probably no coincidence that after finishing Before the Party, I immediately picked up Joseph Conrad.

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