Tag Archives: Booker prize loser

Us by David Nicholls

Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.

UsDouglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.

“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”

Was he the reason? The only reason?

“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.

I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”

What was the hole? Was I the hole?

“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”

“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”

“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”

“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”

“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”

“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”

I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was  a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”

I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.”  This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.

Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”

Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.

Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…

The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.

Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’

As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.

I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.

Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.

My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously  (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.

Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Nicholls David

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Great Granny Webster by British author Caroline Blackwood came recommended by commenter, Leroy. The novel also had the advantage of being from New York Review Books, and since I’ve had such good luck with their titles, I decided to read it. This is a largely autobiographical tale written by Blackwood, the heiress to the Guinness fortune. The introduction from Honor Moore notes that the book was a finalist for the Booker, but that it did not win thanks to “the decisive vote cast from Philip Larkin who reportedly insisted that a tale so autobiographical could not stand for fiction.” Well so much for the Booker. I always seem to prefer the losers anyway.

great granny websterAt a mere 108 pages, it’s a deceptively slim read, and it’s a story that you think is taking you in one direction, but then by the final page, you realize that the destination was rather unexpected, and instead of a coming-of-age story, Great Granny Webster is the story of a search for identity through one’s relatives.  The story starts in 1947 with a 14-year-old girl, our unnamed narrator, who following an operation, is sent to the home of the fearsome Great Granny Webster to convalesce after the doctor advised that she would benefit from sea air. Great Granny Webster, who lives preserved in strict Victorianism, is attended by the crippled-one-eyed maid, Richards, in her mausoleum of a house in Hove. Just a few miles away from the “staid and wealthy gentility” of Hove was the “gay and tempting paradise of” Brighton, “tantalizingly near” but considered common and vulgar by the joyless, unbending Great Granny Webster:

Great Granny Webster knew that I was meant to need sea air, and this suited her very well because apparently she needed it herself. At four o’clock every afternoon a hired Rolls-Royce from a Hove car firm appeared at her door with a uniformed, unctuous chauffeur, who would then drive both of us, as if he was driving two royalties, at a slow creep along the misty sea-front of Hove. To and fro, to and fro, we would drive for exactly an hour while one of the windows of the Rolls-Royce was wound down just enough to let in a very small sniff of salt and seaweed-smelling air. 

Marooned for several months with her implacable, pessimistic elderly relative, the narrator finds the “grim and fiercely joyless” Great Granny Webster a curiosity–a woman with a “passion for pointless suffering,” and yet in spite of the tedious days of stiff propriety, there’s some undefined bond between the narrator and her great-grandmother. For her part, Great Granny Webster finds that the girl is quiet and “retiring.” While the girl is “chilled” by the frightening thought that she “would turn out to be exactly like her,” nonetheless she feels an inexplicable sense of panic when she finally leaves Great Granny Webster and returns home.

Ultimately this stay with Great Granny Webster sparks the narrator’s curiosity about her dead father, Ivor, killed in WWII, and his insane mother (Great Granny Webster’s daughter) safely locked up in an asylum. The narrator learns that her father visited Great Granny Webster frequently when he was on leave, and this, initially seems puzzling since the narrator can’t imagine why her father chose to spend time with his dour grandmother during his all-too-precious leave.  Unfortunately  “Death had obscured him as a reality,” and the narrator seeks the answers through his history.

The narrator’s Aunt Lavinia, Ivor’s sister, is a brilliant, glittering butterfly of a woman who’s worked through several millionaire husbands, and she is perhaps the ‘missing link’–a human antidote to Great Granny Webster.

A play-girl in the style of the ‘twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as “divine,” like an elegant and slippery eel.

Could there be two more diametrically opposed people: Aunt Lavinia–who surrounds herself with luxury in a life which is an endless, irresponsible party and a pursuit of pleasure, and her indomitable grandmother, Great Granny Webster, a woman who takes pride in a joyless life of deprivation? Through recollections from Tommy Redcliffe, a family friend, the family tree is completed with memories of Lavinia and Ivor’s parents. Tommy was an old school friend of Ivor’s and an unfortunate visitor to the ramshackle inhospitable eccentricities of the family home, Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. Eventually the layers of memory are peeled back to reveal three generations of bizarre women: the gothic misery of Great Granny Webster, fey, quite mad grandmother Dunmartin who’s sure that the “evil fairies”  have stolen her children and replaced them with changelings, and Aunt Lavinia, whose superficial, relentless pursuit of fun and pleasure masks a dark desperation.  Not the greatest legacy, then, if you are that next generation.

For its incredible depictions of decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Great Granny Webster serves as a wonderful companion piece to J.G. Farrell’s superb novel, Troubles, as the two novels could be describing the same family. Through Tommy Redcliffe’s recollections of his visits to Dunmartin Hall, “a gigantic monument to more prosperous and eternally lost times,” we see eccentricities cross the line into madness. Everyone in the Dunmartin family seems to have entered into a silent conspiracy that life there is ‘normal.’ The “grandiose and unwieldy” mansion comes with “crippling inherited debts,” so every year the house falls into deeper and deeper decay.

Having tried to exist by aping an English feudal system most unsuccessfully, it was only the scale of the diminishment of this enormous Ulster house that remained impressive in its period of retribution and impoverishment. Its vast stone-carved swimming pool, surrounded by busts of Roman emperors, still remained somehow imposing, though it rotted in a scum of dead leaves and insects. The same was true of Dunmartin Hall’s once valuable libraries, though many of the pages of their books had become glued together and blued with mildew.

Into this damp, rotting house with its leaky roof, rank, inedible food, and practically non-existent plumbing, Grandfather Dunmartin, in an insane effort to maintain standards hires an English butler and footmen. The result of this are horrifyingly, sadly hilarious.  And through it all, everyone pretends that daily life isn’t torturous despair.

When my grandmother spent most of the day shut up in her bedroom , she sat cross-legged on the floor and cut out coloured pictures of elves and fairies from her enormous collection of children’s books. What everyone found blood-curdling was that she herself had started to look very like the model fairies that you see on the top of Christmas trees. She had the same frozen blank expression, the agelessness that made her seem neither child or woman.

Through mordant and perceptive detail, the narrator exposes the deep, dark secrets of the generations that have gone before her. We are left wondering where the madness began, for while one woman is locked up in an asylum, arguably for violence more than anything else, is there anyone normal here–except possibly Ivor who died before he had time to prove his sanity. This deliciously wicked exposition of the grubbier side of the Webster/Dunmartin family argues that we cannot escape our pasts, and that we are more a product of past generations and our upbringing than we’d sometimes care to admit. Yet while our narrator learns about her family, there are many questions left unanswered, and Great Granny Webster manages to have the last word in her farewell to the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, Leroy.

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Filed under Blackwood Caroline, Fiction

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

“I had arrived full of the kind of optimism that, in retrospect, I recognise as a sure sign that things would go wrong, and badly. Not for me, for I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.”

It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that The Last Hundred Days is the first novel from British author Patrick McGuinness. Ok, so he’s previously published some non-fiction and poetry books, and this plugs into one of my favourite pet theories: when poets write, expect something extraordinary, and for this reader, The Last Hundred Days easily glides on to the Best of 2012 List. A stunningly well-written book focusing on an ugly subject, and no doubt the most underlined book I’ve read this year, The Last Hundred Days examines the nature of corruption and the power politics during the final months leading up to the overthrow of the despotic Ceausescu regime in December 1989.

The narrator of the novel is a young man in his twenties who leaves for a university position in Bucharest after the death of his father. There’s something decidedly fishy about the appointment as he didn’t even bother to show up for the interview. Naturally he didn’t expect to get the job, and so when a visa arrived, he packed a suitcase and asked no questions. Upon arriving in Bucharest,”the Paris of the East,” the narrator gets a taste of what’s to come when customs officers “who operate with malign lethargy,” lift chocolate bars and batteries from his luggage with the dead-pan comment, “tax.”

For those of us who know a little about recent  Romanian history, we know that the narrator has arrived to live, by choice, in a totalitarian country–Romania in the 80s ‘run’ by the Ceausescus–Nicolae and Elena. Immediately after alighting from the plane, the narrator notes the sensation that he’s entered a time warp. The posters glorifying Ceausescu show him decades younger than he actually is and yet he appears to have  “lightly bloated marzipan blush of an embalmed corpse.”

The narrator is given an apartment recently occupied by his mysterious and missing predecessor, Belanger–a man who left, apparently, in some haste as his clothing, CDs and books remain behind. Leo, a fellow professor, becomes our narrator’s guide to Bucharest and Romania. A master figure in the lucrative black market economy, Leo has a vast network of acquaintances who specialise in acquiring and selling all the goods that seem to have disappeared from Romanian life. Leo’s first gift to the narrator is a Bachelor of Arts certificate, a “welcome present” which comes along with the cryptic comment, “mind you, if you want a PhD you’ll have to pay for it like everyone else.”

Welcome to Bucharest.

Although this is ostensibly a communist country, Romania has succumbed to Totalitarianism, and along with that comes the Police State and its savage treatment of anyone with the bad luck to fall foul of the system. This is a country in which people disappear, the great majority of the population don’t have a connection to the corrupt network of party politics with its accompanying black market, birth control is illegal and any miscarriage is investigated as a criminal act.

While Leo, who has his black market goods stashed all over Bucharest, does business with the British ex-pats and embassy minions in Bucharest, he largely makes fun of their society:

It’s a close call for Leo’s special scorn, between the Party apparatchiks who rule their people with such corruption, ineptitude and contempt, and the expats: the diplomats, businessmen and contractors who live in a compound to the west of the city, with their English pub,  The Ship and Castle (‘The Shit and Hassle’) and their embassy shop. One of his riffs is to compose designer scents for them: ‘Essence of Broadstairs’, ‘Bromley Man’, ‘Stevenage: For Her’. Their parties, and endless round of cocktails and booze-ups are ‘sometimes fun, of only for a drink and a chance to read last week’s English papers’, but the circuit as a whole is, as he puts it ‘a doppelganbang: where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably’.

Gradually, through his relationships, the narrator is drawn into both the highs and lows of Romanian life. Through his relationship with the pampered daughter of a high-ranking Party official, he sees how the fortunate, the throughly corrupt live, but in his relationships with those who desire change, the narrator enters the dangerous and treacherous twilight area of black marketeers and dissidents. 

For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations; the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them. This was also our greatest drawback- the routinisation of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity.

Author McGuinness, who lived in Bucharest during the period described in the novel, is particularly adept at juxtaposing the two worlds of Romania–the world of repression and want vs. the world of lavish excess enjoyed by Party apparatchiks, the double-speak of totalitarianism and the seemingly natural duality that exists in everyone. Leo for example, may be a professor at the university, but he’s also a zealous, energetic black-marketeer. His sideline, if you will, is the documentation, in book form of the rapidly disappearing areas of Bucharest–a sideline that will culminate, with any luck, in the conclusion of his book The City of Lost Walks. So Leo is one of the movers and shakers of both the demolishing of Romanian society and its preservation–even if it’s only in book form. And what of our young narrator–a man whose moral corruption begins on day one of the job when he’s ‘encouraged’ to provide a reference for a student he’s never met. But in spite of this morally compromising act which signals that he’s willing to begin playing the corruption game, our narrator is far more attractive to the dissidents among the population than the power-brokers who can smooth his way. The nature of a police state encourages subversion even as it represses it, and everyone the narrator meets is not quite what they seem. What of former politician Trofim now out of favour as he writes two sets of memoirs (back to that double-speak again). Is he a voice for reform, or is it as Leo jokes: “New brothel, same old whores….”

Leo argues that “people and what they did were two separate things, they and their actions parting like a body and its shadow at dusk,” and in Romanian society corruption and repression is a part of daily life. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to some of the events that take place–the waiter who asks how the diners enjoyed the meal, for example, with the food yet to appear on the table. The waiter’s comment is deliberately mis-timed is a signal for bribery to begin. But this sense of madness and an almost secret, unspoken language that is only understood by natives extends beyond a simple exchange between two people and has escalated to national insanity:

If foreign dignitaries were being shown Bucharest, police vans unloaded goods and stacked them in shop windows: bread and vegetables, cuts of meat and fruit most people had forgotten existed. The cars slowed down to take it all in. When they had passed the same vans took everything back again to the diplomatic and party shops.

And again:

From the outside, the ministry was boxy and grey, its only ornament a stucco Party crest. As an interior space, it was barely comprehensible. I remembered those posters by Escher that decorated student walls: physically impossible architecture and abysmal interiors; staircases that tapered into a void, or twisted back into themselves; doors that opened onto doors; balconies that overlooked the inside of another room that gave onto a balcony that overlooked the inside of another room… There were vast desks with nothing on them except for telephones, ashtrays and blank paper; voices loud enough to startle but too faint to understand; unattributable footsteps that got closer but never materialised into presence, then sudden arrivals which made no sound. The rustle of unseen activity was everywhere,. like the scratching of insects in darkness. Kafka’s The Castle came to mind, a book I had not read but that fell into that category of literature that culture reads on your behalf and deposits somewhere inside you. So I imagined Kafka’s castle.

The Last Hundred Days is a dense read–not to be skimmed, and I found myself backtracking numerous times just to drink in the descriptions. While the professional reviews seem positive, reviews elsewhere appear to be mixed. Sometimes I think books get the wrong readers, but for me, this superb book, exquisitely written and told through the eyes by a slightly stunned narrator who lands in Romania as a witness of a dramatic time in the country’s history, the book will resonate for a long time to come.

Review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under Fiction, McGuinness Patrick

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.

Just one quote from Damon Galgut’s superb novel, In a Strange Room. This 3-part story is ostensibly about 3 journeys taken by a South African character named…Damon, but it’s also about relationships and impermanence with parallels drawn between journeys taken and relationships endured. For my full review go to Mostly Fiction. I’m pimping the book here because it’s so very, very good. (Disclaimer: copy from publisher) I really can’t praise this book enough for the way in which the author concentrates on distances between people who are cast together in journeys–two of which are as hellish as the relationships between the characters.

For another take on the book (equally positive) go visit Kevin, and if, like me, you’re curious about Galgut’s other work, go here to Charles Lambert’s blog. 

In a Strange Room is, by the way, a Booker Prize loser.

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Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean

“Look, I’m not the sort who goes around shagging willy-nilly like that.”

After finishing The Tartar Steppe, I needed a complete change of pace–preferably something funny. I stood there staring at my overcrowded shelves and then I saw Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. I’d bought this book after reading a glowing review of Dean’s latest book, The Old Romantic at A Common Reader. The cover looked promising–two deck chairs (not exactly positioned to indicate compatibility) on the beach. Surely I told myself, Becoming Strangers would be light and funny, right?

Becoming Strangers has its light, funny sections (mostly mined from scenes of marriage and adultery), but it’s also about death and dying. The first few pages reveal Jan–a Belgium man in his 50s whose six-year battle with cancer has reached its final lap. He’s been told it’s inoperable (it has spread to his liver and pancreas), and that nothing more can be done. In a sombre scene, his two adult sons arrive with tickets for Jan and his wife, Annemieke to an expensive, Caribbean resort. “This was going to be their last holiday.” That simple short sentence made a depressing impact, and on that note, I went to bed.

Well so much for light and funny.

The next day brought a flush of optimism and the memory of how much Tom at A Common Reader enjoyed Dean’s other novel, so I picked up Becoming Strangers once again and was very glad I did. Dean’s novel is funny, yet sad & serious–a powerful combination which offers an unusual look at marriage’s till-death-do-us-part phase.

The main character is Jan–a man whose life hasn’t been easy for the past few years, but there’s one thing that’s served him well through illness and operation after operation, and that’s his belief that “good manners” go a long way. He treats everyone with the same degree of courtesy–from his appalling wife, Annemieke, to his concerned doctors and his dutiful sons–they all get the same treatment. This polite distancing is how Jan deals with his imminent death, but no one seems to notice that this is Jan’s coping mechanism–a buoy that enables him to float (with the help of morphine) through the last few months.

Unfortunately Jan isn’t treated with the same courtesy he extends to others. The main culprit here is Annemieke–a woman who at 49 is bursting with life and health and who is fed up with waiting for her husband to die. She’s also desperate to not appear to be her age, and that includes some outrageously funny and obnoxious sexual behaviour. Normally, a “last holiday” would be filled with poignancy and sadness, but when Jan and Annemieke land at the resort, she hits the ground running:

“She was going to have a holiday that suited her. She would make the most of the spa. Her own health deserved some attention. Hadn’t the doctors said that it’s often the carer’s well-being that gets completely neglected.”

 Annemieke has no intention of wasting time hanging out with Jan, and his feeble attempts to go sightseeing are met with nimble avoidance:

“I thought we might make an excursion, he said pleasantly. We could hire a car. Have a look round the island.”

“I’m not a sightseer, Jan,” she said, “as you know.”

She gave herself a good wash; she wanted to feel just right when she lay down on that massage couch. These indulgences were fraught in so many ways. Money and time ticking away while you tried to feel good. An indifferent masseur or beautician, an unpleasant manner, a painfully deep rub or treatment, thin towels, or the sight of herself, under bright lights in a full-length mirror–any of these could ruin it.

He was standing when she left.

“We might have lunch together” he said.

“You look after yourself, I shouldn’t want to hold you up.”

Annemieke, on a mission to prove her sexual attractiveness, prowls around the resort, and when she’s not milking her husband’s illness for sympathy, she’s showing off her breasts as often as possible. She strikes up an acquaintance with a couple of Americans, Jason and Missy while Jan is drawn to an elderly British couple, George and his wife Dorothy. Jan and George, bound to lives they don’t quite connect with, form an unlikely relationship:

“She wasn’t keen to come, the missus,” he admitted to Jan. “She’s a stay-at-home sort. She’s sitting in the room now. Blimey, we might as well be at home. She’s got her book and a cup of tea, she’s all right. I’ve always had to drag her along with me to whatever we did. She wasn’t always a homebody but she’s got worse lately, likes to sit on her arse all day; thinking she says she is, or reading,”  he raised his eyebrows and sighed. “Always seems as if she’s on the same page.”

“I suppose my wife feels the same way about me,” Jan said, finishing his drink.

“Oh yes?”

“Sure. I also like my own company.”

“I’m not sure that’s the case with the old girl. Sometimes it’s hard to get through to someone even if you’ve known them your whole life. The years seem to make it harder, as a matter of fact. Like you’ve found thousands of ways to get around them, detours, you know, road closed, follow diversion. Do you know what I mean?”

There are so many wonderful scenes in this book, and I can’t describe them all, but my favourite section occurs when Annemieke goes off with Jason and Missy on a yacht while Jan leaves with George & Dorothy, and fellow guests Laurie and born-again christian Bill Moloney. Jan’s wonderful day is contrasted with Annemieke’s experience listening to Jason waffle on with his obsession: locking people up.

 Another marvellous aspect of the novel is its characters. One of my favourites is poor beleaguered resort manager (“Total Experience Manager”), Steve Burns. While Jan opts to maintain his relationships through polite, distanced behaviour, Steve is forced to wear the same polite mask with the guests. He’s forced to walk a very thin line between keeping the guests happy and keeping his job, and the pushy American guest, Jason, treats Burns with scorn at every opportunity. As events at the resort play out, and the behaviour of the guests degenerates, Steve, who isn’t particularly likeable, finds his job increasingly difficult and repugnant at times with this load of holidaymakers:

Burns felt like a fruit, handing out leaflets, drawing pencilled circles on maps, reminding the punters of the Saturday night events they left the hotel. He’d spotted two women of a more mature persuasion, ‘Silvers’ as they called them in the business, passing comment on him from their huddled position in two cane armchairs, looking at him over their fishing expedition leaflets. He’d asked if he could help them and heard snorts of laughter as he’d walked away. He’d fucking sashayed, he was sure of it, it was the trousers, and then he’d turned around like some Butlin’s poof and told them off with a very camp, ‘now, now ladies, none of that. it was a loathsome business at times.

Holidays are peculiar things. So much is invested in making them a good experience and holidaymakers are supposed to go home with good memories along with the customary souvenirs. Holidays also have a way of highlighting problems in relationships–after all, some relationships are unravelling and forced intimacy isn’t going to help. Becoming Strangers explores the forced interactions, the relationships which grow from proximity, and the behaviour of the guests who feel unleashed far from home.

Some people may not enjoy this novel. There’s no resolution and the plot tosses together some elements that are not ‘handled’ in a traditional way–more power to Louise Dean, I say.  The sharp inner dialogues blend well with the outward behaviour of these diverse characters and the roles they’ve long tired of.

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The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher

Connecting the dots….George Eliot, Philip Hensher and the multiplot novel.

I don’t know what it is about 2010 and 700 page novels, but so far this year, I’ve managed to read two: Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a fictional 40 year view of the music biz from the manager of a rock band, and now The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher. Both are reviewed over at MostlyFiction but I commented on Evening’s Empire here, so I decided to blog a bit about The Northern Clemency while I am at it.

I noted The Northern Clemency from Philip Hensher was shortlisted for the Booker prize–after all that was blazoned across the cover, but since I am generally oblivious to these things, I thought the book was up for this year–2010.

I started the book and thought to myself that if I liked it, I would probably be placing a curse on the chances of it winning as I typically seem to have better luck with the books that don’t win. It’s not that I read all the nominees and then am upset when my pony doesn’t win. Instead it’s a case of me looking at old lists and realising that I preferred the losers over the winners–hence my blog category: Booker Prize Losers.

I was only a few pages into the book when I realised that I was really enjoying it. This was, I thought, a nail in the coffin as far as the prize went for the author, Philip Hensher, so it was with a sense of relief that I discovered (after looking at the Booker prize archive) that the book already lost a few years back–2008, in fact. 

This just goes to show–again, as if I needed the reinforcement–that the books I like lose.

I liked it so much, I tracked down the author and asked for an interview. The Northern Clemency really was a terrific read–the closest thing I’ve read to a modern version of theVictorian multiplot novel in a while.  So what’s it about? In a nutshell, it’s the story of two families in Sheffield from the years 1974-1994.

I’m not going to re-review the book, but I do want to address some of the criticisms I came across. Some people thought it was rather like a soap opera, and (horror of horrors) Coronation Street was even mentioned at one point. I didn’t think the book was like a soap opera at all. If I went back over the last twenty years of my life, well, I’ve lost count of the deaths, the diseases, divorces, scandals and suicides that have taken their toll. But enough of the hankies and the sympathy cards. Bottom line, I don’t think that The Northern Clemency is over-the-top when it came to the scenarios it presented. 

Another criticism of the book is that it largely ignores the political events taking place in the country. I saw the politics in the book as background noise, and whether we like it or not, that’s how it is for most people. Take the current debacle in Iraq for example. It’s been going on now for 7 years, and yet most Americans are largely untouched by what has become a sideshow–a war that doesn’t even make the headlines. Rubbishy stories detailing the latest salacious sex scandal of sports celebs and hollywood stars take a front seat to ho-hum stuff like wars.

Makes me think of one of my favourite Auden poems: Musee des Beaux Arts…but I digress.

Back to The Northern Clemency and why I think it is a throwback to the Victorian multiplot novel. 

George Eliot, by gum,  knew how to write a Victorian multiplot that showed the fabric of British society through the interconnected lives of her characters, and we see this sort of thing in The Northern Clemency, a novel in which lives and lifestyles intersect.  Here are two quotes from one of my TOP TEN novels of all time,  Middlemarch, and both of these quotes get at the interconnectedness of roles in society.

“But anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen state with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour.” 

And then:

“I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

While Hensher’s characters  remain firmly products of their class, nonetheless, the plot shows this interconnectedness in the social fabric Thatcher’s Britain. For example, Malcolm Glover works for a building society which later sells council houses, and this fuels Malcolm’s repetitive arguments with his emotionally stunted Marxist son.  Bernie Sellers works for the power company that helps break the Miners’ Strike. Years later, the power company is privatized and Bernie is forced to retire and handed a “gold plated vent, or valve, or tap, or something” for his trouble. Also we see middle class housewife Katherine Glover venturing out to seek employment. She happens to find herself unexpectedly wound up in the fate of a large-scale drug dealer, and while she is too naive to understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with the finances of the business she works for, nonetheless, the reader sees the connection between middle-class suburbia and the excesses of a drug dealer who cannot spend his money fast enough. Another example can be found almost at the end of the novel. One of my favourite scenes involves those roused from a coma or a suffering from a brain problem who are given a  key question: “who is the Prime Minister of Britain?”  The answer should be John Major: but if patients reply ‘Margaret Thatcher’ this is not seen as incorrect:

“We found that however badly damaged a patient’s mind was –even patients with advanced Alzheimer’s–they always seemed to know it was Mrs. Thatcher. And until quite recently you couldn’t base much on them not remembering immediately that it was John Major. People with nothing wrong with them went on saying Mrs. Thatcher before remembering and correcting themselves, for a year, eighteen months.”

 And we readers can take that any way we want, I suppose. For me, the passage lends itself to the idea that Thatcher’s rule PM years are more than just a memory that remains behind–these years left permanent changes or damage depending on how you look at it–a bit like a stain. Or one of those ring-around-the-bath thingies.

The Northern Clemency may not be overtly political but some of the most poignant parts of the novel describe the desperation and pride of the Miners’ wives,and at the same time the author makes it perfectly clear that British society remains divided along class lines. People move, accents shift and alter, but unfortunately we remain divided and separate from those whose lots in life we cannot understand. One of the main characters, Daniel, although a native of Sheffield remains a ‘foreigner’ to the miners’ section of town, and when he visits the mining town of Tinstone, it’s as if he’s stepped onto another planet. Hensher makes the point, and I think he makes the point well, that we may not think our lives are connected but they are. Connect the dots and what do you see….Miners…British Rail…and a few dots later…?

If anyone out there is interested in the events that took place at Orgreave (there’s a section of The Northern Clemency that takes place at Orgreave), I reviewed Dave Douglass’s Come Wet This Truncheon elsewhere on this blog.

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Always The Sun by Neil Cross

Continuing my interest in the Man-Booker Prize losers, I picked Always The Sun by Neil Cross off of my book shelf. This book made the long list of Booker nominees in 2004, and to be honest, this novel along with Toibin’s The Master and Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (the winner for that year) were the only novels that sounded remotely interesting.

Take a look at the cover and you will notice that the school tie looks like a noose. Always the Sun is not what you would call an ‘uplifting’ or ‘inspiring’ read by any means. In fact the ad-hoc noose implies exactly the sort of tale that exists within these covers. Does the fact that a book is depressing affect the awarding of the prize? That’s a rhetorical question, but this thought did occur to me after concluding Always the Sun. The book left a disturbing residue behind, and over the last two weeks, my thoughts have lingered on the plot. The book’s tagline (which appears on the cover) is “How far would you go to protect your child?” This is the question the book examines through the actions of its main character, but it’s also a question that we as readers ask ourselves as the plot develops. But is this just a tale of a father who goes horribly overboard in his attempts to protect his son? Or is there something else afoot?

On the negative side, Always the Sun is a bit of a downer. I certainly wouldn’t give the novel to anyone who was already struggling with depression, and to be perfectly honest after I turned the last page, I had the desire to read something really funny for a desperately needed change of pace. On the positive side, this is an impressive, very clever novel. A number of online reviews I read were rather negative about the book–the author’s writing style,  & the fact that the protagonist, Sam does things that sometimes just don’t make sense were just two areas of criticism. Anyway, after reading some of the reviews I had one of those ‘did-we-read-the-same-book’ moments. I thought Always the Sun was a tremendous novel. It’s depressing, it’s unsettling and disturbing, but more than anything else, author Neil Cross makes us question the hypothetical moral choices we would face were we in Sam’s shoes.

When the novel begins, Sam’s wife Justine has just died from the “degenerative brain disorder”  fatal familial insomnia. Look it up; it’s terrible to imagine the suffering endured by Justine–a vital young woman who morphs over a short period of time from being an intelligent, active art teacher to an unrecognisable human being racked with dementia. After a period of grief, depression and unhealthy stagnation, Sam decides to move back to his hometown with his thirteen year old son, Jamie. The move, which is assisted by Sam’s practical sister, Mel, goes smoothly at first. Sam and Jamie move into their new  home in a fresh-start way, Sam gets a job as a psychiatric nurse at the local mental hospital, and Jamie begins school at Churchill Comprehensive. But things begin to go wrong, and Sam realises that Jamie, a frail teenager, is the object of bullying. Faced with an indifferent school administration, and bored police officers, Sam takes matters into his own hands….

The novel charts Sam and Jamie’s sterile home life–a disaffected life punctuated with multiple methods to reinforce isolation: Sam’s drinking bouts, a miserable, oppressive Xmas, and the solitude of all-consuming video games. In contrast to Sam and Jamie’s bleak lives, other characters exist on the periphery–Mel, her friend Fat Janet, and Unka Frank, Mel’s strange ex-husband, a damaged drifter who nonetheless creates a oddly cohesive presence. Initially Sam is a man who’s presented by the author by the labels he wears–grieving widower, single father, responsible psychiatric nurse, only brother, and when the novel begins we accept him, identify with those labels, and even feel the sympathies that some of the labels generate.  As the story unfolds, however, the labels are defined further: he’s disconnected from his son, as an employee he’s a complete screw-up, and as a brother, he leaves a lot to be desired. So what sort of human being is Sam?

Reader identification begins early in the book with Sam’s multifaceted roles and then extends into his dilemma as he discovers that Jamie is being bullied at school. Most of us have had to deal with this issue on some level or another, and so the complexities are understandable. The novel’s tagline: How far would you go to protect your child? is implicitly asked at every plot turn, and the author plays with that question through Sam’s actions. I found myself asking what would I do in Sam’s shoes? Would I do things differently? I have a feeling that as readers we would find ourselves bailing from Sam’s shoes at different points along the plot’s trajectory, and perhaps that’s what’s so fascinating and at the same time disturbing about the novel; it forces us to examine our own morality. Do the ends justify the means? And of course when we arrive at that question, it’s only a matter of time before the author introduces the issue of violence. Once violence is unleashed, it cannot be controlled, and its consequences cannot be predicted.

The novel’s atmosphere of impending doom is underscored throughout the novel through its attention to the details of Sam and Jamie’s sterile existence. Instead of making their new house a home, it’s as if they are camping temporarily. At some points,  I could almost see the littered house and smell the stale air full of defeat and depression. Here’s a sample passage:

“Then it seemed to him that all the houses on the estate were empty, and all the houses in the city beyond it. The city spread, a patchwork of hills and roads and rivers and estates, to every horizon. It was empty of all life, except the foxes and the rats and the pigeons. Houses stared at him as he passed. Only he and Jamie remained, and their memory of Justine. And he knew that even that connection was insubstantial and fading fast. It wasn’t enough to keep them together. Whatever joined them was dissolving. Soon it would rupture and they would fall separately into different worlds. Perhaps it had happened already and only Jamie knew it. Perhaps that accounted for the pitying looks Sam sometimes caught coming from his son’s direction. The mildness of that pity was terrible and debilitating. Jamie looking at him as if something were over.”

Always the Sun isn’t the most disturbing novel I read this year. That honour goes to Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open, but  Always the Sun comes in as a very close second.

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Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

“Actually your father did once mention a strain of insanity in his family.” Pause. “So all naughty little girls had better watch out, hadn’t they?”

One of my reading goals of 2010 is to read more books published by New York Review Book Classics. In fact, I ordered several titles right after reading and throughly enjoying Stephen Benatar’s marvelous novel Wish Her Safe at Home. Looking at the book’s cover, you might get the impression that the tale is set in the early decades of the twentieth century. But that’s not so; this delightful novel is set in 1981 right around the time of the royal wedding–an event that caused some people, temporarily at least, to believe in such things as fairytale romances.

Benatar’s novel did not win the Booker prize in 1982 much to the disappointment of one of the judges, John Carey–who according to the introduction, hopes that he is making up a bit for the fact the novel didn’t win. Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark carried off the prize that year. And looking at the Booker prize website , Benatar’s novel didn’t even make the short list. But since experience proves that I seem to prefer the prize losers over the prize winners, I perversely pay more attention to the names of the novels that didn’t win.  Stephen Benatar is an entirely new author for me. Apparently, Benatar conducts his own ballsy guerrilla marketing by waylaying customers in bookshops and asking them if they are interested in buying one of his books. In this day and age, we seem to see massive advertising campaigns for a few “special” and all-too frequently nauseating titles, and Benatar’s self-promotion brings up the issue of author involvement in book advertising. I think it’s great to see authors establish their own websites, blogs and even tackle the sort of personal approach taken by Benatar.

Now back to the novel….

In Wish Her Safe at Home forty-seven-year-old Rachel Waring inherits a house in Bristol from an eccentric, reclusive  great-aunt she hasn’t seen in almost forty years. When Rachel gets the unexpected news, she’s been working at a mundane job in ‘mail order’ for over 11 years in London and she shares a flat with her long-time roommate Sylvia. While Sylvia is a bit sour and resentful about Rachel’s inheritance, Rachel is understandably thrilled. At the first opportunity, she dashes off to Bristol for an inspection. The house, a minor landmark, is a three-floored “terraced, tall, eighteenth century, elegant” home once lived in by a long-forgotten politician named Horatio Gavin. The house which had been occupied for decades by Rachel’s great-aunt and her female companion Bridget shows the tell-tale residue of being inhabited by those who suffer from mental illness:

“Here, I was pointedly informed, had the refuse of many years amassed into something to rival the town tip; in the centre it had even touched the ceiling.And although the council had fumigated, although the rodent inspector had laid his poisons, still the air was fetid, the walls damp, discoloured–the paper hanging in places like the peeling skin of mushrooms.”

It seems that Rachel’s aunt lived in eccentric seclusion in the house, and according to Mrs Pimm, the Almoner at the hospital in which Aunt Alicia eventually died, Aunt Alicia was completely potty. Mrs. Pimm relates the story to Rachel with entirely too much relish, informing Rachel that the old lady:

“was gaga….Sometimes according to the neighbours, they could be as sweet as pie; but sometimes you would hear them scream and it was just like they were doing each other in! Like Bedlam, said the neighbours–well only thank heaven for such good solid walls! There were endless complaints to the council.”

Once Rachel sees the house, she falls in love with it, and so she dumps her job and her roommate, takes her life savings of 20,000 pounds and moves into the house, overseeing renovations. Leaving a life full of regrets and lost opportunities, Rachel sees her move as a chance to reinvent herself, and this process parallels the renovations of her new home. The house is gradually renewed from its rather sorry state, and as Rachel disconnects from her past, she becomes obsessed with writing a biography of the house’s owner, Horatio Gavin.

Rachel, the heroine of the novel (and I am very deliberately using the term heroine here) is a cross between Blanche Dubois and an aged Scarlett O’Hara, and this is amplified by the notion that Rachel fancies that she looks a lot like Vivien Leigh. In fact A Streetcar Named Desire is one of Rachel’s favourite films, and she somewhat troublingly admires and identifies with Blanche:

“I was very much moved by her brave declaration: ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.'”

Yes, it’s enough to set off alarm bells. Given Rachel’s identification with Blanche coupled with the fact that most of Rachel’s romantic ideas seem to be influenced by film, it should come as no surprise that Rachel has a teensy problem when it comes to men. With images of Rhett Butler, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra bouncing around in her head, Rachel’s thoughts dwell on the various males in the periphery of her life. It starts with the “romantic chemist” in the corner shop, and then there’s the strapping, young  gardener–a man who works shirtless in Rachel’s garden:

“Damp golden curls across the chest. And running down from the navel. And probably beyond.”

 And if all else fails there’s the vicar:

“The minister was young and not bad looking in a beefy sort of way. This no doubt added a spot of pep to the service. No wonder there were so many women present; I might even come again myself. He had nicely shaped hands, well-manicured, the fingers dark with hair. His wrists as well. He’d almost surely have a hairy chest.”

Wish Her Safe at Home is a delightful read, and Benatar skillfully follows his unreliable narrator heroine to the end-of-the-line. There’s so much more I could write about this novel–it’s funny, poignant, and touching. Some books are a rare treat to read and Wish Her Safe at Home falls into that category. Interpreting the world through Rachel’s vision was an experience I don’t think I’ll forget (although my reactions were rather different from those in John Carey’s introduction). Benatar maintains a pitch perfect interpretation of Rachel, never once slipping from that unique character’s perspective. Written by another author this novel could have been dour and depressing stuff. Instead there’s a light sort of almost magical humour to Rachel’s interactions and pseudo-relationships as she obliviously sails beyond the mundane, sobering realities of disappointment, loneliness and criticism to eventually become a triumphant version of her favourite film star.

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How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland

While browsing online for books a few weeks ago, I came across M.J. Hyland’s first novel, How The Light Gets In, and I’ll admit that it was one of those instances when I decided to read the novel’s synopsis because I was so attracted to its cover. I’m not a smoker, but there was something about the way in which the cover shows just a partial view of a young woman’s face. Are those freckles or acne in this slightly out-of-focus picture? While the skin suggests youth, the lips suggest stubbornness. The photo offers more than a hint of delinquency, and I was intrigued.

Anyway, whoever made the decision for the cover of How The Light Gets In-…brilliant choice, and it’s one of those great instances when the book’s cover echoes its contents.

In How The Light Gets In, Louise Connor, a 16-year-old Australian girl arrives in America as an exchange student. Louise, who’s also known as Lou, comes from an impoverished home in Sydney. Lou’s parents, Sandra and Mick are unemployed and mainly spend their days eating junk food in front of the television set watching chat shows. The family–which includes Lou’s two teenaged sisters, Erin and Leona, “live squashed together” in a three bedroom flat. Lou takes a very dim view of her home life, her family and her future:

“Erin and her twenty-five year old boyfriend Steve will be at home, fouling my bedroom with dope fumes from their shampoo-bottle bong. Leona will also be there, probably getting drunk and using my mum and dad’s bed to make a baby with her fiance, Greg, a mechanic, who has eczema on his oil-stained fingers.”

While Lou, who is an intelligent girl, looks down on her family, there’s more than just snobbery involved. She doesn’t identify with her family’s coarse behaviour or their lack of ambition, and she has long-held adoption fantasies. As a result she looks forward to the exchange programme as an opportunity to reinvent herself and possibly as a means to never return. As part of her reinvention, Lou has some self-improvement plans–for example she intends to learn two new words a day. Lou’s plans for re-invention, however, include lies about her life, and these lies begin on the plane trip. Flashbacks of Lou’s family life offer bleak glimpses of her daily existence–poverty and benign neglect suffused with her parents’ odd sense of humour:

“Within a week of one another, both of my sisters lost adult teeth eating hard caramels at the movies. Erin brought her tooth home wrapped in tissue paper. The tooth was wedged in the caramel, bits of melted chocolate like dried blood around the edges, mixed with saliva. My mum said her favourite thing to say (which also happens to be one of my dad’s favourite things to say): ‘You made your bed now lie in it.’

‘But, Mum,’ said Erin, ‘I can’t walk around with a big black hole in my mouth.’

‘Why not?’ I said. ‘You walk around with a big black hole in your head.’

Erin grabbed hold of my hair, kneed me in the stomach and left. I fell to the floor, and as I lay there, I could smell the dirty dishcloth Mum uses to wipe the lino.

‘Enough of that,’ said my dad, re-hooking the strap on his overalls which had come undone without him realising, probably hours earlier.

‘Do yourself up, Mick,’ said my mum.

‘What do you think I’m doing?’ said my dad.’Dancing with a poodle?’

They laughed, and I got up off the stinking floor. My dad gave me a hard slap on the back and grinned at me.

‘Good one,’ he said.”

After arriving in America, Lou goes to live with her host family, The Hardings. The Hardings–mother Margaret, father, Henry and their two teenagers, Bridget and James live in a sprawling new Mcmansion located in a bland, upscale, Chicago suburb. Margaret Harding, a tall, lean and extremely repressed perfectionist works as a bank executive, sings in the choir, and dominates the family with her tight-lipped displeasure. Her husband, Henry, is more human, but since he isn’t allowed to voice a differing point of view and rarely speaks, he remains a sympathetic cipher. The Harding teenagers are appalling, spoiled brats, and while Bridget sets herself up as family spy, James views Lou as a training ground for sexual experience.

As for Lou, at first she’s impressed by the surrounding material possessions of the Hardings. She’s impressed by their Mercedes, the array of food, and the sheer newness of everything they own. But it isn’t long before Lou, a chronic insomniac who drinks to gain confidence, runs foul of the Hardings’ many rules and regulations.

How The Light Gets In is simply a wonderful novel. It examines the falsity of Lou’s situation through the constant conflicts with her host family. Lou has dreamed of another life, and she imagines that she has nothing in common with her blood relatives, and yet transplanted to upper middle-class America, and the sort of life she thinks she wants, she cannot conform to the Hardings’ expectations. But Lou has false expectations too. She thinks that she simply has to relearn her behaviour, and at no point did she calculate the fact that she may not really want to be like the Hardings:

“I have read somewhere that a sheep raised by dogs will eventually learn to chase cars . But how long does it take to learn the tricks of another animal? How long will I need to live with the Hardings before I unlearn the tricks of my own family?” 

Placing Lou with the Hardings is obviously a recipe for disaster, and while the disasters do take place with humourous touches–Margaret’s horror at the cuckoo in her perfect nest, for example, the novel is more concerned about expectations, conformity, and the nature of charity. While Lou likes the idea of fitting in, there’s really no enviable place for her in the Harding family, and she’s soon mouthing new polite ways of existing. But there’s also the Hardings’ expectations. Margaret and Henry are completely out-of-their depth with Lou. Just what were they thinking when they signed up for an exchange student?

In this exploration of class and values, Margaret Harding is motivated by a desire to incorporate Lou into her perfect little world. By accepting a girl from an impoverished family, Margaret expects the gratification of seeing Lou’s awe at the Hardings’ life, and Lou is the child pressing her face against the window, gazing at the sumptuous feast set before her. Lou seems to understand the sort of reactions that Margaret wants, and at first Lou expresses the right level of admiration and longing to belong in the Harding family circle. But Lou is used to her family and their neglectful ways, and even if she’s not ready to really accept that she’s a product of her upbringing, she cannot adjust to some of the gestures Margaret makes.

Is it a sense of pride that causes Lou to lie about her home life or is this all part of her ongoing reinvention of the self? In one scene, Margaret explains the curfew, and Lou lies that she has the same curfew at home. The truth of the matter is that Lou’s parents probably wouldn’t even notice if she went missing for a few days. While she agrees to abide by Margaret’s rules, Lou silently acknowledges:

“In Sydney I stay out until the early hours of the morning playing cards, listening to music and drinking, without ever calling home.”

Lou is a marvellous fictional character. She’s set on a course for disaster, and she realises this as she desperately attempts to establish relationships. As the novel continues, Lou experiences an ever-increasing sense of detachment and displacement. At home, her role was to express disgust at the sisters’ behaviour, but her role in America seems to be to show constant gratitude and awe towards the beneficence of the Hardings. They exist as accoutrements to her idealised life, and she exists as a reflection of their success and affluence. Lou’s inner conflict represents the dichotomy of what we are and what we want to be , and this clash of worlds–the real and the idealised play out in this stunning novel.

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Headlong by Michael Frayn

“I was having an attack of moral panic.”

In the witty novel Headlong by Michael Frayn, Martin Clay, a Philosophy professor, has already wasted 7 months of his sabbatical. He is supposed to be writing a book about “the impact of Nominalism on Netherlandish art of the fifteenth century,” but so far he’s only managed to distract himself with a useless pursuit into the subject of the Master of the Embroidered Foilage. His wife, Kate–who’s a specialist in comparative Christian iconography, is a very sensible woman, and she drags them all off to their country home. Here, Kate believes, Martin will not be distracted from his work. Ironically, the moment the Clays arrive, they are pounced upon by a local landowner, Martin Churt, and invited to dinner to take a look at some paintings he owns.

After spending a perfectly awful evening in the Churt’s decaying mansion, Martin, although initially rather disinterested in Churt’s paintings, can’t believe his good luck when he spots–what he thinks–is a Bruegel. From that point on, Martin plots to get the painting away from Churt and into his possession. He is obsessed with the painting, and the fact that he is supposed to be a rational philosophy professor just makes his greed even funnier.

Martin doesn’t let anything stand in the way of getting his hands on “the Merrymakers”–as he calls the painting–domestic bliss, fidelity, honesty, morals–well they all fly out the window of opportunity. The book on Nominalism is dropped, and suddenly Martin is researching Bruegel frantically in an effort to authenticate the painting. Some of the funniest moments are found in Martin’s justifications of his behaviour, or when he ad-libs plans as complications arise.

Headlong is not a particularly easy read. Large sections of art history break up the action. I found myself wanting to rush through some of the heavy details so that I could return to the characters in the novel, but it is worth the effort to concentrate and stick with the details about Bruegel–you will see why when you get to the end of the novel. Without exception, all the characters are very well-drawn, and the atmosphere of moral mayhem is consistent throughout the novel. One of my very favourite poems is “Musee de Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden, and so this book had a very special appeal to me due to its subject matter. Knowing a little bit about Bruegel’s work beforehand helped too. I found this book by looking at the books shortlisted for the Booker prize. I seem to have better luck with the finalists than the books that actually win the prize.

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