Tag Archives: British fiction

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

“Otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomized by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” Author Hanif Kureishi seems to be an author readers either love or hate, and this theory is arguably authenticated by a number of vicious, personal comments about the author left on this blog–comments far too nasty to see the light of day. The Buddha of Suburbia was an amazing book, but Kureishi surpassed it with his phenomenal Something to Tell  You, and as Kureishi is not a prolific author, I was delighted to see that he’d written another novel: The Last Word.  This is a story of a young man, Harry, who’s commissioned by a flamboyant, out-of-control publisher, Rob, to write a biography of a Lion of British literature, now in his 70s, the aging Mamoon Azam. Harry goes to live with Mamoon and his second, expensive Italian wife Livia in order to gather material for the book, conduct interviews and gather information from the diaries of Mamoon’s first wife, Peggy. The last wordThere was some gossip that The Last Word was based on V.S. Naipaul, his approved biographer, Patrick French, and the resulting book The World is What it Is, a ‘warts and all’ “confessional biography” (Ian Buruma). Author Hanif Kureishi denies the connection, but when reading The Last Word, it’s impossible not to think of Naipaul–and not just because Naipaul and Mamoon Azam are both “eminent Indian-born writer[s]” who’ve made their careers and homes in England. There are other connections between the lives of the fictional Mamoon and the living Naipaul, and as we might anticipate from a writer of Kureishi’s subtlety, there are also some differences. While Naipaul apparently complied with his biographer’s demands, Mamoon proves to be slippery and the most difficult of subjects. The Last Word begins brilliantly with Harry travelling with Rob by train to Mamoon’s estate. Harry is busy thinking, somewhat dreamily, of the monumental task ahead of him. He’s a book reviewer and a teacher with just one well-received biography under his belt, and now contemplating his future & home ownership, “it had occurred to Harry, in the last year, at least as he matured, that he needed to be well off.” While Harry chews over the project of writing a biography about Mamoon, his publisher Rob, acknowledging that it can “inhibit” a biographer to have a living subject, wants something sensational. Something “mad and wild“:

Harry, the Great Literary Satan is weak and woozy now like a lion hit with a monster tranquilizer. It’s his time to be taken. And it’s in his interest to cooperate. When he reads the book and learns what a bastard he’s been, it’ll be too late. You will have found out stuff that Mamoon doesn’t even know about himself. He’ll be dead meat on a skewer of your insight. That’s where the public like their artists–exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers, and shitting in front of strangers. That’ll teach ‘em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wages slaves like us.

So of course, we are in for a romp. Here’s Harry commissioned to write an authorised biography of a living legend–a man “too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read, [Mamoon was] becoming financially undone; despite the praise and the prizes.” Mamoon is considered a serious writer whose work wrestles with moral issues, and yet publisher Rob, sniffing that there’s plenty of dirt under that stiff writer persona, is pushing for an expose, a dirt-slinging, tabloid style biography which will be a bestseller. According to Rob, Mamoon’s fiercely protective, expensive wife, Livia, is “a man-eater who never passed on a meal,” and Rob even suggests that Harry should be prepared to sleep with Livia to get his story. Between Livia, who wants only a whitewashed biography, and Mamoon who’d rather not have to participate at all, Harry seems to be severely outclassed by craft and personality. The writing here is occasionally brilliant, evidenced here by Rob’s enthusiastic descriptions of two of the women in Mamoon’s life:

Marion, his ex-mistress, a Baconian torso on a plank, is bitter as cancer and spitting gobbets of hate to this day. She lives in America and not only will she see you, she’ll fly at you like a radioactive bat. I’ve organized your visit–some people accuse me of being a perfectionist. There is also the fact he drove his first wife, Peggy, over the edge. I’m sure he wrapped oranges in a towel and beat her blacker and bluer than a decayed Stilton.

And then there’s Rob (my favorite train-wreck of a character):

If Harry thought of himself as a cautious if not conservative person, Rob appeared to encourage his authors towards pugnacity, dissipation, and “authenticity” for fear, some thought, that the act and the art of writing, or even editing, might appear “artistic,” feminine, nancy, or possibly, “gay.” Never mind Mamoon, Harry had heard numerous tales of Rob’s “sociopathic” tendencies. He didn’t go into the office until five in the afternoon, though he would stay there all night, editing, phoning, and working, perhaps popping into Soho. He had married, not long ago, but appeared to have forgotten that wedlock was a continuous state rather than a one-off event. He slept in different places, often in discomfort and with a book over his face, while appearing to inhabit a time zone that collapsed and expanded according to need rather than the clock, which he considered to be fascist. If he became bored by someone, he would turn away or even slap them. He would cut his writers’ work arbitrarily, or change the titles, without informing them.

The novel is about the difficulties of biography and how we align the image of a great writer with a not-so-great human being. According to Rob, Mamoon “has been a dirty bastard, an adulterer, liar, thug, and, possibly, a murderer.” Of course it’s Harry’s job to get to the central truth at the core of Mamoon’s life, so the novel should also, in theory, be about Harry’s journey of discovery. Unfortunately, from its very promising premise and phenomenal beginning, the novel takes a turn with the character of Harry. He’s introduced with hints of naiveté–the way , for example, we’re told that it ‘occurs’ to him that he’ll need to be well off–a phrase that implies a certain unworldliness. Mamoon seems to do everything he can to derail Harry’s desire to gain access, and Livia clearly wants Harry to write a “gentle” hagiography. Both Mamoon and Livia appear to select Harry for the job because he’s one of “the few decent and bright Englishman left on this island,” yet Harry not naïve or decent. As the plot develops, Harry is revealed to be quite the opposite of how he first appeared. And herein lies the central problem, at least for this reader. While the novel is at its best with Kureishi’s caustic bitter wit (seen through Mamoon and Rob), Harry’s personal life quickly overwhelms the central plot and the philosophical questions on which the story rests. Harry is a difficult, unconvincing character and his sexual relationship with a minor character feels particularly contrived. After setting up the initial central dilemma of extracting the sordid truth from Mamoon whether he likes it or not, the plot stagnates, teeters, stumbles and veers towards farce and some scenes and dialogue seem patently false. I’ve come to expect unpleasant characters in Kureishi’s novels, and that’s not a problem as nasty people can be great fun to read about. The major problem in The Last Word is plot momentum and hijacking. So what does Kureishi have to say on the question of how we align the great writers with their often less-than-great characters? The central issue seems to be not so much what a writer does or doesn’t do in his personal life as much as a matter of hypocrisy, and here’s Mamoon on the subject of E. M. Forster:

View? I have no views on a man who claimed he wanted to write about homosexual sex, a subject we certainly needed to know about. Since he lacked the balls to do it, he spent thirty years staring out of the window, when he wasn’t mooning over bus conductors and other Pakis. An almost-man who claimed to hate colonialism using the Third World as his brothel because he wouldn’t get arrested there, as he would showing off his penis in a Chiswick toilet.

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Amherst by William Nicholson

“You can have passion or you can have gratification, but you can’t have both.”

American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) led a reclusive life in Amherst,  Massachusetts, busily writing poems, and while no one really grasped the extent of her work until after her death, many of her poems are full of passion while others are full of her preoccupation with death. The passion in Emily Dickinson’s poems has fascinated readers and critics alike as it adds a mystical sense of romanticism to a reclusive life that was, apparently, devoid of sex and romance.

Amherst, (UK title: The Lovers of Amherst) from British author William Nicholson, is an ambitious novel that follows two interlinking story strands: in the present, Alice Dickinson (no relation), a young, London-based copywriter decides to head to Amherst to investigate background for an idea for a screenplay based on the scandalous love affair between married Mabel Loomis Todd, a faculty wife, and equally married college treasurer, Austin Dickinson, brother of Emily.

amherstIn the second story thread, the novel traces the love affair between Mabel Todd and Dickinson. Orbiting around these two lovers are Emily Dickinson (whose house served as a meeting place for the lovers), Mabel’s compliant husband, and Austin’s wife, Sue who was also Emily Dickinson’s great friend.

In the present, Alice travels to Amherst, and through an old lover, she has a contact in Nick Crocker, an Englishman, an academic (who was) teaching at Amherst College. He’s married to a very wealthy woman, and has a reputation as the college Lothario. Alice stays with Nick and in spite of her initial reservations, she throws herself into a passionate affair with Nick. Alice’s affair with Nick, in terms of age, echoes the affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. The minute Alice shows up on the scene, the people she speaks to expect her to fall in bed with Nick, and she does…

As the novel progresses, the two story strands follow the arc of these two affairs: Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd, and Alice & Nick. Of course there are some similarities between the two relationships, but there are also some marked differences. Whereas Mabel Todd’s entrance into Austin Dickinson’s life seems to be the event he’s been waiting for, Alice, initially forms a very negative opinion of Nick. Here they are on a tour of the Amherst cemetery:

Nick sweeps one arm round the cemetery.

“All these dead people,” he says. “If they could speak, what would they say to us? They’d say, ‘Love all you can, love everyone you can, as much as you can, as often as you can. You’re going to be old and alone soon enough. And you’re going to be dead forever.’ “

He opens the truck door for her to get in.

“Quite a speech,” says Alice. “In praise of promiscuity.”

“Oh, please.”

He shuts the door, goes round to the driver’s side.

“As far as I can tell from our brief acquaintance,” he says, “you’re not a fool.” He starts the engine, makes a three-point turn, backing among the graves.” Spare me the herd-think.”

This interaction between Nick and Alice is indicative of their overall relationship. He argues that “Love isn’t a limited resource. It’s not a cake that’s going to run out. It’s the very opposite. The more you love, the more love there is.” Whether Alice knows it or not, she’s being seduced slowly but surely by Nick’s philosophy. There’s a moment later when she reconsiders her low opinion of Nick and his behaviour towards women, and she seems to almost willingly let go of her arguments against Nick’s philosophy. I don’t buy the scenario of Nick healing the damaged co-eds he beds–that’s an archaic thought and one that sounds like a great excuse, but Alice, probably thanks to her youth, buys it, or perhaps, and this is an intriguing idea, perhaps she wants to believe it as she’s in the frame of mind to throw caution to the winds and engage in a relationship with a much older man as a way of immersing herself in her screenplay. She’s done all the touristy things in Amherst, and perhaps throwing sanity to the winds is the thing she needs to do to ‘feel’ her material. At one point, Alice thinks that the screenplay will focus on Mabel “who chose life in all its mess and hurt, not Emily, who withdrew into the sepulchre of her own room.” Is this the frame of mind that sways Alice into ditching her common sense and begin an affair with Nick?

When the novel began, I thought I’d enjoy the present day relationship more than the 19th century affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd. Strangely enough, both Nick and Alice are uninteresting and clichéd, and fade next to the 19th century adulterous coupling of Mabel Todd and Austin Dickinson. Diary and letters between Austin and Mabel, sometimes rather awkwardly weaved in, reflect the state of mind of these two lovers, and it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Austin Dickinson’s wife, Sue, who seems to be expected to go along with the programme, and is seen as a bit of a spoilsport for reacting negatively and causing a fuss. The main problem with Austin Dickinson and Mabel’s relationship is so typical–the reader begins to wonder how much is true and how much is imagined, and the author admits he had to imagine the scenes between the lovers. By comparison, Nick and Alice’s affair seems rather like flogging a dead horse. Alice morphs from being a seemingly sensible young woman to being an emo mess. Nick is the standard lothario who excuses his actions by his ‘seize the day’ philosophy, and while that’s certainly a way to get through life, it’s notable that this extends almost exclusively towards sex and not life in general. Plus there’s one very irritating scene in which Alice and Nick, after a romp in bed, in a very typical academic way, analyze the perceived sexual content of Emily Dickinson’s poems.

In the author’s note at the end of the book, William Nicholson details the research conducted for the book along with an explanation that his fictional characters have appeared in previous books: The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, All the Hopeful Lovers, Motherland and Reckless.

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As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister

A young attractive woman named Cassie responds to a newspaper ad for “Housekeeper/companions,” and so Cassie finds herself in a London hotel being interviewed for the job by Larry Drake. The job entails working in Australia on the remote Woolagong Station, “right on the tropic of Capricorn, fringes of the desert”– a former sheep station on a half million acres. While the sheep station is no longer in operation, Larry claims that he needs a young couple to work around the ranch and help with his wife:

‘What do we actually do?’ she says. ‘On a daily basis, I mean.’

‘What would you expect to do?’

‘I’m not sure–housekeeping and so on?’

‘Yes. Certainly that. Mara, my wife, she is not–let us say not entirely “well.” She needs help with –‘ the corner of his lip twitches, ‘housekeeping, yes, but she also needs companionship. I’m away sometimes, and,’ he stretches out his arms,’ as you see, the place we live –Woolagong Station–it’s somewhat … remote.’

Well at this point, any sensible person would be out the door, but Cassie isn’t really thinking properly. She should be asking herself why an Australian has to come all the way to London to find a young couple to work in a remote region of the outback. Surely climate alone should dictate that a native Australian would be better suited to the job, and would at least have a good idea of what to expect. There’s something wrong with the whole set up and there’s something wrong with Larry–even Cassie, who thinks that job is the answer to her problems, is aware that the situation feels wrong and that Larry gives off  a strange vibe.

There’s something pleasantly reptilian about him, a grain of god in his skin. If he took off his shirt, you wouldn’t be surprised to find a pattern there, like lizard skin. She blinks, startled by the thought.

So why is Cassie willing to overlook her gut feelings and plunge ahead with this insane plan? We discover the answer to that when she returns home to Graham and breaks the news that she’s accepted the job for both of them. According to Cassie, the job in Australia is going to be a turning point in their relationship. Out there for a year’s contract on Woolagong Station, Cassie reasons that they can work out their problems. Since the major points of contention in the relationship are Graham’s habits of disappearing for days and refusing to accept monogamy, the remoteness of their new employment is a bit like making Graham go cold turkey.

‘But–what about last month when you went out for a paper and disappeared for a week? Or July? No–don’t. I don’t want to hear any excuses or anything. I want you to be here for me. Like a proper partner. A proper committed partner. No more flings. No more disappearing off. If you can’t do that then—‘ She slices her hand through the air.

If Cassie were sensible, she’d realize that Graham is his own person who cannot (and should not) be controlled, say ‘sayonara toots’ and move on to someone more suited to her temperament, but no. Instead she’s willing to go to extremes to keep Graham monogamous and by her side. It’s as if a year in the remote Woolagong station is required for Graham to be trained to be the kind of man Cassie wants.

as far as you can goGraham and Cassie soon have reason to regret Cassie’s decision to take the job. Woolagong station is slap bang in the middle of exactly … nowhere, Larry, who claims to be a doctor, seems to have an unhealthy interest in Cassie, and exactly why does Larry’s wife live in the shed????

As Far as You can Go, a novel of psychological suspense, shows how Cassie’s poor decision to accept the job leads to a very creepy situation. Cassie and Graham are completely dependent on Larry, and the environment at Woolagong isn’t exactly normal…

The novel is well structured and nicely paced, but in spite of this, when I turned the last page, something seemed to be missing–although I seem to be in the minority opinion on Goodreads. For this reader, all of the characters in the novel were rather unpleasant, and while that isn’t in itself a problem as I enjoy reading about nasty people, it was difficult to care about what happened to the two main characters–potential victims–Cassie and Graham. Both Cassie and Graham seem to be incredibly warped human beings: Cassie is determined to make Graham into the sort of man she wants in spite of the fact that the raw material falls far short of her expectations, and Graham seems both sleazy and weak-willed. Dig a little deeper, and there are some creepy similarities between Cassie and Larry as they are both people who are willing to go to extremes to control the behaviour of someone else. My sympathy for Cassie, Miss Organic Gardener, ended when she squashed a caterpillar who dared to venture into the vegetable garden, and at that point, who cares if they find themselves in the middle of nowhere with some nut job?

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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.

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The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe

“Let me give you a warning about my family,” he said eventually, “in case you hadn’t worked it out already. They’re the meanest. greediest, cruelest bunch of back-stabbing bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth. And I include my own offspring in that statement.”

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jonathan Coe novels: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58. While I liked both books, neither of them hit me as ‘best-of-year’ reads, but that all changes with the novel The Winshaw Legacy which has to be one of the cleverest, most unusual books I’ve read in some time. The Winshaw Legacy was a group read suggested by Séamus (Vapour Trails) with fellow participants Jacqui (Jacquiwine’s Journal),  and Kim (Reading Matters), and just in  case you are wondering if we read the same book, the UK title is What a Carve Up. How on earth do these two titles connect? What a Carve Up is a very real film watched as a child by Coe’s central character and sometime narrator, Michael Owen. It’s a film which has a profound impact on Michael’s life, and if you’ve seen it (I have a copy) you know that it’s a weak version of the Carry-On films and features those ever-popular Carry On team actors and characters who appear, briefly, in the book: Sid James and Kenneth Connor.

The premise of the film What a Carve Up concerns the reading of a will in ghastly, remote country mansion, and as the relatives gather and stay overnight, they are gradually murdered. What a Carve Up haunts Michael for inexplicable reasons and his obsession with the hints of sex in the film don’t seem to adequately explain his profoundly disturbing inability to move on from a scene involving Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor.

winshaw legacyThe Winshaw Legacy is a complex novel and a great deal of the central mystery of the book focuses on the revolting Winshaw family–a horrible lot of grasping self-styled aristos whose sycophantic links to the rise and reign of Margaret Thatcher reflect the worst of British society of the 70s and 80s, and it’s here we get into the novel’s complexities. The title What a Carve Up could refer to the carve up of the British socialist state: the demise of the Labour Party and the rise of Conservatives. Or perhaps it refers to our hapless hero, Michael’s obsession with the film he saw as a child. But then again What a Carve up could refer to some of the strange life-mirrors-art antics that occurred inside Winshaw Towers in 1961–a night that ended in the death of one man and the re-institution of Tabitha Winshaw, declared insane, but who may very well be the only sane member of the Winshaw family.

There are three essential mysteries at the heart of this novel:

  • Is there any truth in Tabitha (known as Mad Tab) Winshaw’s accusation that her brother Lawrence is to blame for the death of Godfrey Winshaw, a pilot shot down over Germany during WWII?
  • What really happened in 1961 when a burglar broke into Winshaw Towers and was killed by Lawrence?
  • What is Michael Owen’s role in all this? And why has he been paid a ridiculous amount of money by a vanity press to write a history of the Winshaw family?

The Winshaws have their dirty fingers in every pie during the sprawling period covered by the Great Carve Up: banking, arms dealing, privatization of the NHS, politics, pension plundering and even factory farming; they leave no avenue of possible wealth and asset stripping unmined:

When the Conservative government announced that they were abolishing free eye tests on the NHS in April 1988, Thomas phoned his brother Henry to tell him that they were making a big mistake: there would be a public outcry. Henry told him that he was over-reacting. There would be a whimper of protest from the usual quarters, he said, and then it would all quietly die down.

‘And I was right, wasn’t I?’

‘I should have bowed down to you political judgement, as always.’

‘Well, it’s quite simple really.’ Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon in early October 1989, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club’s private rooms. ‘The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There’s no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public have had a chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than … a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at a time.

So while What a Carve Up is an appropriate title for the book, The Winshaw Legacy is equally appropriate. This is a book that is impossible to narrow down to just a few sentences. On one hand it’s the story of a writer who struggles with unknown and unrecognized demons and whose life is influenced by factors he’s unaware of, but it’s also about the Carve Up of Britain, the rise of Thatcher, the links between bankers (which Coe reminds us rhymes with wankers), politicians, financiers, arms dealers, chemical weapons manufacturers and the Saddam Husseins of this world. This is an intense complex book which even manages to weave in the  execution of Farzad Bazoft. Here’s a private discussion between Henry and Thomas Winshaw:

‘I know Major hasn’t been in the job for long and we’re all a bit worried that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s playing at. But take it from me–he’s a good boy. He does what he’s told. He took a sip of tea. ‘And besides he might be moving again soon.’

‘What, already?’

‘It looks that way. Margaret and Nigel seem to be heading for a final bust-up. We suspect there’ll be a vacancy at number Eleven pretty soon.’

Thomas tucked this information away at the back of his mind for future reference. It had considerable implications, which he would need to contemplate and examine at his leisure.

‘Do you think they’ll hang him?” he asked suddenly.

Henry shrugged. ‘Well he was a rotten chancellor, it has to be said, but that would be a bit drastic.’

‘No, no not Lawson. I mean this journo character. Bazoft.’

‘Oh, him. I dare say they will, yes. That’s what happens if you’re silly enough to get caught snooping around Saddam’s arms factories, I suppose.’

‘Making trouble.’

‘Exactly.’ Henry stared into space for a moment. ‘I must say, there are one or two snoopers over here that I wouldn’t mind seeing strung up on Ludgate Hill, if it came to that.’

‘Nosey parkers.’

While the book is the history of one of Britain’s most horrible, most powerful families, it would be wrong to say that this is only a political novel; it’s not. It’s an extremely witty social satire with multiple story threads (which all connect by the novel’s conclusion) that include voyeurism, the nepotism of the art world, and the vagaries of vanity publishing. These threads unfold from the 40s through the 90s through various voices–including author Michael Owen, and the diaries of Henry Winshaw. But also mention must be made of the fantastic cast of characters: chocolate addicted, Shirley Eaton fixated, reclusive author Michael Owen who’d “gone a bit strange,” his childhood friend, the uncomplicated yet board-game aficionado Joan, sweet Fiona–yet another victim of the long grasping fingers of the Winshaws, artist/nurse Phoebe who learned the hard, humiliating way just how unscrupulous the Winshaws could be, and dapper, geriatric sex-obsessed detective Findlay Onyx.  Author Jonathan Coe also manages to bring in, repeatedly, the idea that fiction mirrors life. At a few salient points, Michael’s life takes on a surreal quality as he imagines himself in a film or on the other end of a screen.

It was as if cracks had started to appear in the screen and this awful reality was leaking out: or as if the glass barrier itself had magically turned to liquid and without knowing it I had slipped across the divide, like a dreaming Orpheus.

All my life I’d been trying to find my way to the other side of the screen: ever since my visit to the cinema in Weston-super-Mare. Did this mean that I’d made it at last?

Since Michael’s conscious life as a child awoke with a film which included the reading of a will at an old manor house, Coe’s metafictional story comes full circle when Michael finds himself reliving scenes from the film What a Carve Up. The scenes of the loathsome, exploitive Winshaws are shockingly brilliant, savagely funny and yet also sadly reflect a secret fictional history in which the Winshaws assume the identify of the monstrous powerbrokers who carved up the nation. Michael Owen is the stunned Everyman who must emerge from his reclusive state and confront a new corrupt reality.

For Jacqui’s review 

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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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This Little Piggy by Bea Davenport

Bea Davenport’s novel This Little Piggy, set in the north of England during the ’84 miner’s strike, begins with the discovery of a horrible crime. On Sweetmeadows, a cheap, “mould-ridden” slum housing estate earmarked for destruction the body of a baby boy is found dumped near the rubbish bins. The baby belonged to “one of the Sweetmeadows’ rare two-parent families, the Donnellys.” Four months into the strike, Robert Donnelly, a miner, has returned to the mines as a scab. With the family already the target of harassment, Donnelly’s mother is certain that the murder of the baby has been committed by some striking miners, but Robert argues that the miners are his “mates” and that they’d never hurt a child.

this little piggyLocal reporter Claire Jackson, reeling from a personal tragedy and passed over for a promotion, throws herself into the case. She befriends an eight-year-old girl named Amy who lives near the Donnellys and who claims to have vital information about the baby’s death. Amy, an intelligent, yet feral child, lives with her single mother Tina in filth and squalor, and is often left alone without food for days at a time. The police dismiss the child’s story as fabrication. Claire, intrigued by the case, and drawn to Amy, becomes involved in investigating the crime, and she also finds herself selected by the miners’ organizer, Finn, to attend miners’ benefits and activities in order to counter the overwhelming negative press the miners are receiving.

Author Bea Davenport does an excellent job of creating a crime set against the tense backdrop of the miners’ strike. The Sweetmeadows Estate is considered dangerous both by the police (who tend to avoid the place if they can) and by any outsiders. Yet the people who live there seem to share a bond that goes beyond socioeconomics. Claire finds herself caught in the crossfire–she’s a journalistic advocate for both the miners and the residents at the Sweetmeadows Estate, but is she becoming too involved as her fellow reporter, Joe claims?  Claire counters that perhaps it’s time to pick a side:

Don’t you ever get sick of pretending that you’re not quite part of humanity, you’re just someone who stands on the sidelines and takes notes?

As the murder investigation continues, brutality emerges from the police towards Sweetmeadows residents, and with the strike continuing, violence towards the miners also escalates.  According to the police, the Sweetmeadows Estate is a “tinderbox. It’s a riot waiting to happen,” and the actions of the police during the investigation ignite an already tense situation. But according to the Sweetmeadows residents, the police aren’t exerting every effort to find the real killer:

“That’s the trouble with living here,” the first woman went on. “you get branded. If it was some posh couple’s baby, the police wouldn’t drive the mother to her grave by making out it was here that did it. And if anyone else complains about the police they have to sit up and take notice. But when it’s Sweetmeadows, it’s just, oh, it’s that lot again. They call us swine and treat us like rubbish. Bastards.”

As tensions rise and violence explodes, Claire finds herself in an increasingly dangerous position, and even though she thinks she’s taken a stand by showing support for the miners and the residents of Sweetmeadows, Claire, a sympathetic and charismatic character, must ultimately make a moral choice she didn’t anticipate.

As a crime book which explores class, alienation and the murky political complexities of the times, This Little Piggy succeeds. We see that life on Sweetmeadows is like life on an alternate universe; you can’t appreciate its nuances unless you live there, and even Claire, a frequent visitor to the estate, is ultimately an outsider. A minor quibble from this reader involves an incident between Amy and Claire towards the end of the book which jolted me out of an otherwise tense, compelling and wholly believable story.

Review copy.

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

It’s just that you must understand–this knees-up in Brussels, well, it’s a wonderful idea in principle of course, but there are dangers involved.”

Early on in Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58, we are told that our main character, married bureaucrat Thomas Foley bears a striking resemblance to both Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde. This isn’t the only time in the novel that the resemblances are mentioned, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that Thomas is a romantic hero here, but in reality Thomas isn’t a hero at all; he’s a civil servant swept up into Coe’s comic spy caper, and while Thomas goes off the rails for a period, he’s largely oblivious to the significance of the events taking place right under his nose.

expo 58Thirty-two year-old Thomas Foley has worked, since 1944, in the Ministry of Information, now called the COI. He’s a junior copywriter and a great deal of his job is spent “drafting pamphlets on public health and safety, advising pedestrians of the best way to cross the road and cold-sufferers of the best way to avoid spreading germs in public places.” Depending on his mood, some days he thinks he’s done well in life but “other days he found his work tedious and contemptible.”

Little does Thomas suspect that life is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Expo 58 is scheduled to be held in Belgium and the COI has “overall responsibility for the content of the British pavilion at Expo 58 and this had immediately led to a frenzy of headscratching and soul-searching around that maddening, elusive topic of ‘Britishness’. What did it mean to be British in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed on that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past, scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look when defining Britishness? Forwards or backwards.”

The COI is faced with a “conundrum” when it comes to organizing the content of the British pavilion. Everyone knows that both the Americans and Soviets “were bound to produce national displays on a massive scale,” so the dilemma centres on the image Britain wants to project.  Amongst a lot of muttering about the “bloody Belgians,” one firm idea emerges: there must be an authentic pub, and so it’s agreed to build a British pub next to the British pavilion. This is where Thomas comes into the picture. Thomas’s father ran a pub, and was married to a Belgian woman. Thomas’s  boss decides that Thomas, with all that ‘experience,’ is the perfect man for the job and that he should oversee the running of the pub at Expo 5–an establishment that will be called the Britannia and which will offer traditional British fare:

as British as bowler hats and fish and chips, representing the finest hospitality our nation can offer.” Mr Ellis shuddered. “Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.”

If that sort of ribbing about British traditions appeals to you, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this mostly good-humoured book which is laced with just a twinge of bittersweet regret. The book captures beautifully the nuances and attitudes of the time. The 60s have yet to arrive and Britain has emerged from WWII, the emphasis remains on tradition–not change, and meanwhile the menace of rock & roll and the cold war colours all official attitudes.

So Thomas is put in charge of the pub at Expo 58, and his new position means that he will have to stay there for approximately 6 months. Since he has a wife and a young baby, he’s given the option of taking them along, but Thomas decides to leave them at home, and it’s a decision that illustrates Thomas’s desire for freedom and change. Thomas’s personal life becomes mixed up with skullduggery and some rather exotic characters at Expo 58, including  the fascinatingly assertive American actress, Emily, Belgian hostess Annecke, and a member of the Soviet delegation, Mr Chersky–a man who develops a passion for British crisps. Meanwhile, Thomas’s wife Sylvia, resentful that she’s been left alone while her husband is off partying in Belgium, encourages a relationship with a neighbor who’s only too happy to step into Thomas’s place.

The novel’s emphasis, especially initially, is on humour. There’s one scene, back in London, still at the planning stages of Expo 58 when the discussion of a display which covers “A history of the British water closet,” is shot down by COI officials. An argument then rages concerning the fact that  “Britain’s contribution to the disposal of human waste has never been recognized,” and that we all do “number twos,” even the queen. Definite Carry On material here, but most of the humour directed at fussy establishment tastes and what it ‘means’ to be British is much subtler. Then there’s two spy chappies from MI6, Radford & Wayne, who reminded me of Tin Tin’s Thompson & Thompson,  sniffing around Thomas trying to vet whether or not he’s a commie:

“Ah yes. The classics. Nothing like a bit of classical music, is there? I expect you like Tchaikovsky?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“What about the more modern bods? Stravinsky, say?”

“Oh yes. First rate.”

“Shostakovich?”

“Haven’t heard much.”

“Prokofiev?”

Thomas nodded, without really knowing why. He couldn’t see where any of this was heading. The waitress brought their coffees and they all stirred in their sugar and took their first sips.

“Of course,” said Mr Radford, “a lot of chaps would rather read than listen to music.”

“Curl up with a good book,” agreed Mr Wayne.

“Do much reading?”

“A bit yes. Not as much as I should probably.”

“Read any Dostoevsky? Some people swear by him.”

“What about Tolstoy?”

“I’m rather parochial in my tastes. I like Dickens. I read Wodehouse, for a bit of light relief. Do you mind telling me what this is all about? You seem to be asking me an awful lot of questions about Russian writers and composers.”

But the British aren’t the only ones whose zest for their own culture reveals fusty archaic attitudes and prejudices; the Belgians have the bad taste to build a fake Belgian Congo exhibit for Expo 58 which involves the creation of an entire village and even importing Congo natives to man and ‘authenticate’ the display.  No bets accepted about how this ends up. Since Expo 58 is part spy novel spoof, a sly reference to that ultra smooth spy 007 creeps into a discussion between Thomas, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford.

“Well, Foley, it’s very good of you to come all the way out here to join us,” said Mr Wayne at last.

“I wasn’t aware,” said Thomas, “that I had any choice in the matter.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr Radford, “whatever can you mean?”

“We thought Wilkins was bringing you out here.”

“He bundled me into a car and pointed a gun at me, yes.”

“A gun?”

At this, they both started to chortle.

“A gun! Dear me!”

“Poor old Wilkins!”

“Really, he is the end.”

“He’s the absolute limit.”

“Lives in a fantasy world, poor fellow.”

“Reads far too many of those books. You know the ones I mean.”

“I know the ones. What’s the author’s name?”

“Fleming.  Have you read them, Foley?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Having a terrible influence, you know … on the chaps who work in our department.”

“Pure fiction, of course. Gadding around the world …”

“Bumping people off without so much as a by your leave …”

“Sleeping with a different woman every night …”

This detail, it seemed, struck both of them as especially implausible.

“I mean, dash it all, Radford, when was the last time you did that?”

“Bump someone off, you mean?”

“No–sleep with a different woman.”

Expo 58 is a light, gently comic read–the story of an Everyman who steps out of his comfort zone into a dangerous world of spies, assassins and perhaps even a femme fatale. Coe’s novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a humorous novel which explores the issue of relationships in the age of the socialverse, and Expo 58, with a similar style of humour successfully spoofs British attitudes , ethnocentrism, & the Establishment in the cold war 50s. The quotes give a good sense of the novel’s tone, so if you find yourself smiling at the quotes, you’ll probably enjoy the novel.

Review copy.

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The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

“There had always been in her this meanness which every now and again got out of control.”

Ignore the sweet-looking hints of the cover. The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster is the story of Julia, a strangely disaffected child who becomes a successful child psychologist. It’s Julia’s job to explore the hidden corners of culpability in her patients’ anti-social, self-destructive and sometimes deviant behaviour, and yet this is the very thing that Julia sidesteps so neatly in her own past and present. The Unknown Bridesmaid, the twenty-sixth novel from the author, is subtle and intelligent, but far more than that, this is a dark tale of self-deception and motivation in which the murky impulses of the main character lurk just beneath the surface of her actions.

The Unknown BridesmaidJulia is just eight years old when she’s invited back to Manchester to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Julia’s mother is surprised by the invitation as she and her sister Maureen aren’t close. Even Julia recognizes that “her mother and her aunt were engaged in some sort of complicated battle,” and there’s the sense that Maureen’s life took a turn for the better while Julia’s mother’s did not.  We’re given an impression of Julia’s mother, and it isn’t pleasant:

Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.

Julia as a bridesmaid is not the main gist of the story, but it is a pivotal event in which we see Julia for the first time. She’s an odd child. If we want to be kind we’d call her ‘quiet,’ and if we dislike Julia, we’d call her ‘sneaky.’ It’s at Iris’s wedding that we first grasp the idea that Julia has a certain emotional disconnect from the people around her. Iris is a wonderful young woman, warm, kind, loving and much-loved, “admired” and joyful, yet Julia, much like her own dreary, joyless mother, holds back, and “sees how everyone was in thrall to her cousin.”

The wedding is just the first event in a chain of tragedy that binds Julia to her relatives in Manchester. Financial circumstances and a dark secret involving Julia’s father bring Julia and her mother back to Manchester to live, and so the lives of the two sets of relatives twine together initially through the wedding and then through death. A horrible incident occurs involving Julia, and she may or may not be responsible.

She was the one who had always, as a child, wanted to ask questions but had been trained not to. She liked being asked them, too, or thought she did until the questions became tricky and she began to worry about what her answers were revealing, to herself, as much as to the questioner.

Julia shoves aside her involvement and the hint of guilt and plunges ahead into a childhood and adolescence full of emotionally disconnected acts of casual cruelty towards the other people in her life. As she grows into her teens, the acts becomes increasingly more serious and focused….

The Unknown Bridesmaid maintains a quietly restrained narrative tone while exploring how a close-knit group of people deal with a young girl who’s emotionally disturbed. As the narrative goes back and forth in time between the past and the present, there’s a fine film over all these events which covers & obscures Julia’s culpability and intentions. Julia’s childhood of increasingly abhorrent acts is spliced with her present as she counsels children with various emotional and behavioral problems. As a psychologist, Julia recognizes that “it was tempting to confuse a child’s evasion of the truth with a calculated piece of lying.” She’s good at uncovering the motivations behind various children’s destructive actions, and while this talent may spring from her own emotionally difficult past, the clarity Julia shows with her patients stops there. Her insight is towards others–not herself.

Author Margaret Forster includes weddings and bridesmaids a few times in the novel, and when these occasions emerge in Julia’s life, they illuminate Julia’s estrangement from the people in her life. She cannot participate emotionally and these happy celebrations always leave Julia on the outside, disinterested, bored, and yet aware that somehow she’s ‘different.’

The Unknown Bridesmaid, primarily a character study, is a stunning novel, and perhaps part of my admiration for the book comes in no small part to the fact that it plays into one of my pet theories: those of us who give the most to strangers, give nothing to our families and those we are supposed to love. It’s a version of Mrs Jellyby’s telescopic philanthropy. Structured differently, let’s say chronologically, the plot would not contain as much mystery, but the plot goes back and forth with the past and the present, so we see Julia as a damaged child and later as a well-functioning adult. But as Julia’s present unfolds we begin to question just how well-functioning she really is. As for Julia’s past, how should we judge the intentions of children when they don’t understand their own impulses? Julia very much remains an enigma to herself and her relatives, especially Elsa, a girl who once adored Julia and yet found herself the target of Julia’s malicious spite. Julia also remains a mystery to the reader–partly due to the novel’s clever structure and brilliant characterizations, but also due to the novel’s wonderful ending which while deliberately anticlimactic brings only deeper questions involving the elusiveness of the truth and multiple versions of events.  Should we admire Julia for how she managed to recoup her life and become a professional success or should we dislike her for treating her family badly and failing to overcome her emotional problems?

The Unknown Bridesmaid is going to make my best-of-year list. I’d never read Margaret Forster before and I’m delighted to have found her at last.

Finally this novel should appeal to fans of Penelope Lively.

Review copy

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The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson

“But there are two kinds of power, as I see it. There’s one kind where you can make other people do what you want. That’s what most civilians think of as power. But there’s another kind, where nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

Let’s say I heard an audio reading of The City Under the Skin but I missed the part where the author is identified. With that scenario, I would have recognized this book as the work of Geoff Nicholson, one of my favourite British authors. Just to be clear here, I didn’t hear an audio version–I had this book on pre-order the moment I heard there was another Nicholson novel in the pipeline. These days, the author lives in America and maintains a fascinating blog where he explores his fascination with the landscape (urban, ruins, you name it), but back to the darkly humorous novel which has all the classic elements of Nicholson mania–obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. Throw in cartography, an assassin, urban decay, sinister gentrification, and just a touch of kinkiness and here’s another Nicholsontopia.  

the city under the skinThe main piece of the puzzle in The City Under the Skin is the abduction and subsequent release of young women by some deranged and not particularly talented tattooist.  In another author’s hands, this might turn into a lurid crime novel, but since this is Nicholson, the emphasis is, instead, on the weird.

Zak Webster is the unassuming hero of The City Under the Skin, and as with many of Nicholson’s heroes, there’s a lot more to Zak than meets the eye. Zak is the sole employee of Utopiates, a shop that sells “cartographic antiques–maps, atlases, globes, navigation charts, the occasional mapmaking instrument, folding pillar compasses, snake-eye dividers.” Zak, a cartography expert, is a man whose talents are in low demand; he thinks of himself as “map nerd,” Feeling lucky to have this job and the apartment upstairs that comes with the small salary, Zak fantasizes about being “a curator or custodian of some magnificent, highly specialized, and possibly clandestine map collection.”

Zak steps into the mystery of the tattooed women inadvertently when he is at work in the shop one evening, and a naked woman, covered in rags, appears asking for help:

Her back looked less naked than the rest of her. It was marked with tattoos: wild incomprehensible lines and symbols that Zak first read as a meaningless accumulation of ink, a savage scribbling, and yet there was something compelling about it, something that suggested it wasn’t entirely haphazard. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might just possibly be a kind of wild ramshackle map, but the glimpse was brief.

Moments later, a “battered metallic-blue Cadillac” stops, a man gets out, shoves the woman in the car, and drives off. The strange scene witnessed by Zak is over in a matter of seconds, and perhaps Zak’s involvement would have gone no further, just another one of those weird things you see in the city, but an intrepid, assertive young woman named Marilyn also witnessed and photographed the incident.

As he drifted he kept trying to make sense of what he’d just seen, unsure whether there was any “sense” to be made. It was puzzling, but hardly one of the world’s great mysteries. Strange women got into strange cars with strange men at any time of the day or night, every day, every night. People had all kinds of weird stuff tattooed on their backs. People lived incomprehensible and desperate lives. It probably meant nothing: things only meant what you decided they meant. He would probably forget all about it in a day of two.

Zak, is a typical Nicholson hero–a loner who’s liberated from that state of inertia not exactly against his will, but not exactly by choice either. Wanting to impress Marilyn and hopefully get laid in the process, Zak teams with Marilyn to solve the mystery of who is tattooing these women, who is making them disappear from the street, and what the maps, tattooed so badly on their backs, represent.

But The City under the Skin isn’t just about 2 people trying to solve a mystery–it’s also about places in a city slated for “speculative urbanism.” The city is in a state of flux, and those impending changes are the white noise surrounding the mystery of the tattooed women. As the plot unfolds, Nicholson shows us the complex connections between three sets of parallel worlds: the criminal underworld and the surface world of the everyday working people, the worlds of urban decay and gentrification, and the architecture of childhood and the remnants which remain in adulthood. All these worlds co-exist, collide, and merge in The City Under the Skin.

Since this is a Nicholson novel, there are plenty of references to architecture and landscapes seen through the characters who inhabit various spaces. Do the places we live in define us, or do we define those spaces? Ex-con Billy lives in a trailer on a parking lot which is as bland, boring, and anonymous as you can get, but this blankness seems to be intentional. Wrobleski: a sinister real estate developer, crook and map collector lives in a walled compound while retired tattoo artist Rose lives in a “personal museum” stuffed full of tattoo “memorabilia” from a career in Ink. Marilyn, a woman of many talents, and many faces, lives somewhere extraordinary, rather as you’d expect.

The Carnaveral lounge said sixties all right, though it spoke in a stuttering, muted fashion. There were plastic pods and blobs, white egg-shaped chairs, though the plastic had crazed and developed  a yellow patina. On the floor, the carpet showed a pattern of stars and planets, seen through a veil of plaster dust. The walls were decorated with memorabilia that looked authentic enough: tattered flags and banners, portraits of alarmingly youthful-looking astronauts, sections of charred rocket fins and satellite housings. There was a map that Zak, even in his present state, recognized as a lunar landing chart for the Sea of Tranquility, still visible through cracked glass that had developed a thin film of mold.

“You really live here?”

“Sure,” said Marilyn. “A view property.”

“Why?”

“Who needs a reason?”

“Isn’t it like living in a  Kubrick movie?”

“The Shining or 2001?” Marilyn suggested. “Or were you thinking Spartacus?”

While this is a novel about discovering the mystery of the tattooed women, through the various characters we see that The City Under the Skin is also about finding one’s way in life which, after all, comes with no instructions, no landmarks, no maps. And part of making one’s way in life is making choices and decisions, taking a moral stand. Rather interestingly, Zak’s hobby, urban exploration, a seemingly odd activity, proves to be incredibly useful, and again there’s that subtle idea that our lives are defined by incidents that are not random. The novel argues that our lives are maps with one incident leading to another, and pathways are created by recurring patterns. The city that exists under our skin is our personal map, dotted with significant events and experiences that explain, connect and predict our choices.

“Urban exploration: investigating the city, creative trespass, going where I’m not supposed to, getting into abandoned structures, factories, closed-down  hospitals derelict power stations. You know?

“So you spend all your workdays dealing in representations of places, and you spend your free time exploring actual places.”

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