Tag Archives: British fiction

The Party: Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day’s novel, The Party, a critical look at male friendship, envy, jealousy and class differences, begins with the police interrogation of author and journalist Martin Gilmour. Gilmour and his wife Lucy were invited to attend the 40th birthday of Ben Fitzmaurice. The party takes place at the Fitzmaurices’ (golden boy Ben, and his elegant wife, Serena) second, country home, a renovated 17th century monastery (the monks have been thrown out). As with all things Fitzmaurice, the party is completely overboard with lavish, wonderfully described amounts of drink and food. All the important people are there but Martin, who has known Ben since boarding school, is disgruntled at not being invited as an overnight guest to Ben’s home, and instead, he and Lucy are lodged in a rather shabby, uncomfortable hotel, with Martin bitter in the knowledge that his friendship with Ben is slipping.

The rich do parties better than the rest of us. It’s not just the money or the every catered-for whim or the superior quality of the alcohol and food. It’s a certain unquantifiable atmosphere that comes from other people’s excitement. We are turned on by wealth, us lesser mortals. We don’t want to be and yet we are. 

We are jealous, yes. Internally, we decry the excessive, absurd, narcissistic scale of a party like Ben Fitzmaurice’s fortieth. But other people’s money has a narcotic quality. It makes you high. It makes you forget your misgivings. You feel privileged, somehow exceptional to have been invited, as though the tiniest fleck of gold leaf from a giant glittering statue has smudged off on you and you can kid yourself you belong. That you are, for a single night, indubitably, One of Them

The novel goes back and forth in time, switching between Martin and Lucy, who as it turns out, sometime after the party is now staying at some sort of psychiatric centre. While what happened at the party seems to bear crucial weight on the present, in truth, what happened between Ben and Martin decades earlier lies at the heart of this story.

The Party

The Party explores the corrosive taint proximity of the filthy rich can have on a middle-class lad. Martin’s envy of Ben reaches pathological levels as he seeks to become invited into Ben’s inner circle. And yet, even though Martin achieves admission to Ben’s coterie, he’s never quite good enough, never quite makes the grade.

The novel’s premise, unfortunately, isn’t new, and while Martin is described “as if his surface changed colour to melt into the environment, A chameleon,” neither he, nor Ben are terribly interesting characters. Serena is one of those pencil-thin, aloof bitchy women, and I would have liked to have seen more of her.  Arguably the most interesting character here is Lucy, whose marriage to Martin is deeply rooted in denial, even as she valiantly tries to counterbalance Martin’s toxic need to ‘belong.’ Martin describes her as “my pliant, adoring little wife,” rather as one might describe a pet dog, and yet Martin fails to see that while he finds Lucy useful and tolerates her (trotting along at his heels ready to defend him at every turn) his relationship with Ben mirrors his relationship with Lucy.  Whereas Martin is lured into Ben’s orbit by a desire to belong (and something else I can’t mention), Lucy is lured to Martin by his “unavailability.”  Lucy is much more complicated than she’s given credit for; the Fitzmaurices and Martin underestimate her capacity for love, sacrifice and devotion. While the Fitzmaurices soar on social status and the flow of money, things coveted by Martin, Lucy rises above these obsessions and comes across as genuine, rare, yet sadly undervalued by all.

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A Lovely Way to Burn: Louise Welsh

“What we should realize is, death comes for us all eventually.”

Louise Welsh’s novel, A Lovely Way to Burn is the first of the Plague Times Trilogy. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the book, as dystopian novels which depict a breakdown of society in a post apocalyptic world aren’t my favourite–mainly because I don’t like to think about how quickly civilization would melt down after some sort of global calamity.  That said, for me,  A Lovely Way to Burn was a riveting read which is primarily a crime novel set against a pandemic flu and the subsequent collapse of civilization.

It’s a hot summer, and London “had a hint of yellow to it,” but it’s not a sunny yellow, it’s a “septic” tint. The scene hints at a toxic, polluted world with dirty air, tainted water, and who knows what else. There are hints of sickness in the streets, and several people are coughing. Shopping channel hostess, Stevie Flint mingles with the crowds on her way to a date by her boyfriend of just a few months, the dashing Dr Simon Sharkey. When he doesn’t show, at first Stevie is just pissed off, and when there’s no apology or excuse forthcoming from Simon, she decides to go over to his flat, gather up the few personal belongings she left there, and drop off the keys.

A lovely way to burn

Stevie finds Simon dead in bed, supposedly of natural causes, and when she goes home she vomits. When she showers, she discovers a widespread rash:

Stevie dropped her bathrobe beside the shower, and stepped naked into the spray. Her body was covered in an angry, red rash that was starting to blister. She remembered radiation victims she had glimpsed in a documentary about Japan. The stained gown lay at her feet, like a dead thing. The atomic bomb had vaporized people leaving their shadows fixed to the wall. 

This is the beginning of a disease known as “the Sweats,” and Stevie is one of the early sufferers and a rare survivor. When she recovers, it’s to discover that the Sweats is ravaging London (and the rest of the world) with an ever rising death toll. Post sickness she is visited by Simon’s sister who gives Stevie a letter she found in Simon’s apartment. The letter tells Stevie that he’s hidden a laptop in her attic, and she has instructions to hand the laptop over to a work colleague and no one else….

From this point on, Stevie stubbornly pursues the truth of Simon’s death, but her quest is set against a pandemic flu, so with the police force severely undermanned, the death of one doctor is of no interest. Stevie is on her own.

Louise Welsh builds pulsing suspense with an expert hand. As Stevie tries to discover the truth, she’s swimming against the tide. Everyone is supposed to stay inside their homes in the futile hopes of avoiding infection, but Stevie travels to question people she’s never met before. The meltdown of society is swift and brutal–from people who attempt to lure Stevie from her car to the man she speeds off from when he tries to wave her down. We see society in freefall: lines of car lights at night as people flee the city, a body hanging from a railway bridge, looters, drug users unleashed at unguarded hospitals, a pub that’s taken over by drunks, whole blocks barricaded against outsiders. “The sweats is a call to all the scum of the earth to crawl out of their holes.

Suddenly she felt as if the wakening streets around her were an illusion that might be peeled back any time, to reveal another, shadow world that could suddenly drag you under without a word of warning.

And perhaps the penultimate frightening scene: the hospital that can no longer find a place to pile the dead:

The dead were everywhere. They were slumped on waiting-room chairs, like a Tory indictment against NHS inefficiency, stretched out on beds, sprawled across desks, or lay where they had fallen, limbs tangled in positions impossible to hold in life. 

I liked the character of Stevie–someone who’s relied on her looks to get things in life, and I liked the way Stevie abandoned this mechanism and instead opted for cropping her hair and donning Simon’s suit. Her looks are a way of opening doors when the book begins, but her looks lost their power as the Sweats gained hold. With death in everyone’s faces, people revert to who they ‘really’ are under the social veneer. We see selfish people, violent people, angry people, and Stevie who has survived, but may be a carrier of death, sheds that old faithful crutch of beauty and relies on her intelligence and tenacity instead.

Ultimately, Welsh shows effectively that when death stalks an entire civilisation, nothing matters anymore: not that promotion you’ve stressed about, money problems, tensions at work: all of that means nothing. Survival becomes paramount. It’s just that everyone has a different idea of how that can be achieved. And when death seems inevitable, people become single-mindedly focused on distractions: drugs, looting, booze, and isolation. It’s not a pretty scenario. The anger of one character who knows she’s going to die seems very real.

A Lovely Way to Burn was a fantastic riveting read that created an intense pandemic scenario I hope we never have to experience. This is a pageturner I finished in a day, and a book that makes my-best-of-year list.

I’ll be reading book 2: Death is a Welcome Guest soon, and book 3 No Dominion is due out next month. I took a look at the synopsis and Stevie is back in book 3.

Max’s review is here

 

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A Dubious Legacy: Mary Wesley

As readers we get ‘impressions’ of writers and books–sometimes this comes from browsing or reading reviews, and sometimes vague impressions are created just from looking at covers. Occasionally, those impressions are challenged and then, for one reason or another, readers take the plunge and try a novel written by an author we’ve bypassed for years. And that brings me to Mary Wesley … an author I decided was too romancey, too ‘nice,’ too upper-crusty for me, and I’m happy to say that after reading A Dubious Legacy I was wrong about Mary Wesley.

A dubious legacy

The novel, which spans almost 50 years, opens during WWII with Henry Tillotson bringing his new bride, Margaret, back to his country estate, Cotteshaw.  We don’t know anything about their courtship, but we can tell almost immediately that this marriage is a horrible mistake. Henry picks up his bride from the station with a horse and trap. She hates horses, and with no small display of umbrage, bad temper, and yes, pure bitchiness, takes the taxi.

Shortly, Henry returns to the war and Margaret, who is perfectly healthy, takes to her bed. Choosing invalidism out of spite, she refuses, except on rare disastrous occasions, to leave the bedroom.

Margaret’s talent is finding the weak spot and inserting the stiletto. 

Fast forward to the 50s and Henry invites two young men, James and Matthew to a country weekend along with the girls they intend to propose to: Barbara and Antonia. Both matches have an element of convenience. The young women want to escape dreary homes and enjoy material comfort, and for their part, James and Matthew have their own secrets.

A large part of the novel involves a dinner party Henry arranges and its disastrous outcome. The rest of the novel is the fallout from that event.

I liked A Dubious Legacy but didn’t love it.  The beginning, with the ‘two Jonathans’ was a little rough, but the novel smoothed out after that. At one point I thought I’d enjoy this as much, let’s say, as the novels of Margaret Forster, but while the lives of the characters are interesting, there’s really no deeper message here except perhaps the way one horrible person, with their nastiness, can hold others hostage.

I liked the nastiness/ pettiness of some the characters and the way Wesley isn’t afraid to show the dark thoughts of Henry, the titular hero. I still can’t decide if Margaret, who tells the most terrible lies about Henry (he’s impotent, he tried to rape her, he has sex with the horses), was mad or malicious (after the incident with the Cockatoo, I lean towards the former). I was a bit annoyed by everyone’s attempts to get Margaret OUT of her bedroom, as historically it’s proven that bad things happen when she mingles. Frankly they would have been better off leaving her in her “brothel” designed bedroom. Perhaps the sensible thing to do would have been to lock the door and throw away the key.

Finally, the novel’s light humour really adds to what could have been a depressing scenario. At one point, Henry contemplates divorce and seeks legal advice:

Counsel, when consulted, had suggested  that since adultery and desertion were in the eyes of the law the only cause for divorce, he should sue his wife for the restitution of conjugal rights. “That will get things moving.”

Appalled by the suggestion, he had exclaimed, “That’s the last thing I want!”

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I Found You: Lisa Jewell

Lisa Jewell’s novel I Found You is an engaging pageturner which centres on two men–one lost and one found. In the Northern town of Ridinghouse Bay, Alice, a single mother of three finds a man on a beach and, feeling sorry for him, takes him into her home. Meanwhile in London, newlywed Lily, fresh from Ukraine, is devastated when her husband, Carl doesn’t return from work one day.

If you think you’ve just connected the dots, then the novel has a few surprises in store.

I found you

The novel, which never lags at 342 pages, follows three narratives, and it’s the strength and connections between these narratives, particularly the two from Lily and Alice, that make this an intense, absorbing read.

Alice Lake scrapes together a living and supports her three children, all from different fathers. They live in a cramped little seaside cottage which is also shared by three rescue dogs. Alice’s life and circumstances are chaotic and shaped by her character. This is a woman whose positive characteristics–she’s loving, generous, open, trusting–have also led to her downfall. “Her whole life has been shaped, virtually destroyed, by her sexual desires.” Alice is an open, messy, book:

I’ve totally failed in the providing-a-conventional-family-unit-for-my-children department. Jasmine’s dad was a holiday romance. Brazil. Didn’t know I was pregnant until I’d been home for two weeks and had no way of tracking him down. 

Kai’s dad was my next-door neighbor in Brixton. We were-excuse the expression-fuck buddies. He just disappeared one day, when Kai was about five. A new family moved in. That was that. And Romaine’s dad was the love of my life but …” She pauses. “He went mental. Did a bad thing. He lives in Australia now. So.” She sighs. 

When walking her three out-of-control dogs on the beach in the rain, Alice approaches a man she’s already spied from her window. He’s just sitting, soaked, on the sand. After a brief conversation, Alice discovers that the man doesn’t remember who he is or how he got there. Later, Alice, takes him home and let’s him stay. Alice’s eldest daughter and Derry, her best (protective) friend, roll their eyes with concern at Alice’s latest stray male, but shortly it becomes clear that this man, nicknamed ‘Frank’ is in a fugue state.

Meanwhile in London, newlywed Lily, fresh from Ukraine, is beginning to realise what an idiot she is. She married Carl in Kiev and they returned to London. The honeymoon is still a glowing, fresh memory, when one day Carl simply disappears. At first the police don’t take Lily’s complaint too seriously, but then after they examine his passport, Lily is told that Carl Monrose, the man she married, doesn’t exist.

The third narrative takes place in 1993 and concerns a family  of four who go on holiday to Ridinghouse Bay. These three narratives rotate and eventually weave together to solve the two central mysteries of a nameless man found on the beach and a missing husband who lived with false ID. The plot is very cleverly structured and flows very well, so much so that I kept reading in the wee hours. Sometimes fragmented narratives can be annoying and manipulative, but here, the flow and tension was perfect.

Both Alice and Lily are shown to be women who took chances: Alice has made a series of poor decisions involving men, and those who care about Alice see ‘Frank’ as the latest in a long chain of mistakes. Lily has made the mistake of marrying a man outside of his environment–without meeting his family, his friends, his workmates, and she discovers, the hard way, that none of these things exist.

I had a bit of a problem with the character of Kitty, but then decided to accept her in the larger context of ‘women making bad choices,’ and the denoument wasn’t quite as smooth as the rest of the novel. Those niggling elements aside, if you like domestic suspense and are looking for a gripping read, then I Found You is recommended. Here’s Cleo’s review.

Review copy

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Strangers: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Strangers weighs the value of loneliness and the solitary life against relationships that are full of compromise. The main character is Paul Sturgis, a man in his 70s, who “loved too unwisely in his youth.” At this point in his life, Paul, who has retired from banking, has no friends and no family apart from Helena, the widow of a deceased cousin. Although he visits Helena weekly out of a sense of duty the visits are awkward and one-sided with him as the listener as Helena brags about her friends and how concerned they are for her.

So he usually resigned himself to a coolheaded appraisal of her folly (and of his), would listen to her accounts of her many friends, among whom was one she referred to as ‘my tame professor,’ and whose function in her life was unclear; there were also her partners at the bridge club–‘the girls’-and the neighbours who invited her to dinner (‘They make such a fuss of me I don’t like to let them down’).

With Christmas looming, Paul decides to avoid Helena  and instead takes a trip to Venice. On the journey, he meets an attractive, divorced woman in her fifties, Vicky Gardner, and although she’s a stranger, in his loneliness Paul encourages the relationship into an acquaintance. After a meal together Vicky promises to look Paul up when they are back in London, and to his surprise, she does.

Strangers

But while Paul longs for a friend or a companion, Vicky is neither of these:

Her determination not to be fully questioned was all of a piece with her sense of freedom, a sense which usually evaporates as one reaches the age of maturity. This she had somehow retained. On first encountering her on the plane to Venice he had thought her agreeable, no more, an ordinary woman on her way to friends, whose way of life appeared normal. In time, however, those friends had multiplied, and although anonymous, were somehow omnipresent. Her evasiveness was a way of exculpating herself from obligation: it was preemptive, in the sense that it proclaimed her to be guilt free

Then Paul runs into the love-of-his-life, Sarah, the woman who dumped him years earlier….

Although Strangers is a very calm, mannered undramatic novel, the plot revolves around Paul’s quiet crisis of confidence. Should he pursue the elusive Mrs Gardner or the acerbic Sarah? Mrs Gardener is much more fun to be with, but then again Paul and Sarah have a shared history and are more-or-less the same age.  Or then again, should a bachelor of 74 avoid matrimony altogether?

Thematically, Strangers is close to A Private View since both novels concern retired, lonely bachelors who find their lives invaded by females. The opportunistic (and unpleasant) Katy from A Private View could well have matured into the slightly more sophisticated but still eminently selfish Vicky. Interesting how people as volatile and restless as Vicky and Katy gravitate to the well-moored males they discover. I had a lot of sympathy for Paul who seems destined to be a perpetual sounding board for the women in his life. Although Paul has been made to feel ‘boring’ by women, he’s quite complex, hungering for the home and childhood he couldn’t wait to escape, and finding himself always haunted by what-might-have beens. Paul is very found of Henry James, and he’s very much a Jamesion figure–detached but watching the action; unfortunately he longs to be something else.

Here’s my order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

Strangers

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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The Rules of Engagement: Anita Brookner

Back to Brookner with The Rules of Engagement, and what an interesting and yet somewhat frustrating main character we have here in Elizabeth.

The book opens with Elizabeth describing how she met another Elizabeth in school. To keep everything from being too confusing, the non-narrator Elizabeth chooses to switch her name to Betsy. Immediately there’s the idea (at least to me) that these two are somehow tied together but with Betsy branching off into her own zone. If we keep to that idea, then we see Elizabeth marrying Digby, a staid, responsible man, 27 years her senior, while Betsy goes to Paris and marries the radical Daniel.

Betsy fades in and out of Elizabeth’s life: appearing at her wedding (and obviously shocked by the groom’s age), but eventually returns to London years later. The two women aren’t exactly friends–although they call each other by that title. Rather they have a shared history buried in childhood. They have very little in common: Betsy longs for a family, while Elizabeth is all about clinical detachment.

the rules of engagement

This is the most introspective of Brookner’s novels I’ve read so far. Not a great deal happens, so I can’t talk much about plot without giving away the central dilemma. Instead I’ll focus on Elizabeth who really is a very strange character. At times I wondered if she were quite sane, or at least how she became so damaged. She marries a man old enough to be her father (which makes sense given her home life) but then very quickly begins an adulterous affair.

Elizabeth is a mass of contradictions, and there were times I wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. For example, their wedding night would seem to be sexless:

He was tired, and it showed in his face. He looked nearly as old as my father, whom I had not managed to thank for all the fuss. As we drank our tea the strain we both felt slowly dissipated. We had baths, changed into simple clothes, decided to go out for dinner, and let the rest of the day take care of itself. We were due to catch an early plane the following morning, and would probably appreciate an early night. That was what Digby said. I envisaged a succession of early nights, in which nothing very remarkable would take place. In this I misjudged him, and was pleasantly surprised. 

I read that passage over several times and interpreted it to mean that her predictions of early nights did not happen. Hints of evenings out, lively conversations or sex? After all Brookner is subtle. But then as the plot develops, we see Digby time and time again falling asleep in his chair.

I knew Digby would take the evening paper into the other room, switch on the television, and fall asleep. He slept heavily, more heavily than I did, and seemed unable to invest any energy into keeping awake. 

and later:

After we had eaten he went into the other room as usual, and switched on the television. When I joined him I found him asleep, a scene of passion beaming out unnoticed. When two characters joined in a violent embrace I switched it off.

I really wasn’t sure how to align these two impressions: the sexless marriage and the part about being “pleasantly surprised.” But this was not the first time I was confused by Elizabeth. Here she is talking about the hairdresser:

For this was an establishment not favoured by the young: I liked it because it was so close to home, and because Alex, who did my hair, was so soothing and deferential. In my normal state of mind I found this irksome; in my reduced condition it felt like balm. 

Early in the book Elizabeth mentions that both she and Betsy were born in 1948, and that “the sixties took us by surprise.”  These two women were raised in one set of expectations but were then ambushed by the shifting nature of society, and this idea works well.  I liked some parts of the book–especially Elizabeth’s introspection about her affair, but she seems very critical of poor Betsy (and tough on Digby too). On one hand, this is a very focused novel, but at the same time, it’s also blurry. I had no real indication of poor Digby as a living, breathing human being, and he remains a rather cardboard figure.

One of the criticisms I read of this book is that Elizabeth is too clinical and analytical, but the story is told in retrospect. Also Elizabeth really is a casebook for study, so much so, I began to wonder about her reliability as a narrator. She’s happy putting marriage and sex into different compartments, and while it seems that she married Digby as a father figure, there’s also the argument that she married him in order to avoid any sort of normal relationship. As the plot rolls on, that argument just strengthens. Ultimately, Elizabeth is a few cards short of a full deck–something happened in the emotion department.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View 

The Rules of Engagement

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The Trophy Child: Paula Daly

“One of life’s great taboos: comparing one’s current wife to one’s last.”

I really enjoyed Paula Daly’s novel The Mistake I Made (even if the ending was a bit over the top) for its wonderful voice, and so I turned to The Trophy Child for more of the same.  The two novels are nothing alike, and The Trophy Child which features the return of DS Joanne Aspinallleans more towards the police procedural rather than the female-in-peril category.

The Trophy Child is set in the Lake District and centres on the Bloom family. To outsiders, they seem to have it all: a beautiful home with father, MD Noel Bloom and attractive wife Karen, but scratch the surface and you find a very unhappy blended family. Verity, Noel’s 16-year-old daughter from his first marriage hates her stepmother but is forced to live with her as Noel’s first wife, who has MS, lives in a residential care home. Then there’s Ewan, a son from Karen’s relationship with a mystery man. Ewan lives above the garage and smokes marijuana to his stoned heart’s content. Finally, there’s poor Bronte, a sweet but not particularly bright ten-year-old, the trophy child of the title, who is pushed to the limit by her mother’s extreme parenting.

the-trophy-child

I can’t reveal much about the plot without tossing out spoilers right and left, so I’ll just say that something bad happens, and this rips off the lid of the supposedly happy home. Consequently, the twisted lives of the Blooms become a matter of public knowledge.

I liked the premise of The Trophy Child a lot, but something went wrong in its execution. Although I know people like Karen, I’d never even heard the term trophy child before reading the book, and author Paula Daly certainly nails this type of “extreme parenting.” It’s clear that Bronte’s life isn’t about Bronte; it’s about Karen–a woman who drives her poor daughter from harp lessons to piano lessons to tap dancing while avoiding basics like … cooking…

Karen liked to say she didn’t cook; she ‘arranged food’.  And that’s what she was doing right now: sliding cold, roasted chicken thighs on to plates, along with a sad-looking salad, and some cheese and onion crisps.

Karen Bloom is clearly the arch-enemy here–neurotic, demanding, inflexible, she rules the Bloom family making life impossible for everyone, and no one dares cross or question her. And yet… while I can’t argue that Karen is really a revolting person, she is dealing with a pot-head son and a husband I found incredibly self-centered. Yes life at the Bloom house sucks, so while I can’t blame Noel for hitting the bottle, I found the behaviour of this weak man appalling. He likes to take off on Sundays by himself and go and find a nice quiet pub to drink in. This leaves HIS CHILDREN at the unadulterated mercy of Karen. I felt as though the plot set up Karen as this blight on the Bloom family when really she’s just part of it. That’s not to say that she’s not a frightening person: think Mommie Dearest on steroids, but that said, the plot went too lightly on others in the household who are not blameless, and this gave the plot a simplicity that didn’t do the novel any favours.

The novel has info padding on the subject of MS and also there’s hint of a lecture when it comes to “British parents […] sneakily adopting the Chinese model of parenting. “ The sections regarding DS Joanne Aspinall’s private life were excellent: her breast reduction, her life as a sad single, her ex-pat mother living in Spain. Capturing the inflammatory nuances of today’s world Daly shows the way in which big-mouth Karen escalates the situation using social media. Hint: if you’re involved in a scandal, keep off the internet!

Here’s Cleo’s review

Review copy

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Visitors: Anita Brookner

Old age should be a time of great and significant self-indulgence, she thought; otherwise it is too bitter.

In Anita Brookner’s novel Visitors, the arrival of an unexpected guest disrupts the quiet, ordered routine of a 70-year-old widow, and over the course of a few days she confronts her past, her present and her uncertain future.

visitors

Dorothea May, following the death of her husband Henry, has been widowed for 15 years, but in his absence, Dorothea maintains relationships with Henry’s two cousins: the very glamorous Kitty who is married to Austin, and Kitty’s sister  Molly who is married to Harold. Both Kitty and Molly are ‘sensitive’ and suffer from ‘nerves,’ and they’re both lucky enough to be married to husbands whose mission in life seems to be to protect and coddle these two women–although to be honest, of the two sisters, Kitty is much more extreme.  Dorothea maintains legacy relationships with Kitty, Molly and their husbands, dining at their houses, attending their birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but she’s always remained very much an outsider. Both Molly and Kitty phone and check on Dorothea periodically.

This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry’s priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry’s wife.

Dorothea’s routine is disrupted when Kitty’s estranged granddaughter Ann announces that she and her fiancé David are travelling from America in order to be married in England. With virtually no notice and a wedding to plan, this throws Kitty into a panic, and she asks Dorothea if she’ll house the best man, Steve Best. Reluctantly, and against her better judgement, Dorothea agrees.

To her surprise, Dorothea (Thea) finds herself rather enjoying all the domestic drama that unfolds around the upcoming nuptials. Kitty and Austin have an estranged son, “the missing link” Gerald, rumoured by some to have joined a commune, thought by others to be in prison. Austin made contact with Gerald a few years previously and the resulting meeting almost killed him. It seems possible that Gerald will attend his daughter’s wedding, a possibility fraught with tension and emotional upset.

Part of the reason that Dorothea is able to enjoy the proceedings with the very sullen Ann and her zealously religious fiancé, David, who’s always on the lookout for a convert, is that she has no emotional investment in these relationships. Whereas Kitty is constantly (and vainly) trying to please Ann, Dorothea finds Ann, David, and Stephen graceless, ungrateful and devoid of any charm. Ann’s drama brings Dorothea into the inner family circle in a way that marriage to Henry never did.

Visitors is a meditation of the unbreachable gap between youth and old age: those who think their whole lives await, and those who live with disappointment and regret. To Ann and Stephen, Dorothea and Kitty are bourgeois and mainly concerned with money–yet both the self-focused Ann and the rudderless Stephen have somewhat conveniently latched onto the wealthy David. Stephen’s presence in Dorothea’s life awakens memories of Henry and also of her first love affair. It’s because of Stephen that Dorothea and Molly think about their childlessness (which may be a blessing given how anguished Kitty and Austin are over their absent son), but also Dorothea finds herself mulling over the limitations of her life–past and present.

Mrs May found that she did not miss the young people, not even Steve. With her new old woman’s perceptions she saw them as crude, affectless. She was willing to concede that they felt affronted by their enforced contact with Kitty, with Molly, with herself, but at the same time she saw little evidence of wit or charm. Charm alone would have done, she thought, but they had not mastered the art. Worse, they were unaware it was recommended. 

The characters of Ann and Stephen were particularly annoying as, I think, they were meant to be–at one point, Dorothea thinks of them as “predators.”  Ann moans about the big wedding and all the fuss, but she must have wanted that–otherwise why contact an estranged, wealthy English grandmother and tell her that she wants to get married in England? For this reader, Stephen and Ann got away with far too much bad behaviour. One moan from Ann about the fuss, and Kitty should have put her cheque book away and cancelled the honeymoon to Paris, but Kitty and Austin are people who throw their money at problems.

As for Stephen, he manages to get under Dorothea’s skin (as he intends to) and she loses her equilibrium as a result. He awakens a deep-seated fear she has of losing her home, and yet Stephen’s barely veiled contempt for Dorothea’s restrictions leads to her wondering just how valuable her life really is and whether she has lived too “unadventurously.”

When she thought of Henry it was of someone in another room, laughing, talking on the telephone: she could almost smell the fragrant smoke of his cigar. Although he was so gregarious and she so solitary they had been good friends. Perhaps it was easier for her to make adjustments, concessions: she was of an obedient disposition. 

Visitors is my least favourite Brookner so far, but I still liked it which says a great deal, doesn’t it?

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

Review copy.

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Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

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