Tag Archives: British fiction

A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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The Gioconda Smile: Aldous Huxley

I bought a copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile some years ago, and it’s taken me this long to get to it. It’s brief: my copy of oversized print runs to 42 pages, so it’s a short story. This is the tale of married man, Mr Hutton, who fancies himself as dashing and handsome. The story opens with Mr Hutton visiting “poor” Janet Spence. She’s the one with the Gioconda smile, and all I could think of was that old song, ‘Mona Lisa.’

If there’s a mirror in a room, that’s where you will find Mr. Hutton admiring himself whenever he gets the chance. There’s “no sign of baldness ” yet  “only a certain elevation of the brow,” which Hutton thinks is “Shakespearean.” Hutton has money, an invalid wife, a perky, doting lower-class mistress, and yet, he still finds the time and energy to visit Janet Spence. Hutton never knows what to make of Janet. She’s so calm and self-contained–not like the other women in his life.

Hutton, like most womanizers, liberally drops hints about his unhappy married life (he sounds a lot like Grant in Christina Stead’s A Little Tea, a Little Chat):

Reality doesn’t always come up to the ideal, you know. But that doesn’t make me believe any less in the ideal. Indeed, I do believe in it passionately the ideal of a matrimony between two people in perfect accord, I think it’s realisable. I’m sure it is.

He paused significantly and looked at her with an arch expression.

Poor Hutton… making his unhappiness known. But the next scene shows Hutton rapidly switching gears as he joins his cockney mistress who’s waiting patiently for Hutton in the back of his chauffeur driven car.

Aldous Huxley smoking, circa 1946The portrayal of Hutton is masterful–even if the story’s denouement is not. Hutton is very much a type, and yet still strongly individualistic. A man who thinks he owns the world, runs the world and yet is still basically clueless.

I’ve read a few Huxley stories/novellas now and enjoyed them all. Brave New World dominates Huxley’s work, and other than that book, he seems to have fallen out of fashion.

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At the Hairdresser’s: Anita Brookner

“Deranged personalities should be avoided, in art as well as in life.”

Last year, I went on an Anita Brookner binge, but I managed to pull myself up before I read everything she’d ever written. I wanted to save some books for later. And that brings me to Brookner’s short story: At the Hairdresser’s.

The story is told by a very typical Brookner character: the widowed Elizabeth Warner, who lives in a London flat, and who is enduring old age alone. There are trips to the hairdresser and trips shopping. It’s a safe, quiet life, but all that changes when she’s introduced to a young man who runs his own taxi service.

It took me a few pages to warm up to this character–she’s clinical, yet elegant when describing her life which has been weighed, sorted and found to be … well by us, at least, fairly sterile.

I am not lonely except in company. I accept the odd invitation but it does not go well with me. I am easily overwhelmed by insistent conversation and usually leave with a sigh of relief. At such times the night seems beautiful to me and I wish that I had the strength to walk as I used to, through the empty streets, appreciating those lighted windows which hold such promise. 

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth discusses friends in her past–women she no longer has contact with, and now the big event in her life is the bi-weekly trip to the hairdresser. One day when it’s raining, the hairdresser arranges a “car service” run by a young man named Chris. Chris is attentive to Elizabeth, but there are warning signs. Soon Chris is driving Elizabeth around regularly. Does she see the warning signs? Does she choose to ignore them?

This is a rewarding, ultimately optimistic,  short story for Brookner fans. This is not the first time Brookner addressed the theme that bad relationships or experiences can be freeing. I’m thinking of A Private View: the story of a retired man who becomes involved with the nomadic, Katy, who would like to use George…. well for all sorts of things.

In At the Hairdresser’s, Brookner argues that it’s never too late to learn, not too late to change, and that even unpleasant experiences can have some sort of pay off.

TBR stack.

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Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

There are some books that manage to hit the pulse of current societal issues, and by that measure, Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy of a Scandal comes just at the right time.  With the recent Hollywood scandals, the subjects of consenting sex and acceptable sexual behaviour are in the headlines. I’m old enough to say that I had a employer who called women ‘broads,’ and I’ve lived long enough to see attitudes about rape shift. But in spite of attitude shifts, there’s always that underlying notion that saying ‘no’ can just be a coy way of playing hard-to-get.

So here we are in 2018 …

Anatomy of a Scandal is the story of a sex scandal–the type of sex scandal that makes headlines. Sophie is married to James, a junior Home Office minister in the government; they have two children and a beautiful home. James and Sophie met while attending university at Oxford and they dated for a while, broke up, and then reconnected years later in London. Sophie, who’d attended university primarily to snag a husband  (and not build a career) was ready to settle down, and she was sure that James’s wilder days were behind him.

We all mature, right?
Anatomy of a scandal

Sophie’s world comes crashing down when James comes home one night, sits her down  and explains that he’s accused of rape. The accuser is his parliamentary researcher, Olivia. Oh but wait… they had an affair, he broke off the relationship, but then they had one last hookup. And it’s this one last encounter that’s at issue: Olivia claims that she did NOT give consent and James says the incident was just the same as many others they had had before. …

The book follows the fallout from the accusation, and the story is told through 4 voices: Sophie, James, Kate (Olivia’s barrister, “an experienced specialist in prosecuting sexual crimes”) and Holly. Holly’s voice goes back to Sophie’s days at Oxford when Sophie was dating James. Part of the narrative is courtroom drama.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a page-turner. The author capture’s Sophie’s confusion as she is abruptly told about the affair by her husband. Then, with little time to absorb the information or assess her marriage, she’s groomed by the prime minster’s director of communications to stand-by-her-man. Sophie’s distress is shoved aside for political concerns, and there’s no room for any mourning, adjustment, or even time for the shock to be absorbed. At first Sophie cannot believe that the rape charge has any legitimacy, and her husband’s defense is that Olivia is a woman scorned. Of course, at the same time, she knows that he is a government minister and that he “dissembles,  yes. That’s part of his job–a willingness to be economical with the truth.” She also has an intimate view of James’s attitudes towards women and sexuality.

The courtroom scenes are marvelously done, so we see Kate eyeing the juror’s reactions as she walks Olivia through her testimony. The jury is composed of 7 women and 5 men:  “A jury that’s not ideal as women are more likely to acquit a personable man for rape.” James knows how to act the “penitent,” knows the pose to strike as a sensitive man who knows he shouldn’t have had an affair. James’s attractiveness pays off with even Kate’s friend admitting that he’s “the one Tory I wouldn’t kick out of bed.”

Wasn’t he having an affair with her, and didn’t she go to the papers when he called it off to be with his wife and kids? Doesn’t sound like she’s much of a victim to me. More of a woman getting her own back.

For this reader, by far the most interesting aspect of the book was the incident itself and whether or not rape had occurred. We slip into a grey area here as both sides are presented, and James is so smooth:

It pained him to say this, he said it more in sorrow than anger–he was now concerned for her mental health. It hadn’t been as robust as he’d assumed; a bout of anorexia in her teens; the rampant perfectionism that made her a superb researcher, but indicated a lack of balance; and now that her going to the paper hadn’t paid off–that he hadn’t left his wife as she’d wanted-this patent fantasy.

His blithe dismissals tumble from my mouth. Does he believe them? A politician who is so self-assured that his version of the truth is entirely subjective. His truth the one that he wants to believe? Or is this the smooth response of a liar who knows that he lies?

The book pivots on a central coincidence (which in all fairness, the author addresses), but for this reader, the coincidence distracted from the central moral questions of the case.

Anatomy of a Scandal is a great book club choice for not only does the plot center on the issue of rape and consent, but also there are underlying questions regarding male/female relationships. It would be interesting to sit in on post book club discussions. I could see readers coming to blows over this book.

To be fair, I sometimes wonder why so many of us women allow ourselves to wander so directly into the path of danger. Why return to a man who has made an unwanted advance or send a text with a kiss or a smiley face emoji? Why engage when it’s the last thing you feel?

review copy

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Autumn: Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”

Ali Smith’s Autumn, a state-of -the-nation novel, looks at Britain after the EU referendum. This is a turbulent, ugly world of bitterly divided opinions, library closures, cuts in university spending, and overwhelming student debt. The novel goes back and forth between the past and the present, and all this is seen through the eyes of Elisabeth and her relationship with the elderly Daniel Gluck.

autumn

The novel opens with Daniel Gluck, now 101 years old, sleeping and dreaming in a care home. In his dream, Daniel, washes up on a sandy shore, and once again has a young body that cooperates, runs, and gives joy in its pure ability.  At the same time, even in this dream state, Daniel is conscious that his body is aged and rotting.

The novel’s next sequence takes us to Elisabeth who is reading, appropriately, Huxley’s Brave New World as she waits in line at the Post Office to apply for a new passport.  There’s the sense that time grinds down to this slow, tap-dripping pace as Elisabeth pulls a distressingly high number from the ticket machine, waits and waits…. shifting uneasily on a seat on which one movement makes another customer sitting next to her “jerk[ed] into the air.”

Elisabeth Demand-thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago. 

The post office episode has to be the best portrayal of the mind-numbing, surreal experience of dealing with government bureaucracy.

I just have to make it clear to you first up before we check anything, he says, that if I go ahead now and check your Check and Send form today it’ll cost you £9.75. I mean £9.75 today. And if by chance something isn’t correct in it today, it’ll still cost you £9.75 today, and you’ll need to pay me that money anyway even if we can’t send it off because of whatever incorrect thing. 

Right, Elisabeth says. 

But. Having said that, the man says. If something’s not correct and you pay £9.75 today, which you have to do, and you correct the thing that’s not correct and bring it back here within one month, provided you can show your receipt, then you won’t be charged another £9.75. However. If you bring it back after one month, or without a receipt, you’ll be charged another £9.75 for another Check and Send service.

Got it, Elisabeth says.

Are you sure you still want to go ahead with today’s Check and Send? the man says.

Uh huh, Elisabeth says. 

Could you say the word yes, rather than just make that vaguely affirmative sound you’re making, please, the man says.

Of course, Elisabeth’s passport application is rejected, as we knew it would be. A tape measurement concludes that her face is the ‘wrong size.’ In spite of the negative experience at the post office, author Ali Smith does not dehumanise the post office worker, for Elisabeth sees “despair” in his eyes. This flesh and blood man has been turned into someone who spends his days spewing out regulations he can recite by heart.

This wonderful novel goes back and forth in time to specific moments in Elisabeth’s life–moments she shared with Daniel. They met in 1993 when Elisabeth was 8 and Daniel was already elderly.  Elisabeth’s mother, a nice woman, who’s obsessed with an antiques television programme, at one point bars the child Elisabeth from spending time with Daniel, but Elisabeth disobeys her mother, and over time, Daniel introduces Elisabeth to the world of Art. This formative, important relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel leads Elisabeth to a discovery of the artist, Pauline Boty.  This also leads to threads concerning Christine Keeler and the scandal that rocked the nation. Now many decades on, the episode seems like an aside for the history books.

Time is under examination here, as well as the fleeting nature of life. We are all subject to the time in which we live: war, revolutions, and Brexit votes. Our lives are shaped by the times in which we live, and some things are beyond our control. Autumn argues that time never stands still, everything erodes and fades. We should value what we have while we can. In Elisabeth’s case, she has clung to art.

We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters. 

Author Ali Smith’s Autumn, which is partly experimental, is one of a planned quartet of novels, and I’ll be reading the others.

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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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Filed under Fiction, Wesley Mary

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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Filed under Fiction, Jewell Lisa