Tag Archives: British fiction

The Mistake I Made: Paula Daly

“Do you ever look at your life and think you were meant to have more?”

The Mistake I Made by British author Paula Daly explores not the understated ONE mistake, but the multiple epic mistakes made by Roz Toovey, a talented hardworking physiotherapist who, nonetheless, finds herself burdened with debt and making some tough choices.

Roz is a 40-something woman. Separated from her immature husband, she lives in the Lake District, commutes back and forth to a corporate clinic, and frantically juggles the care of George, her troubled nine-year-old son with fifty-hour-a-week work demands. Her harried life is just a breath away from imminent disaster, and shortly after the novel opens that disaster arrives in the form of bailiffs who strip her rented cottage of its contents. This is followed by the arrival of an eviction notice. Roz, who’s swamped with credit card debt racked up by her irresponsible husband who gives her no financial support whatsoever, has nowhere to turn to for help. Thanks to a failed business venture, she’s already tapped out her parents and is loath to appeal to her sister, Petra, for help.

One day at a gathering at Petra’s house where she meets the very wealthy married couple, Nadine and Scott, Roz, blurts out the thought that men should hire professionals for sex rather than poach on other married women. It’s a statement that shocks the guests, but then she’s approached at work by Scott who offers her 4,000 pounds if she spends a night with him, no strings attached.

the mistake I madeThe plot, of course, evokes the film: Indecent Proposal–aging millionaire offers a married woman a cool mill is she spends the night with him. It’s a film that got a lot of buzz and made a lot of money upon its release in 1993, and that can probably be explained partly by the fantasy elements at play. At the time, a friend of mine told me she’d spend the night with someone for a lot less, and I remembered that comment as the plot unfolds. The film is referenced in the book, but the author turns the film’s romantic nonsense on its head. No Hollywood glitz here; Roz agrees to spend a night with Scott and all of her money problems will be over, right?

It would be easy to say that to agree with Scott’s proposal is the FIRST mistake that Roz made–but that isn’t true. As the book continues, we see that the decision to sleep with Scott is just the latest screw-up in a long history of screw-ups. At first as details unfold, it seemed as though perhaps the author was making Roz an unreliable narrator–rather than the rock solid force she seems to be. Instead Paula Daly gives us a very human character who, after making as series of mistakes and poor decisions, is drowning in debt and sees the proposal of sex-for-money as the lifeline it isn’t.

There were no good options; just one bad option slightly worse than the other. And you know what you should do. Your gut is screaming at you to back up. Reverse. Come clean now and take the hit before things get really out of control. But you don’t, because you are weak. And your habit of taking the less bad option is what got you here in the first place.

The Mistake I Made is a pageturner–partly due to unforeseeable twists and turns of plot, but also due to the author’s narrative style and the very convincing, compelling voice of the Roz. It’s easy to accept that Roz is a real person, and that makes her decisions easy to accept. Here she is describing what is like to be self-employed in an industry in which clients/patients tend to see themselves as customers:

I gave my best emphatic self: listening to patients’ worries, concerns about their lives, their children’s lives, their money worries, their health issues. I gave my best educational self: repeating facts about healing, posture about the links with stress and myofascial pain, facts that I’d been reciting all day, every day, year in year out. And I gave my best in merriment and entertainment, acting as though the patients were funniest, wittiest, most enjoyable people in the world to spend time with. I listened, smiling accordingly, as old men recited tedious jokes, as old women discussed how funny Alan Carr was. At the end of each day I would have to little left for George–so little left for me, in fact–that the most I could do was sit mute and expressionless, until it was time to go to bed.

The Mistake I Made is a well-plotted, gripping distracting read. It veered towards OTT towards the end, but that’s a minor quibble. I really liked Roz, and after the book concluded I asked myself why–after all she does some really questionable things during the course of the novel. Ultimately, in spite of what Roz has done, she convinces us of her untenable position–squeezed between working for a living and being the sole provider for a son who’s beginning to show emotional problems.

The slightly out of focus cover which shows a portrait of a woman’s face. It’s both symbolic and appropriate as Roz loses her balance and her moral compass in her efforts to stay afloat–right and wrong blur and merge. While it’s fairly easy to identify with Roz’s debt dilemma (in other words, it’s fairly easy to imagine getting into this position), the book also makes a strong case for working less, buying less and living a bit more. I liked the author’s style a great deal and will check out her backlist. And on a final note, I’m glad to see an author FINALLY tackling the problem of a character having mounds of cash and no way to spend it without raising eyebrows. That’s the one thing that annoyed me about Breaking Bad. Yes, Walter White eventually turns to money laundering in order to stockpile his millions, but the scenes with Walt paying for his cancer treatment with cash were unreal.

Thanks to Cleo for pointing me towards this book–a recommendation that was seconded by Crimeworm

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Filed under Daly Paula, Fiction

The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

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Filed under Fiction, Millard Rosie

The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

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Filed under Bradbury Malcolm, 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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Filed under Fiction

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.

Review copy.


Filed under Fiction, Nicholson William

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?

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Glaister Lesley

A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

review copy/own a copy


Filed under Fiction, Hogan Phil

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 


Filed under Coe Jonathan, Fiction

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


Filed under Fiction, Nicholls David

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.


Filed under Davenport Bea, Fiction