Tag Archives: British fiction

Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

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A Severed Head: Iris Murdoch

“In almost every marriage there is a selfish and an unselfish partner. A pattern is set up and soon becomes inflexible, of one person always making the demands and one person always giving way. In my own marriage I early established myself as the one who took rather than gave.” 

Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head opens with our smug married narrator, claret merchant Martin Lynch-Gibbon, winding up a languorous afternoon with his much younger mistress, Georgie.  Christmas is approaching, and for Georgie it’s not an easy time as she won’t be seeing Martin; he’ll be spending a quiet holiday with his wife of 11 years, Antonia. Martin admits to himself that he “misled Georgie about the success” of his marriage. Privately, he considers himself very happily married and it’s clear that Antonia and Georgie occupy some sort Ying-Yang design in Martin’s life (and mind). The two women are polar opposites, and by the end of an afternoon of blissful love with Georgie, Martin is practically purring like a cat. Martin, who’s rather patronizing to Georgie,  brushes over her disappointments, her loneliness, her needs…

I did not fall desperately in love with Georgie; I considered myself by then too old for the desperation and extremity which attends a youthful love. But I loved her with a sort of gaiety and insouciance which was more spring-like than the real spring, a miraculous April without its pangs of transformation and birth. I loved her with a wild undignified joy, and also with a certain cheerful brutality, both of which were absent from my always more decorous, my essentially sweeter relationship with Antonia. I adored Georgie too for her dryness, her toughness, her independence, her lack of intensity, her wit, and altogether for her being such a contrast, such a complement, to the softer and more moist attractions, the more dewy radiance of my lovely wife. I needed both of them, and having both of them I possessed the world.

Both women exist, it seems for Martin’s needs, and if by the end of that quote, you’re annoyed by Martin, then hang on and read the book. Martin is about to get his just desserts. …

A severed head

While Martin is busy in his little love nest with Georgie, Antonia is busy with intrigues of her own. She’s undergoing psychotherapy with American Palmer Anderson. Martin knows Antonia has a case of “tremendous transference,” and that Palmer’s “good at setting people free.” We see the warning signs before Martin does, and after leaving Georgie’s place, he returns to the luxurious home and waits for Antonia. She drops the bombshell that she’s dumping Martin and moving in with Palmer. According to Antonia, marriage is “an adventure in development” and that their union isn’t “getting anywhere.” Martin responds: “one doesn’t have to get anywhere in a marriage. It’s not a public conveyance.” 

There’s the question of ethics. Palmer is having an affair with a married patient, but that’s the not only taboo that exists within the pages of this novel. It would probably be natural to imagine that with Antonia exiting the marriage, Martin would cling to Georgie, but no, he avoids her; she was a complement to Antonia, the antidote if you will, and they exist as a pair of bookends. The relationships “strangely nourished each other.”

Martin mentions early on that Antonia is 5 years older than him, and at several points in the novel, he notes, fondly, that she’s aging, and he tends to mention her in the same sentence as his mother–not a good sign. Hilariously, on some level, Palmer and Antonia recognize this, and while Martin is belligerent at his wife being ‘stolen’ (as he sees it), Palmer and Antonia begin to assume the role of parents with Martin as their ‘sick’ child who must be nursed through the agony and pain of the break-up. Together, Palmer and Antonia want to dissect everything with Martin, so when Antonia discovers Georgie, it adds fuel to the madness. 

A Severed Head is a focused novel and includes just a handful of characters: Martin, Antonia, Palmer, Georgie, Martin’s siblings Alexander and Rosemary, and Palmer’s sister Cambridge don, Honor Klein. They are all mentioned in the first chapter, and they rotate, in their chaotic relationships, rather like a Shakespearean comedy. There are several points in the novel when Martin (who starts out as classic dickhead and then becomes a buffoon) describes difficulty in seeing his way through mists and fogs. This is, of course, literal, but by the end of the book, Martin’s impaired ‘sight’ is figurative. He’s the last person to grasp what’s been going on right under his nose. 

 I loved this book; in its exploration of the ridiculous, bad behaviour of  a handful of educated, privileged people who have far too much spare time on their hands, it’s brilliant and funny. There’s nose-punching, dramatic scenes and inappropriate groping as these upper middle class people find themselves actors in a tawdry drama. 

There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly-taken-for-granted relationship. 

Special thanks to the Gerts for their recent review of Murdoch’s Under the Net which motivated me to dig out one of my many unread novels from this author.

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A Season in Sinji: J.L. Carr

“Many a time since I’ve wondered if, all at once, and for the first time in his life, he knew that class and rank don’t mean a thing when the cards are down.”

I enjoyed A Month in the Country very much and decided to seek out other novels from J.L. Carr. A Season In Sinji, which almost sounds like a companion novel, is a completely different read, yet the two novels have shared themes: the hell of war, of course, but also companionship between males, and (the price of) survival. A Month in the Country explores the joys and pain of life through a horribly disfigured WWI veteran who retreats to the countryside to restore a medieval mural. A Season in Sinji is set in WWII and is basically the story of three men who vie for the same woman, and then later find themselves in West Africa.

A SEASON IN SINJI

The novel, is narrated by Yorkshire native, Flanders, a man whose farming background and strict religious upbringing forge his strong character. Flanders tells his tale in hindsight, and it’s clear that while Flanders survived the war, that this survival comes with a price. Flanders volunteered to fight and quickly became friends with Wakerly  saying “we were more than mates; he could have been a brother. I shall never forget him. Though I let him down in the end.” 

Whereas Wakerly and Flanders have an instant rapport, they both intensely dislike Turton, who is an excellent photographer with an “absolute unquestioning superiority.” At first ‘war’ is boredom with the men stuck at an RAF camp watching others shipped out. To kill timeWakerly and Flanders begin hanging at the local pub where they meet Caroline, whose parents have been killed in a London air raid. Wakerly courts Caroline (with Flanders as an awkward third). Turton, the most aggressive male of the three men, spots Caroline. Armed with his “utter confidence” he simply takes over, and that would appear to be the end of the episode with Caroline.

Flanders and Wakerly are posted to RAF Sinji in West Africa, “the edge of war,” and it’s on the journey that things begin to unravel. Then Turton arrives, now an officer, and begins to make life hell for Flanders and Wakerly.

And that’s another thing about Africa; it’s never still. There’s always bumping and rustling, birds screaming, and the stir of millions of insects groping around. And feet. Feet padding softly past. The blacks sleep in shifts; they don’t keep regular hours like us, so there’s always someone stirring and watching. It became an obsession with me the longer I stayed there. Everybody had obsessions before they left The Coast. Even the biggest clods began to do crazy things like drawing birds in the sand and the ones with better educations usually cracked completely, and began feeding them. My two obsessions were the sound of feet running, and all the places that went on and on east of us, beyond the tropic rain forests on the other side of the mountains, right across the dry lakes and the deserts to Addis Ababa, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, all full of people who slept in shifts stirring and watching and running around in darkness. 

The narrator’s point, in the above quote is that Africa ‘does’ things to the British RAF personnel sent there, and that the educated/upper class are perhaps the worst off. According to Flanders: “Africa either put you flat on your back or else brought out the very devil in you.” Sinji is nothing more than “three beads strung along a gravel road”–some rapidly constructed ‘buildings’ for the men, but there’s simply nowhere to go, nothing to do. The men, however, find that their pay takes them far with the local women–much to Flanders’ disgust. But other men get their entertainment from harassing those they work with and those with lower rank. Turton, in particular, begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Flanders and Wakerly, making their lives living hell.

The nature of war throws various types together who would not cross paths in peacetime, and class plays a huge role here. Concentrating on just a handful of men, Carr examines personality clashes in close quarters, throwing rank in as a weapon in human pathology. One of the great personalities here is ‘the Birdman’

He knew so much that I switched off whenever he began to reel off lists of birds he was looking forward to seeing–the ibis, the calliope humming-bird, the flamingo…His wife probably was missing him in bed and the garden, but I bet she wasn’t sorry to be having a break from the birds.

The other spring of wisdom was a medical orderly known as Blubber, who looked like a dropsical Eskimo and who was a sex fiend. He was at the other end of the boredom scale–just vulgar. The Birdman and he just grated against each other–their birds were not of the same feather.

There’s a pivotal incident that takes place involving the natives which raises certain moral questions. Wakerly and Flanders find themselves disagreeing with each other. Wakerly wants to take a stand and damn the consequences while Flanders differs:

I’ll wait for the right time before I settle with Turton and, when it does come, I’ll choose it and the place and only when I’m sure of winning.

Through Flanders’ eyes we see how these British men cope at RAF Sinji. Some men fall apart and some rise to the occasion. There’s one man, Glapthorn, who Flanders considers a poor excuse for a human being, but even Glapthorn generates some empathy in the end. While Wakerly and Flanders drift apart due to moral differences, Flanders becomes friendly with Slingsby, a fellow Northerner with similar moral values.

Two final notes: Flanders has a strong distaste for homosexuals which permeates some of his relationships. Cricket plays a large role in the book, and those who like the game will probably appreciate the many cricket references.

On the cover of my edition there’s a quote “The best of J.L. Carr’s novels.” It’s certainly strong and memorable. Plus bleak which I always like. A Month in the Country includes the theme of healing from war. There’s no healing in A Season in Sinji.

 

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Those People: Louise Candlish

“Was it any wonder he did what any other desperate person would do? Gather all the alcohol he could find in the house and drink every last drop of it.”

We’ve all had problems with neighbours at some point or another, so there are a lot of horror stories to share. Perhaps that’s what makes Louise Candlish’s novel Those People so readable. Once I picked this book up, it was hard to put it down.

Those people

The novel is set in a London suburb: Lowland Gardens. It’s just a short jog over to the horrors of the poverty stricken, crime-ridden Loughborough estate, so the people who live in Lowland Gardens, mainly young couples with children, are all too aware that crime lurks nearby. These houses have risen steeply in value over the last few years. People are proud to live there and everyone pulls together to keep up standards. Everyone that is … until Darren Booth and his wife Josie move in. …

While the cat’s away, the mouse was staging some sort of coup d’état.

Number 1 Lowlands Way, a semi-detached house, has stood empty for some time following the death of the owner. It’s of no small concern to the other residents of the street as the council recently tried a landgrab. Most of houses don’t have off street parking, and so parking space is an issue. Darren Booth moves into number 1 and immediately pisses everyone off.

The first clue that something was amiss that Friday evening was that the parking space outside his house was occupied by a filthy white Toyota so decrepit it was bordering on scrap. Certainly not the vehicle of anyone he knew on Lowland way.

First there are amateur repairs (which include sketchy scaffolding) taking place all hours of the day and night. Then there’s the heavy metal rock music played in the wee hours. Then if there wasn’t already too much to tolerate, Darren brings his used car business to the estate and starts flogging cars in the once posh neighbourhood.

All of this could almost be funny. There are several snobby people in the neighbourhood, and the snob squad is led by Naomi Morgan one of the estate’s Great Organisers. Naomi is one of those ultra efficient, brisk, perfect women whose word is Law. Several of the neighbours attempt remonstrating with Darren; his music for example has made it impossible for the baby on the other side of the semi-detached wall to sleep, and that’s when Darren’s nastiness surfaces. He drives the neighbours crazy and while the horrified neighbours band together to complain to various official/legal channels, there is basically nothing they can do but live with the situation as all legal channels move as fast as frozen molasses.

The situation is a powder keg, and so inevitably things explode: Naomi and her much-over shadowed sister-in-law Tess created Play-out Sundays, so on Sundays the street is closed off and the children play outside. Everyone goes along with the plan and residents park on another street. But Darren Booth doesn’t comply with the established clan culture, and this leads to the first disaster.

I got to a certain point in the book, and then I realised that there was a lot more afoot. The plot begins with witness and neighbour statements which are taken by police after a horrendous accident takes place. There was still a good portion left of the book, and so I knew things were not as simple as they initially appeared.

Author Louise Candlish creates incredible tension between the characters. Events escalate rapidly and people find themselves in unexpected positions, trying to find solutions to an untenable situation. She also shows how Darren is a catalyst for other events that occur which cause the rot lurking beneath this posh neighborhood to emerge. Wives look to their husbands to ‘take care of things’ and then despise them when they can’t (legally). Naomi and Ralph have had the perfect life (which they like to flaunt through their constant suggestions for how others can improve their lives: “double glazing!!” ). Naomi’s domineering character emerges and she’s so used to getting her own way, that when she doesn’t, her rather off-putting nature becomes more apparent. And then there’s poor Sissy who is paying her mortgage by turning her home into a B&B (probably not the best idea..) and the B&B happens to right opposite Darren’s house… well there goes the neighbourhood.

At first opposition to Darren seems rooted in class, and class plays an enormous role in this tale. Darren doesn’t ‘fit’– he doesn’t ‘look’ as though he’s a homeowner, so Naomi’s (domestically trained) husband, Ralph, assumes that Darren is some cheapo worker employed by Number 1’s new owner. As the story develops though, it’s clear that while class may have sparked, and fueled divisions, Darren is a nasty person.

Reading the book made me think about how we so often just comply politely. Perhaps we don’t have enough skin in the game to thwart others or perhaps the stakes just aren’t worth it, but Darren senses he’s not welcome and then figuratively gives everyone the finger.

The plot wobbled a bit at the end, but for its genre, Those People is very well-done. While this may seem like a beach read, Those People tackles a lot of moral questions regarding our obligations to others. The neighbors, already subject to considerable marital/financial/social stress join together to band against Darren, but they are all self-interested at heart. Social media, and texts play a role as does surveillance–all ways for people to get themselves in trouble. It’s a good reminder that casual comments that may have no sinister meaning can quickly become incriminating under the right set of circumstances.

Review copy

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Holiday: Stanley Middleton

We tend to think of a holiday as a pleasant, relaxing perhaps occasionally harried affair, but in Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, following the death of his son and a subsequent separation from his wife, Meg, 32-year-old married university lecturer, Edwin Fisher returns to his old childhood haunts, and the memories of holidays spent with his parents.  This is a melancholy novel in which Edwin, with a great deal of solitary time on his hands, finds his mind returning to his father, and dwelling on the relationships between fathers and sons.

Holiday

As we pass through various experiences, we often reevaluate our parents as human beings. Edwin’s parents are dead and it’s only now that “he admitted his parents’ virtues.” Edwin “never fathomed” his mother while she was alive, and for a time he “hated” his parents “for the shopkeepers they were.” Both Edwin and his sister (now a doctor) are “class-jumping offspring” who left their parents far behind. Thinking back on his relationship with his father, Edwin realises that Arthur Fisher was an enigma.

Fisher never sorted out his father’s views on education, and could make little sense of them now. Both children went to university, and though Arthur grumbled about expense he paid up. Nor did he seem to envy their expertise. His magpie mind stored snippets of information with which he gleefully caught his offspring out, but he never attempted to organise or coordinate his knowledge into a system.

Now that Fisher is old enough to grasp the subtleties of his relationship with his parents, he can appreciate them more, but it’s too late to modify his relationship with them. Similarly, Fisher’s son remains an unknown, an undeveloped personality frozen in time. Treading over his childhood haunts, Fisher recalls the holidays he spent with his parents.

Coincidentally (or not) Fisher runs into his in-laws who just happen to be staying in the same seaside town (in a posher hotel). Meg’s father, David Vernon, a solicitor who, in his line of work, sees marriages collapse daily, wishes that the couple would reconcile.

We also see Fisher’s (annoying) wife, Meg, both in the present and in recollection. At one point, Fisher wonders if he should have paid heed to certain “early signs” in her behaviour. Fisher sifts through his memories as though he will find the answer to his unhappiness there, but there’s also the present: a second rate little hotel where he observes fellow guests, walks on the promenade and exchanges a few words with other, often unhappy, holiday makers.

This is a quiet, restrained melancholy novel. While I enjoyed Fisher’s encounters and recollections, the novel’s male characters are better realised than their female counterparts. But perhaps this was deliberate.

And here’s Karen’s review at Bookertalk

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The Stepdaughter: Caroline Blackwood

Caroline Blackwood’s The Stepdaughter a short, claustrophobic epistolary novel concerns a woman in her thirties who writes ranting letters in her head, signing them ‘J.’ J is stuck in a large, expensive New York apartment along with her small daughter Sally Ann, lumpish stepdaughter Renata and a young French girl named Monique who’s been sent by J’s absent husband to help with chores and the children. While J may seem to have a fortunate life, materially at least, in reality,  J believes that her husband “successful international lawyer,” Arnold, has pulled a fast one. J and Arnold were happily married, and they had a daughter together. J argues, through her letters, that the marriage hit the rocks when Arnold assumed custody of his teenage daughter, Renata, following the institutionalization of her chronic alcoholic mother.

Everything about Renata I found instantly disturbing. She had poor thin hair which she had dyed a glaring peroxide yellow. She had lazily allowed the roots to grow out, and her skull was shocking in contrast, they were such an inky black. Her face was pudgy with lost, fat-buried features, and her skin was very bad, as if she had always lived on a diet of ice-cream and starch. She was wearing an orange and white T-shirt which had a really bold Californian bad taste. It emphasized the way that her bulging midriff was just as prominent as her bulging belly and breasts, I found myself staring transfixed by the brightness of Renata’s ugly orange shorts, which allowed one to see that her massive thighs were marked like an old woman’s with little pocks of bluish fat.

Renata is 11 when she first arrives, and 13 when the book opens. J, Arnold’s third wife, believes that Renata, a girl who “invites a kind of cruelty,” somehow poisoned their marriage. Both J and Arnold ignore Renata as much as possible, and J finds herself resenting Renata. Renata has a habit of plugging the toilet and she bakes almost nonstop, using instant cake mixes, while leaving the kitchen a total mess. J feeling wronged by Arnold, who is increasingly absent, extorts a new, larger apartment from her absent spouse.

Now J sees her new apartment as her “last resting-place” and is “humiliated now to realize that Arnold was over-feeding me like a fowl when he bought me this apartment. When he encouraged me to furnish it so expensively and promised to find me a French girl to help me with the children, Arnold was treating me like some wretched old bird which is fattened up just before the kill.

J, who is sliding down the rabbit hole without realising it, blames all of her woes on her stepdaughter, Renata. And then J, finally, shelves her resentment long enough to talk to Renata. …

The Stepdaughter covers some universal truths. How, for example, other people can become scapegoats for our problems. In this case, Renata, an overweight, silent 13-year-old becomes the vessel for J’s spleen. On another level, the novel explores the idea of how spouses often reserve their venom for another individual rather than the spouse. Then there’s the whole step-child/step-parent relationship.

This is not an easy book to read. J’s vitriol seems all too real which is evidence of Blackwood’s talent, but that said, this short tale doesn’t make for easy or pleasant reading. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Renata.

I loved Blackwood’s Great Granny Webster. 

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Late in the Day: Tessa Hadley

“Isn’t it impossible, though, anyway, to love someone all the time?”

When Tessa Hadley’s novel Late in the Day opens, Alexandr is married to Christine. They have an adult daughter together, Isobel, and Alexandr has a son, Sandy, from a previous marriage. Lydia and husband Zachary have a daughter, Grace, who is an art student in Glasgow. Alexandr and Zachary are long-time friends, and Christine and Lydia, in spite of being polar opposites, are also girlhood friends, but to add to the entanglement of these two couples. Lydia and Christine also babysat Alex’s son when he was married to his former wife.

Ok, so now we have that straight.

Late in the Day opens with the sudden, unexpected death of Zachary. Christine receives a phone call from Lydia and she dashes off to the hospital, scoops up Lydia and brings her home. We all grieve in different ways, and Lydia is in a state of shock when she makes the call to Christine, and yet … there’s something about Lydia that rings warning bells. Does Christine hear? Christine’s first instinct is to guess that Lydia “would be made more domineering somehow by the blow of Zachary’s death.”

Gregarious art gallery owner Zachary is dead when the book begins, but as the novel delves into the past, tangled relationships of these four people, we see him as a rather larger-than-life personality, so his death leaves a hole behind in the lives of the survivors.  Grace acknowledges that “of all of us, he’s the one we couldn’t afford to lose.”  With Zachary’s sudden death, Lydia seems at a loss to move on, and while this is perfectly natural given the circumstances, there’s something not quite right going on here. We learn how Lydia, as a young girl was fixated on Alex, but how he barely noticed her.  Eventually Alex married Christine while Zachary fell for Lydia.

While funeral arrangements are made, Lydia stays with Christine, and an uncomfortable sensation begins to build which begins with Lydia taking over so much space with her make-up. Lydia appears to be a high maintenance person which probably explains why Alex avoided her years earlier, but now there are undercurrents in Alex and Christine’s marriage, perhaps fueled by frustrated career ambitions, that open the way for turbulence.

Now Lydia set out her brushes and mirror and all the apparatus of her make-up and skin care on top of the chest of drawers: pots and tubes of cream, lipsticks and eye-shadows spilling from bags that were pretty curiosities in themselves, embroidered and patterned zip-bags, or pouches with tasselled silk drawstrings. She draped the mirror and the chair backs with her jewellery and scarves, and the room began to smell of her perfumes. Soon all the surfaces and the floor space were cluttered. 

I liked the premise of the novel, and it’s certainly well-written, but found it hard to care for the characters who seem uninteresting in spite of tantalizing details. Alex, for example, was a poet who gave up and went into teaching. He eventually made headmaster but decided to return to the classroom. Then there’s Christine who keeps her workroom locked and the key hidden. As the history of these four people is gradually revealed I found myself saying wondering what on earth Christine expected. But then perhaps the outcome wasn’t so ‘accidental’ after all.

The novel is strongest in its portrayal of marriage as a shifting, organic entity, and the trickiness of female friendship which seems to be laced with undercurrents of competition. Christine and Lydia have a shared history but little else in common. Lydia is a bird-of-paradise, and Christine is “used to being bruised by Lydia.” Here’s Christine talking to Lydia about marriage. Christine’s daughter, Isobel is about to leave for university and she anticipates the emptiness created by her daughter’s absence.

-Something’s over, though. I didn’t think it would be over so quickly. It felt so monumental and permanent, when it began. You’d think this was something a woman would feel, wouldn’t you, who had no life of her own and had invested too much in her children. But there it is. 

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Midnight All Day: Hanif Kureishi

When it comes to writing about relationships, author Hanif Kureishi is unsparing.  Some of us might add the description cynical, but others might add pragmatic. Midnight All Day is a collection of short stories in which troubled relationships are at the fore. Some relationships are dying, some are just beginning, but regardless where the relationships place on the longevity scale, nothing is ever simple. Here’s a list of the stories:

Strangers When We Meet

Four Blue Chairs

That Was Then

Girl

Sucking Stones

A Meeting, At Last

Midnight All Day

The Umbrella

Morning in the Bowl of Night

The Penis

In Strangers When We Meet, Rob, an actor, is supposed to go on holiday with his older married mistress, Florence, but when her husband inconveniently (and at the last minute) decides to take the trip with her, all the plans are ruined. Rob finds himself in a small seaside town, booked into the same hotel as Florence and her husband. In fact Florence and Archie are in the room next door, and when the story opens, Rob has his ear to the wall trying to hear what is going on between Florence and her husband. It’s rather funny in a dark, twisted way, as Rob feels that the husband is the usurper, not him. Rob is, at first, really upset that his holiday is ruined, but seeing Florence with her husband somehow places her in a different light.

midnight all day

In Four Blue Chairs, a man and a woman who had an affair and subsequently left their partners decide to host their first dinner guest as a couple. Their decision to buy new chairs throws their relationship into question and also serves to show how the relationship will be conducted moving forward.

In That Was Then, Nick, a former pop journalist, now a married, respectable writer agrees to meet his former lover, Natasha. Nick is a bit worried about the meeting as Natasha is from his wild past:

We are unerring on our choice of lovers, particularly when we require the wrong person. There is an instinct, magnet or aerial which seeks the unsuitable. The wrong person is, of course, right for something–to punish, bully or humiliate us, let us down, leave us for dead, or, worst of all, give us the impressions that they are not inappropriate, but almost right, thus hanging us in love’s limbo.

If you are a writer and yearn to be published, then Sucking Stones may be a difficult story to read. This is the tale of middle-aged, divorced Marcia, a teacher, who fits writing in with everything else–raising a child as a single parent, working, cooking, etc. After getting a short story published, she started a writers’ group, and its members are “all, somehow, thwarted,” in their writing careers. Marcia thinks that the other writers in the group make “crass mistakes” yet are “astonished and sour” when this is brought to their attention. Marcia “didn’t believe she was such a fool.”

One day Marcia meets a popular author at a book signing. The author invites Marcia to her home, so things are looking up for Marcia. Is someone finally taking her seriously?  It’s a painful encounter, but it’s worse when the author pops into Marcia’s home:

Marcia and Alec were having fish fingers and baked beans. Aurelia must have been close; Marcia had hardly cleaned the table, and Alec hadn’t finished throwing his toys behind the sofa, when Aurelia’s car drew up outside. 

At the door she handed Marcia another signed copy of her new novel, came in, and sat down on the edge of the sofa.

What a beautiful boy,’ she said of Alec. ‘Fine hair–almost white.’

‘And how are you?’ asked Marcia

‘Tired. I’ve been doing readings and giving interviews, not only here but in Berlin and Barcelona. The French are making a film about me, and the Americans want me to make a film about my London.’

While Marcia struggles to find time to write, she wants her mother to pitch in caring for Alec. The contentious meetings between Marcia and her mother highlight their opposing needs:

‘What about me?’ said mother. ‘I haven’t even had a cup of tea today. Don’t I need time too?’

Marcia also has a strangely complicated yet no-strings relationship with Sandor, an underemployed Bulgarian who works as a porter. He’s content and happy with his circumstances, happy to read, drink and sleep with women. His contentment is in contrast to Marcia’s rather frazzled desires to write.

While I didn’t care for a couple of the stories: Girl and The Penis, I enjoyed the others immensely, and the collection is a good reminder of how much I like reading this author. In these stories we see how people are part of our lives but then we (or they) move on. Phases might be a better way of putting it–people are in certain phases of our lives but then things change.  Do we change? Do our tastes change? Do our needs change?  In Strangers When We Meet, for example, the story moves forward in time. Rob is now successful  and when he meets Florence again, she’s … a bit desperate. Ex spouses, ex lovers, yes they may hold a place in our past, but life is in a continual state of flux. Nothing is static.

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Filed under Fiction, Kureishi, Hanif

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

“Marriage is such a sordid, morbid relationship.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s dark novel A Wreath of Roses explores the relationships between three women–relationships which cause them to question the choices they have made. Each of these women: Frances, Liza and Camilla, have chosen different paths in life with varied success. Frances, at one time, was Liz’s governess, but since retirement, she’s concentrated on painting. Liz married a vicar while her childhood friend Camilla, a school secretary, damaged from a long-ago relationship slides into spinsterhood. Camilla travels, as she does every year, to the country home of Frances, where she will spend the summer with Liz, but this year is different. Frances is ill. Liz now has a baby, and for the first time, Camilla is shut out from experiences she has not had, cannot understand, and professes to reject.

A wreath of roses

A Wreath of Roses opens ominously. Camilla has reached a point in her life where she realises that life has passed her by. Being in Liz’s company serves to reinforce Camilla’s unhappiness: yet her observations about Liz are not black and white, not simple. On one hand, she can’t understand why Liz chose to marry a self-absorbed vicar, and the demanding presence of Liz’s baby has served to place a distance between the two childhood friends. Camilla is independent and can please herself while Liz frets about her baby’s health and her husband’s wandering attention.

Frances, who is ill, contemplates death, the meaningless of life and now paints from “an inner darkness.”  She has maintained a long-time correspondence with Mr Beddoes,  a rather lonely bachelor whose “spiritual” relationship with Frances is about to change when he travels to meet her for the first time. As a film director and an ardent observer of human nature, he’s the first person to recognise that Camilla is heading into danger through her relationship with Richard Elton, an enigmatic man, a charmer, also on holiday. Richard claims to be writing a book about his war experiences. ….

Camilla, who wants to return to her boring employment with memories to help fill her sterile life, finds herself attracted to Richard in spite of several warning signs and in spite of the fact that he’s not her ‘type’ at all. He has the “conventional good-looks of the kind that she, Camilla, believed she despised,” and Richard, for his part, dismisses Camilla as a “schoolmistress.”  A terrible event brings them into each other’s orbit, and once there, Richard and Camilla sense a need that can be fulfilled.  But they need different things:

“And women. Love.” he went on impatiently. “Where does it lead to, I wondered.”

“Must it lead somewhere?” She smiled.

“For a few days it didn’t need to. Then it would all seem like a play I was acting in. Been acting in a long time. A long run, and I knew all my lines too well and was stale and boring everyone. But most of all myself. Then I tried death.”

“Death?”

“In the war,” he said lightly. “I went up very close to it. My own and other people’s. And there it was. Unlike all the other things, it never changed. It was always real. I seem to carry the thought of it about with me.”

“You mustn’t.”

“Oh … I shan’t … it’s just that people are like doors. They lead you into empty rooms. You pass through and are left with yourself. Only death goes through ahead of you.”

Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the darkest undercurrent in this novel, and the novel’s tone is lightened by the gossip borne by Mrs Parsons, the cleaning lady, and by Liz fretting about her relationship with her husband. Liz acknowledges that her husband being a clergyman added to his initial attraction, and hinted at “inner mystery.” Liz is beginning to wonder if she made a mistake:

“I did think, though,” she continued, at once disregarding her own instructions, “that a clergyman would have something more in him than was obvious at first glance. But I discovered there was even less.”

Liz finds she is irritated by her husband’s almost continual presence at home and that she “is left with a rather cold and greedy man sitting at his desk writing notes to other women–casual-seeming little notes which take him hours and hours to scribble off.” This summer is a period of adjustment for Liz: she must adjust to married life, motherhood, and her responsibilities (and sacrifices) as a vicar’s wife.

A Wreath of Roses examines the lives of three women who all wonder if they made the right choices. There’s Frances who “assumed” the act of being an old maid while her dark view of life and unexpressed passion erupt in her art. Acknowledging that she threw herself into raising Liz, Frances admits that she also “evaded the pain and the delight of human-relationships.” Frances sees Camilla making the same choices that she did and even at one point says that “even Liz’s marriage is better than no marriage at all.” 

“We go on for years at a jog-trot,” Frances said, “and then suddenly we are beset by doubts, the landscape darkens, we feel lost and alone, all at once that we must grope our way forward for we cannot retrace our footsteps.”

While Richard and Camilla’s relationship is the novel’s darkest point, another dark undercurrent flows from Frances’s nihilistic view of life.

“Life’s not simplicity,” she said slowly. “Not loving-kindness either. It’s darkness, and the terrible things we do to one another, and to ourselves. The sooner we are out of it the better. And paintings don’t matter. They are like making daisy-chains in the shadow of a volcano. Pathetic and childish.”

She sat down on a kitchen-chair and looked at the lamp burning; her clenched hand beat nervously against her thigh.

“The only thing that makes sense of it all is looking up at the sky at night and knowing that even the burden of cruelty we’ve laid upon the earth, scarcely exists; must fly away into dust, is nothing, too infinitesimal to matter. All the time, the house is falling into ruin, and I run to the walls  and tack my pretty pictures to them as they collapse.”

Caroline’s Review is here.

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Filed under Fiction, Taylor, Elizabeth

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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Filed under Bawden Nina, Fiction