Tag Archives: British fiction

The Trophy Child: Paula Daly

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

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

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

the-trophy-child

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Cleo’s review

Review copy

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Visitors: Anita Brookner

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

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

visitors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

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

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

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

harriet-said

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy.

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Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

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

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

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

asylum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

Fay Weldon’s novella, The Ted Dreams begins with an unforgettable sentence: “It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except a clot of blood, creeping up from Ted’s leg to his brain, to kill him as he slept…”

the ted dreams.jpg

Phyllis was married, rather miserably, to art gallery owner Ted for twenty years when he died, unexpectedly, in bed one night. When Fay Weldon’s wonderfully funny book, The Ted Dreams opens, Phyllis is remarried to Robbie, an American neuro-pharma-scientist after an indecent interval of just ten months of widowhood. Phyllis was warned by her grief therapist not to “embark on a relationship,” but arguing that “a good man is hard to find” and that “they don’t just hang about on trees like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked,” Phyllis plunges ahead into matrimony once again. Phyllis is now happily married to Robbie, getting plenty of sex, and marriage to Ted with its many problems is buried in the past. Of course, it’s just possible that Phyllis’s bovine contentment could be explained by the pills she’s given by Robbie to fix those “hormonal issues.”And since Robbie has a top-secret job at Portal Inc. where he works on psychotropic drugs, he’s in a perfect position to provide her with all the experimental mood-altering drugs needed to keep her happy and content.

Phyllis remembers that Ted used to complain about her moods: ” ‘I know it’s your hormones’ was all Ted would say, thus maddening me the more. ‘ I just sit it out.’ ”  But Robbie takes his work home. “One little pink pill night and morning,” and Phyllis is  “generally benign and tranquil.”

But since this is a Fay Weldon novel, fans know that domestic bliss is a mere façade, and behind Phyllis and Robbie’s seeming domestic bliss lie some ugly dark truths. The first crack in Phyllis’s happiness is a result of all the Ted dreams she has. In Phyllis’s dreams,  Ted “grown no older, just a bit sadder and recently more resentful” appears to be stuck in a dark wood, and in the latest dream she sees him brushing off mud from a shoe. What a nasty shock, then, when Phyllis wakes up and discovers a lump of mud next to the bed. Can it be that Ted still exists somewhere in another dimension? Is there ‘life’ after death? Why is Robbie so fascinated by Phyllis’s dreams of Ted? Is Ted trying to break through to the other side, and if so what are the implications for Phyllis and Robbie?

As Fay Weldon’s wickedly funny plot unfolds, Phyllis begins to ask questions about her marriage to Robbie, and she talks to the poisonous Cynara who may or may not have had an affair with her business partner Ted and who was, according to Robbie, “just a bed buddy.” Can it be just coincidence that the marvelously bitchy Cynara had sex with both Ted and Robbie? The ‘visits’ from Ted turn out to be the most recent events in Phyllis’s life that defy rational scientific explanation. She’s given to visitations from ‘beyond,’ episodes of telepathy, and is known to be a ‘sensitive’ with telekinetic powers.

With ever growing paranoia, Phyllis begins to question the fabric of her entire existence: what exactly was her neighbour’s involvement in her husband’s death, is Phyllis the subject of a sinister experiment, and is Robbie’s sperm laced with psychotropic drugs designed to narcotize? With alarming speed Phyllis’s ‘perfect’ new married life begins to unravel, but then after we meet her creepy identical twin daughters (who could have stepped out of The Shining,) Martha and Maude, we realize how weird her life really is:

their bickerings often end (and they do bicker) just because one of them is using the other’s lines and they get confused.

Fay Weldon is in top form here with The Ted Dreams, and she proves she is as relevant as ever with this tale of spying and psychotropic drugs.  I loved this book for its subversive humour and for its tongue in cheek look at conspiracy theories, life extension and the ‘Great Beyond.’

That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.

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The Good Liar: Nicholas Searle

“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”

Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:

With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?

Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”

“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”

Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….

the good liar

Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?

The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies.  I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.

Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.

“Would you like to see him?”

“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”

Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived.  This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.

Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.

Review copy.

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

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The Childrens Home: Charles Lambert

I was introduced to the work of Charles Lambert in 2010 through the novel, Any Human Face.  In 2011 I read Little Monsters, The Slave House in 2013, and A View from the Tower in 2014. The Children’s Home was my first book for 2016, and it’s a complete change of pace for this author. Following the trajectory of a nightmare, the book starts with the feeling of a fairy tale, morphs into fable and then the mirror cracks to reveal a dystopian horror. This genre-defying book is being compared to the work of Neil Gaiman, and although I’m not that familiar with Gaiman’s work to make a comparison, I think it’s best to judge the novel on its own merit.

The novel concerns a hideously disfigured recluse, Morgan, who lives in a rambling, elaborate walled country estate, in a house designed by his grandfather. Very little information is given at first about Morgan, his life, his family’s fortune or why he has chosen to isolate himself, but gradually over the course of the novel, some of the mystery is peeled away. Although each chapter begins with a childlike tagline, this is not a children’s book.

The Children's HomeMorgan lives with a housekeeper named Engel, and shortly after she arrives, the outside world begins to penetrate through the gated estate when children inexplicably begin to appear. The first one, named Moira, is left on the steps in a basket:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages.

Even though the number of children grows, it remains a mystery just how they arrive in this walled estate, and then as Morgan stands by the drawing-room window

a square of air above the lawn seemed to ripple as though it were silk and a knife had been drawn across it, and a child appeared on the lawn and began to walk towards the house, perfectly confident it seemed, that she would be received.

The children increase in number, until the house begins to resemble an unofficial orphanage, and there’s something strange about the children–especially a little boy named David who arrives with a cardboard tag tied to his wrist. Morgan notes the children don’t seem quite normal.

“Have you ever noticed.” he said, “that the children seem to know when they’re not wanted, not in the ministerial sense, of course, but, you know, when somebody simply wants to be quiet, I suppose I mean when I want to quiet? They just disappear, they make themselves scare, as though they’ve never been in the house at all, as though they’ve never existed. And then. just when you notice and start to wonder where they are, when you start to worry about them, I suppose, although you might not realize it’s worry, it registers as a sort of apprehension, they reappear as miraculously as they disappeared. They pop up from behind the sofa or you hear them crying or calling things out in the garden. But haven’t you sometimes ever wondered just where they go?” He paused for a moment. When he continued his voice was hesitant. “It’s as though they came from the air,” he said.

Although Morgan doesn’t know it, the arrival of the children signals an end to his chosen isolation. Soon Doctor Crane is called to visit the children, and gradually Morgan is forced back into the world he has chosen to abandon even as the children explore the house and discover secrets Morgan is unaware of. As Morgan is forced to deal with his past, the horrific present arrives and brings catastrophe….

The Children’s Home has an eerie ability to get under one’s skin. It’s a nightmarish tale of dysfunctional families, cruelty, greed, sinister government agencies, and global ruin that starts ever so simply with the appearance of a fairy tale and then expands as Morgan’s chosen isolation drops away. In spite of the way this novel began, I knew that Charles Lambert wasn’t going to give us Mary Poppins but that there was some deeper, much darker play at work. There’s a lot going on in this deeply layered novel, and as Morgan’s horrific secret is gradually revealed with the children accepting their adoptive father for his kindness and loving qualities, we learn that there’s more than one reason to stay behind the high walls of Morgan’s protected estate. Ultimately the novel, which may have difficulty attracting its appropriate audience, makes an irrefutable statement that the measure of any society can be drawn in its attitude towards its children.

Given my fascination with crime novels, The Children’s Home is not my favourite Charles Lambert novel but I shan’t forget it, and it proves what I’ve suspected, that Lambert is capable of a range of work–evident, IMO, in Little Monsters.

Review copy.

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Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges (1945)

“Wait till Hitler’s in Buckingham Palace and these darned Britishers are crawling around on their bellies.”

Trouble on the Thames, a short, thoroughly engaging spy thriller published in 1945 by Victor Bridges finds Naval Lieutenant-Commander Owen Bradwell in a funk. After receiving the news that he’s become colour blind, Bradwell, a young man, with a brilliant career in front of him, consults a Harley Street specialist. The bad news is that “chances of recovery were about one in a thousand.”  This means that Bradwell’s naval career is over, but then he’s recruited by the British Secret Service for a recon mission. With Britain very likely to plunge into war with Hitler, it seems that the country is awash with spies.

According to the Secret Service official who recruits Bradwell, a Lieutenant Medlicot recently committed suicide rather than face charges of treason. Medlicot was “conducting experimental work on some new gadget in connection with submarines,” when he became entangled with the owner of the Mayflower, a nightclub in the West End. Medlicot most likely had extensive gambling debts which were then leveraged to persuade Medlicot to hand over a “complete copy of the plans.” The sleazy owner of the Mayflower club, a certain Mark Craig, is suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

These are delicate times. German diplomats reside in England, and with a government that “still believes in the possibility of appeasement,” the Secret Service wants a “cast-iron” case against the spy network suspected of operating within the Mayflower Club before moving to make arrests or expulsions from the country. This is where Bradwell comes in. He’s given ten pounds for expenses and told to travel to the countryside where Craig owns a private island. There under the guise of a fisherman, he’s to collect information about Craig’s visitors.

trouble on the thamesTrouble on the Thames is an adventure story, and since we have our dashing hero, of course we have to have our heroine. Romance appears in the form of a plucky young woman, Sally Deane, an interior decorator who, on a mission to save her sister from blackmail, stumbles into the nest of Nazis.

This is the sort of book that races along with very little down time. Spies, blackmail, an escaped prisoner, amnesia and murder all roll in to this short novel. With the action moving from the hubbub of London to the quiet beauty of the countryside, there’s the strong sense that the British way of life is under threat. This is an ultra patriotic novel, but that’s by no means a fault–rather it’s an indicator of the times. Against the backdrop of an ever-encroaching war, the characters are either black or white with those “in the pay of the Huns,” portrayed as opportunistic, morally weak, societal outsiders. At one point for example, German sympathizer Olga Brandon tells Craig, “I’m all for the Germans. I’d love to see them smash the hell out of these stuck-up swine.” German diplomat,  Count Conrad von Manstein is an “unpleasant mixture, a cross between a Prussian junker and a genuinely fanatical Nazi, about the worst abortion that nature has yet produced.” And at one point there’s a reference made to an “epileptic house-painter.” It took me a minute to absorb that this was a reference to Hitler.

The respective roles of the sexes and the ethnocentrism are problematic. Bradwell is the dashing hero, and of course there must be a scene where he saves the female romantic interest. While Sally Deane is a plucky character, an independent businesswoman breaking the mold for her sex, nonetheless, she gushes at the appropriate moments. Bradwell makes a great new recruit for the Secret Service–although perhaps a trifle loose-lipped. At one point the issue of whether or not women can keep secrets emerges, so that grates–especially since Bradwell didn’t hesitate to tell Sally and her partner who he was working for. And here’s a quote about Olga which is supposed to explain a lot about her character

Having a dash of the dago in her, however–we have discovered since that her mother was a Romanian dancer–she was already beginning to panic.

The book, which really is great fun, is an entry from the British Library Spy Classics series, and includes another wonderful introduction from Martin Edwards. Prolific author Victor Bridges (1878-1972)–real name Victor George de Freyne Bridges set his novels “among the tidal estuaries and rivers of Kent, Essex and Suffolk.” (Harald Curjel, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.) Trouble on the Thames is a very cinematic novel, so it came as no surprise to read that several of Bridges’ novels made it to film. It did come as a surprise, however, that this author, once so popular in his day, has almost completely faded from view.

Review copy

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