Tag Archives: British fiction

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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Filed under Fiction, Middleton Stanley

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. 

Review copy

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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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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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A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

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

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

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

A little love a little learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

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

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

New world in the morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Gioconda Smile: Aldous Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the Hairdresser’s: Anita Brookner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TBR stack.

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Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan

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

So here we are in 2018 …

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

We all mature, right?
Anatomy of a scandal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Vaughan Sarah