Tag Archives: dysfunctional families

Nothing to See Here: Kevin Wilson

“I felt like the only sane person, and I was in my underwear, holding a ruined muumuu that I’d stolen from a sleeping old lady.”

Kevin Wilson’s quirky, entertaining novel Nothing to See Here is the story of two very different women who collided as teens and now reconnect in adulthood under bizarre circumstances. I have not read The Family Fang, but after watching the film version, Nothing to See Here caught my eye. Through a small set of quirky characters, this engaging, funny novel explores the themes of the families we are stuck with and the families we choose for ourselves.

Twenty-eight year-old Lillian, whose life is a train wreck, gets a letter from Madison Billings. They’ve kept in touch over the years in a desultory way after they met at a “fancy” girls’ school. Lillian was a scholarship pupil who roomed with Madison Billings, the cosseted daughter of a wealthy man who owns a chain of department stores. Lillian is the daughter of a single mother, a woman with a lot of miles:

I lived with my mom and a rotating cast of her boyfriends, my father either dead or just checked out. My mother was vague about him, not a single picture. It seemed like maybe some Greek god has assumed the form of a stallion and impregnated her before returning to his home atop Mount Olympus. More likely it was just a pervert in one of the fancy homes that my mom cleaned.

That quote is a good example of the strong narrator voice of this novel, a voice strong enough and tart enough to carry the plot in spite of its flaws. The plot centres on two emotionally damaged children who spontaneously combust. Yes that’s right. You read it correctly. Spontaneous combustion. The plot description put me off to be honest but a sample convinced me that I liked the narrator voice.

But back to Madison and Lillian, two girls who met beyond the social divide. It was an improbable friendship that shouldn’t have happened. As a child, Lillian realised that education was the ticket out of the confining, poverty-stricken life she had with her mother:

I wasn’t destined for greatness; I knew this. But I was figuring out how to steal it from someone stupid enough to relax their grip on it.

So Lillian makes it to the fancy boarding school and her mother, who tells Lilian that she doesn’t belong with this crowd, goes along with it, but then she goes along with whatever life throws her way. Madison takes Lillian under her wing, but when Madison is caught with drugs, her father pays Lillian’s mother a bribe; Lillian takes the fall, and from that point on, Lillian’s life is all downhill. But since she loves and admires Madison, Lillian never blames her friend. Fast forward 15 years: Lillian is “working two cashier jobs at competing grocery stores, and smoking weed in the attic,” while Madison is married to an extremely wealthy older Senator, Jasper Roberts. They live in a mansion in Tennessee with their son, Timothy, but that may change soon as Jasper is slated to be the next Secretary of State. Imagine Lillian’s surprise when Madison sends $50 for a bus ticket and tells her that she has a “job opportunity” for her old friend. Of course, something is rotten in the state of Tennessee, but Lillian, who has a curious innocence, or perhaps she just believes in Madison (even if we don’t) doesn’t see the troubles coming her way.

Lillian is awed by Madison’s gorgeous home and seemingly perfect life, but in spite of its glossy perfection, something is definitely off. Timothy, who dabs his mouth with a napkin after eating, seems to be the perfect little gentleman, and Madison, as attractive as ever, is edgy. Then to complete the picture there’s Jasper Roberts–a politician with a grubby past, but he’s shining up nicely under Madison’s iron tutelage and ambition.

He looked a little weary, like being important was a Herculean task. If any aspect of his appearance had been off by even a few degrees, he would have seemed evil.

Jasper has two children, 10 -year-old twins, Bessie and Roland, with his first wife (now dead), and the kids are according to Madison “sweet kids.” Madison asks Lillian to be a governess of sorts for the twins; they are currently living with maternal grandparents but will be relocated to the newly renovated guesthouse on Jasper’s estate. The pay is generous, but Lillian isn’t exactly the world’s most responsible person. It’s doubtful that she could take care of a goldfish, so why is she being given this job? What’s the catch? …. The children spontaneously combust when they are upset. And they get upset a lot.

Lillian’s first reaction is to reject the job, but then with no other prospects on the horizon and her (misplaced) devotion to Madison, Lillian accepts. Visions of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins float in her head, with the thought that she’d “just stand next to them for the whole summer and gently direct them toward good decisions. I thought I’d just sit in a beanbag chair and they’d read magazines.” All those fantasies disappear when Lillian meets the children for the first time. Accompanied by Jasper’s fixer, Carl, Lillian picks up the children from their grandparents:

We walked into the cabin, which was dark, not a single light on, but we could see activity in the backyard. The sofa, some flowery abomination with plastic covering it, was burned black on one side, the ceiling above it dusted with soot. Carl slid open the glass door, and we saw Mr. Cunningham in a tiny swimsuit and some flip flops, cooking a steak on a rickety old charcoal grill. His wife was dead asleep in a lawn chair. “Carl!” Mr. Cunningham said. He was in his seventies, but he had curly gray hair like a wig. He looked like he was in the process of melting, his skin sunburned and sagging everywhere, hanging in folds.

So Lillian takes over the care of the children. With Carl wanting to drug the kids with Mickey-Finn’ed Kool-Aid, slimy Jasper only concerned about his political career, and Madison eager to keep up appearances (but ready to ship the kids out as the nuclear option), Lillian, unexpectedly bonds with the children. The children have been rejected and have lived through horrible, emotionally damaging situations. They’ve received no support, no love, and they continue to be rejected. The proximity to the main house, the way Jasper and Madison avoid the twins, and Timothy “looking at us through his own little pair of opera glasses, like he was in a grand theater house in London” underscore the ostracism, the human zoo, of the three outcasts. Lillian tends to self-destruct or smash something when she loses it, and so she finds that she admires the power that pours from the twins when they burst into flames. They can’t control the process, but the ability to spontaneous combust certainly dictates that the children have to be handled with care. The twins need Lillian and she needs them:

I’m not joking when I say that I never liked people, because people scared me. Because anytime I said what was inside me, they had no idea what I was talking about. They made me want to smash a window just to have a reason to walk away from them. Because I kept fucking up, because it seemed so hard not to fuck up, I lived a life where I had less than what I desired. So instead of wanting more, sometimes I just made myself want even less. Sometimes I made myself believe that I wanted nothing, not even food or air, and if I wanted nothing, I’d just turn into a ghost. And that would be the end of it.

Madison remains a murky figure and Lillian’s devotion to her isn’t credible–especially given Lillian’s anti-social tendencies, and if I mentally deducted the swearing (swearing in a novel is a plus imo) the novel, sadly, loses a lot of its transgressive feel. So scrape away the swearing and there’s a lot of sentimentality. Think a decent, but not wonderful film, with an incredible acting performance that makes the film seem superior, and that’s how I felt about this book. I liked the humour and the narrative voice which appears to push those transgressive buttons, but ultimately, a few swear words don’t add up to a transgressive novel or character. It’s just custard on the pudding. On the up side, Lillian’s sense of humour and observations are well worth catching. Spinning into Madison’s orbit once more creates a sense of resolution for Lillian. She realizes that wealth “could normalize just about anything.” And being around the children gives Lillian perspective about her own mother:

And this was what I finally realized, that even as we sank deeper and deeper into our lives, we were always separate.

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All This Could Be Yours: Jami Attenberg

“Some people are just bad forever.”

Author Jami Attenberg is back in familiar territory in All This Could Be Yours. While The Middlesteins explored a family driven to dissolution by one member’s eating disorder, All This Could Be Yours focuses on the Tuchman family as they gather, expectantly, for 73-year-old patriarch Victor’s death. Yes you read that correctly. Expectantly. So what sort of man is Victor if his family hope he hurries up and dies? Here’s daughter Alex, who can’t “wait until her father died,” calling her brother Gary with the news that their father is in hospital:

and she was so breathless with the news about their father’s heart attack she sounded almost joyful, which anyone else might have found inappropriate, but he didn’t, he was on her team, and she was on his. 

Victor’s wife, 68 year old Barbra, after a lifetime of her husband’s infidelity and desultory physical abuse, visits his bedside, speed walks around the hospital floor, and ruminates over the past. Once upon a time Victor and Barbra lived in a Connecticut mansion, but Victor lost his ill-gotten criminal money hushing up an epic sexual harassment scandal. As a result, Victor and Barbra lost their mansion and moved into a condo in New Orleans. But Victor isn’t just a nasty man, he’s a disease, so where he goes he spreads trouble. Victor and Barbra’s son Gary, who’s based In New Orleans, seems mostly to avoid his home and wife Twyla these days. Bad idea. Gary’s divorced sister, lawyer Alex, arrives in New Orleans hoping that her mother will finally offer an explanation of her father’s shady business deals and exactly WHY she stayed with him all these years.

Her mother would have no one to hide behind, nor a reason to keep any secrets from her any longer. Her mother had been loyal all these years, often acting more like her husband’s consigliere rather than like his wife, and Alex knew Barbra wouldn’t say a bad word about Victor before he passed. 

As the story unfolds, and Victor hovers on the brink of death, gradually pieces of his shady life float to the surface, and it’s clear why his children loathe him. Barbra is the epitome of the trophy wife, but those years are over, and Victor and Barbra’s now diminished lifestyle has led to acrimony.

Once she had been the grand prize. He had won her, he thought, like a stuffed animal at a sideshow alley.

The narrative extends back to Victor’s courtship of Barbra (I’m using the term ‘courtship’ loosely here), and while Barbra once loved her brutish spouse, now all the “payoffs” and affluent lifestyle that somehow balanced the negatives in her married life are gone.  While Alex puzzles over the enigma of her parents’ relationship and wants the truth about her father’s deeds, Gary has had a much worse childhood and bore the brunt of his father’s twisted machismo. Gary “spent his whole life caring, in contrast to his father, who’d spent his whole life not caring. “ Meanwhile Gary’s daughter Avery who’s become a companion of sorts to her grandfather has confused feelings about the man who has recently appeared in her life. “She knew there was something off about” him but she can’t quite place what is wrong.

All this could be yours

Victor may be on the brink of death but he oozes through the pages in scenes and memories. This is a chronic sleazy womanizer, a gambler, a criminal who never changes but only becomes more embittered as he loses his looks, his physique and his money.

This would have been the precise moment to acknowledge the crimes of his life that had put them in that exact location. His flaws hovered and rotated, kaleidoscope-like, in front of his gaze, multi-colored, living, breathing shards of guilt in motion. If only he could put together the bits and pieces into a larger vision, to create an understanding of his choices, how he landed on the wrong side, perhaps always had. And always would.
Instead he was angry about the taste of  bottle of Scotch, and suggested to his wife that if she kept a better home, none of this would have happened, and so would she please stop fucking around with the thermostat and leave the temperature just as he liked. And she had flipped another page, bored with his Scotch, bored with his complaints. 

Given the title, inheritance is under examination–not the inheritance of worldly goods, although that does appear, but how we are shaped by our families. Alex’s daughter Sadie must align love of her father with the fact that he uses women, lies to them and throws them away. How does a child incorporate love for a parent with the fact that he or she is a shitty human being? How does that twist the perception of marriage and relationships? Finally a shout out to Barbra’s mother Anya, who made tremendous sacrifices to protect her grandchildren and who is arguably the moral compass of the novel even though she’s long dead and buried.

I recently read Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House which looked at the impact of toxic familial relations. All This Could Be Yours is the same territory–except since this is written by Jami Attenberg there’s a lot of humour. The situation on the surface, a dying arsehole of a father, isn’t exactly funny, so the result is an affirmation of the quirkiness of dysfunctional family life–how we become so used to the weird and unacceptable that it eventually becomes normal.

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The Antiques: Kris D’Agostino

There’s a frenetic energy to Kris D’Agostino’s novel The Antiques which matches both its backdrop, an epic storm which engulfs Hudson, New York, and the lives of the Westfall family. When the novel opens, the Westfall family is in crisis, but I’ll back up here and say ‘crises.’ Yes it’s multiple; family patriarch George Westfall, cofounder of George and Ana Westfall Antiques, is dying of cancer. His wife Ana, hearty and healthy, but wrapped in her own concerns, isn’t sure how she’ll continue the business alone, and that brings us to the three Westfall offspring: sex addict Josef, daughter Charlie, out in California pursuing a career in publicity, and Armie, who still lives in the basement.

the-antiques

With George taking a turn for the worse, Ana begins frantically contacting Josef and Charlie, but they both ignore the desperate messages as they are deep in their own problems. In Josef’s case, the problems revolve around his sex addiction. He’s on the brink of making a huge, lucrative business move, and while he waits for news, as is typical, he distracts himself with thoughts of sex. Every woman, including his therapist, is a potential sex partner. This is a recently divorced man (no shock there) who buys used female underwear to sniff and claims that “it’s like my penis led me astray.”

Enough of Josef.

Onto Charlie.

Charlie works with P.Le.A.Se. Publicity LLC’s “most needy and lucrative client,” Hollywood starlet, Melody Montrose. Melody’s latest claim to fame is the starring role as a “vampire heiress” in  a “teen-fantasy saga based on a cycle of YA bestsellers called Thornglow.” Melody’s needy life is one publicity nightmare after another, and that leaves Charlie mopping up Melody’s messes and performing the work of a PA. There’s a pull between Melody’s petulant immature demands and Charlie’s personal life. Charlie has put her private life on the back burner, but after finding a pair of women’s underwear at her home, Charlie suspects her French husband is cheating. Meanwhile their son, Abbott is thrown out of school for violence towards another child.

As for basement dweller, Armie, he’s seriously damaged after being tangled in a questionable business deal which involved Josef and led to a stressful session with the FBI. He’s almost afraid to leave the safety of the basement, and yet love calls him in the shape of a young woman who occasionally offers to walk the Westfall family dog.

All the Westfall children converge on the family home, and there a drama unfolds over the sale of a valuable painting….

The book is well-paced and well-plotted but it is full of unpleasant people–I even disliked Ana, a character who should, technically speaking, be somewhat sympathetic. But it’s never a problem for me to read books about unpleasant people–after all, they’re usually much more interesting than ‘good’ people. But here, the characters were unpleasant and uninteresting–a deadly combination. Josef was a waste of good oxygen and Charlie … well there’s a telephone conversation that takes place between Charlie and another parent which left me shaking my head. While the author certainly mined aspects of today’s superficial culture, somehow that vapidity stuck to the plot with the result that I couldn’t wait to leave these people.

The Antiques is being compared to The Nest, and while I can see the connections: siblings and an inheritance, the resemblance stops there.  Most of the reviews of The Antiques on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive, so I am in the minority opinion.

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The Glorious Heresies: Lisa McInerney

“You just collect religious souvenirs to use as murder weapons, is it?” 

The Glorious Heresies, a debut novel from Irish author Lisa McInerney portrays a handful of lives immersed in crime, drugs, and violence. Over the course of a five-year period, these characters intersect, criss-crossing back and forth over a murder. This is Cork post Celtic Tiger, an Ireland populated by characters whose troubled lives rankle with conscience for past deeds and current acts, and yet turning to the church or family brings no answers.

the-glorious-heresies

The book has a bit of a dodgy opening with fifteen year old Ryan about to have sex with his girlfriend Karine for the first time. Ryan, already a very successful drug dealer, initially feels that he has few choices in life, and as the plot continues he becomes arguably the most interesting character in novel. Ryan’s boss, a man with “an arctic disposition punctuated by explosions of lurid temper,” treats the boy like a “pet.” Ryan lives with his violent, abusive, alcoholic father, Tony Cusack whose “charming laziness […] had morphed into dusty apathy.” Cusack is a pitiful creature whose Italian wife died in a car accident some years earlier leaving Tony to raise their six children on his own. Tony who hits the bottle and Ryan regularly, isn’t doing at all well with this monumental responsibility. It’s hardly a happy home:

Tony Cusack’s terrace was only one of dozens flung out in a lattice of reluctant socialism. There was always some brat lighting bonfires on the green, or a lout with a belly out to next Friday being drunkenly ejected from his home (with a measure of screaming fishwife thrown in for good luck), or squad cars or teenage squeals or gibbering dogs.

Then there’s Georgie, a drug-addicted prostitute who tries to find religion but runs foul of crime boss Jimmy Phelan. Meanwhile tough guy Phelan may terrify everyone else in Cork, but his mother Maureen is the bane of his existence.

The book has a strong emphasis on fractured familial relationships (Ryan and his father, Jimmy and his mother, Maureen), and we see how family structure has failed these characters, and how that old reliable fall back, religion, seems impotent in today’s Ireland.

McInerney argues that her characters, running foul of various vices, pressured by economic realities, are still capable of making moral choices, even though they think otherwise. At one point in the novel, a maturer Ryan argues that “there’s always a choice,” and while at one point in Ryan’s life, he abdicated from the notion of personal responsibility, ultimately he must make a stand.

Although the writing spits with raucous life through, the novel’s plot sagged a little after the halfway point. There’s one scene in which Jimmy’s mother Maureen, angry that she was forced to give up her baby years ago, takes on a priest, and her long speech (extract here) seems forced and not up to the author’s very natural style:

I might have died in your asylums, me with my smart mouth. I killed one man but you would have killed me in the name of your god, wouldn’t you? How many did you kill? How many lives did you destroy with your morality and your Seal of Confession and your lies. 

It’s hard not to love McInerney’s troubled, flawed, vice addled characters, and it’s harder still not to hope that they will manage to turn their lives around before the last page. There’s a character here, shit-stirrer Tara Duane, whose malicious meanness separates her from the rest of the troubled, wounded cast.

The bitch had always maintained she didn’t have a bob to her name but with only one kid and a frame that suggested she only ate on Thursdays, it was obvious she was hawking the poor mouth.

McInerney’s writing and characterization seem so well-assured, it’s hard to believe that this is her first novel, and in spite of the novel’s flaws, I loved the writing style. I hope we see a second book soon.

Maureen was seeking redemption.

Not for herself. You don’t just kill someone and get forgiven; they’d hang you for a lot less. No, she was seeking redemption like a pig sniffs for truffles: rooting it out, turning it over, mad for the taste of it, resigned to giving it up. 

Thanks to Gert for pointing me in the direction of this book in the first place.

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The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

“There had always been in her this meanness which every now and again got out of control.”

Ignore the sweet-looking hints of the cover. The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster is the story of Julia, a strangely disaffected child who becomes a successful child psychologist. It’s Julia’s job to explore the hidden corners of culpability in her patients’ anti-social, self-destructive and sometimes deviant behaviour, and yet this is the very thing that Julia sidesteps so neatly in her own past and present. The Unknown Bridesmaid, the twenty-sixth novel from the author, is subtle and intelligent, but far more than that, this is a dark tale of self-deception and motivation in which the murky impulses of the main character lurk just beneath the surface of her actions.

The Unknown BridesmaidJulia is just eight years old when she’s invited back to Manchester to be a bridesmaid for her cousin Iris. Julia’s mother is surprised by the invitation as she and her sister Maureen aren’t close. Even Julia recognizes that “her mother and her aunt were engaged in some sort of complicated battle,” and there’s the sense that Maureen’s life took a turn for the better while Julia’s mother’s did not.  We’re given an impression of Julia’s mother, and it isn’t pleasant:

Julia’s mother did not immediately accept the invitation for Julia to be a bridesmaid; she waited three days, and then she rang her sister up, saying she doubted whether Julia could accept because of the expense involved. There would be the dress, the shoes, the flowers, and she had no money to spare for any of those things. She reminded her sister that she was a widow on a small, a very small, pension. Her sister was furious, but she tried to keep the anger at Julia’s mother boasting of her poverty (which is how she regarded it) out of her voice. She reminded herself that her sister had had a hard time, and was indeed quite poor, whereas she herself was comparatively well off, and ought to be magnanimous. She said her sister was not to worry about the expense. She said that of course she would pay for Julia’s outfit and everything that went with it. She had always intended to and should have made this clear. If Julia’s measurements were sent, a dress would be made and shoes bought.

Julia as a bridesmaid is not the main gist of the story, but it is a pivotal event in which we see Julia for the first time. She’s an odd child. If we want to be kind we’d call her ‘quiet,’ and if we dislike Julia, we’d call her ‘sneaky.’ It’s at Iris’s wedding that we first grasp the idea that Julia has a certain emotional disconnect from the people around her. Iris is a wonderful young woman, warm, kind, loving and much-loved, “admired” and joyful, yet Julia, much like her own dreary, joyless mother, holds back, and “sees how everyone was in thrall to her cousin.”

The wedding is just the first event in a chain of tragedy that binds Julia to her relatives in Manchester. Financial circumstances and a dark secret involving Julia’s father bring Julia and her mother back to Manchester to live, and so the lives of the two sets of relatives twine together initially through the wedding and then through death. A horrible incident occurs involving Julia, and she may or may not be responsible.

She was the one who had always, as a child, wanted to ask questions but had been trained not to. She liked being asked them, too, or thought she did until the questions became tricky and she began to worry about what her answers were revealing, to herself, as much as to the questioner.

Julia shoves aside her involvement and the hint of guilt and plunges ahead into a childhood and adolescence full of emotionally disconnected acts of casual cruelty towards the other people in her life. As she grows into her teens, the acts becomes increasingly more serious and focused….

The Unknown Bridesmaid maintains a quietly restrained narrative tone while exploring how a close-knit group of people deal with a young girl who’s emotionally disturbed. As the narrative goes back and forth in time between the past and the present, there’s a fine film over all these events which covers & obscures Julia’s culpability and intentions. Julia’s childhood of increasingly abhorrent acts is spliced with her present as she counsels children with various emotional and behavioral problems. As a psychologist, Julia recognizes that “it was tempting to confuse a child’s evasion of the truth with a calculated piece of lying.” She’s good at uncovering the motivations behind various children’s destructive actions, and while this talent may spring from her own emotionally difficult past, the clarity Julia shows with her patients stops there. Her insight is towards others–not herself.

Author Margaret Forster includes weddings and bridesmaids a few times in the novel, and when these occasions emerge in Julia’s life, they illuminate Julia’s estrangement from the people in her life. She cannot participate emotionally and these happy celebrations always leave Julia on the outside, disinterested, bored, and yet aware that somehow she’s ‘different.’

The Unknown Bridesmaid, primarily a character study, is a stunning novel, and perhaps part of my admiration for the book comes in no small part to the fact that it plays into one of my pet theories: those of us who give the most to strangers, give nothing to our families and those we are supposed to love. It’s a version of Mrs Jellyby’s telescopic philanthropy. Structured differently, let’s say chronologically, the plot would not contain as much mystery, but the plot goes back and forth with the past and the present, so we see Julia as a damaged child and later as a well-functioning adult. But as Julia’s present unfolds we begin to question just how well-functioning she really is. As for Julia’s past, how should we judge the intentions of children when they don’t understand their own impulses? Julia very much remains an enigma to herself and her relatives, especially Elsa, a girl who once adored Julia and yet found herself the target of Julia’s malicious spite. Julia also remains a mystery to the reader–partly due to the novel’s clever structure and brilliant characterizations, but also due to the novel’s wonderful ending which while deliberately anticlimactic brings only deeper questions involving the elusiveness of the truth and multiple versions of events.  Should we admire Julia for how she managed to recoup her life and become a professional success or should we dislike her for treating her family badly and failing to overcome her emotional problems?

The Unknown Bridesmaid is going to make my best-of-year list. I’d never read Margaret Forster before and I’m delighted to have found her at last.

Finally this novel should appeal to fans of Penelope Lively.

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The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann

Back in the late 90s, I watched a wonderful film called Dry Cleaning (Nettoyage à Sec). It’s the story of a hardworking middle-class French couple who own a small dry-cleaning shop. Their marriage is stagnant and boring; then they meet an attractive young man, one half of a nightclub act, and invite him into their lives. Dry Cleaning is a perfect example of bored and unhappy people looking for a solution to their problems, and instead of a solution, the addition of the third person, who acts as a catalyst for catastrophic events, only increases the turmoil.  The Cold Song by Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann, a story with the same premise, is set on a coastal area of Norway in a region of scattered holiday homes. It should be an idyllic, peaceful spot, but the various troubled moods of its discontented inhabitants creates an atmosphere of unease–not that we need the unease to grow as shortly after the book begins, a group of local children unearth a body while on the hunt for ‘treasure’ they buried a few months before.

cold songThe book opens in 2008 with 75-year-old family matriarch Jenny Brodal drinking before a birthday party she dreads. The party is to be held at Mailund “the big white mansion-like house where she had grown up,” and the event has been organised by daughter, chef and restaurateur Siri against Jenny’s strident objections. While the party is just one indicator of the toxicity of this family’s relationships, it’s also fitting that the party is the turning point of events.  Jenny doesn’t want to attend, but as the ‘guest-of-honor’ she has little choice, and her daughter Siri is determined that the party will go on–no matter how her mother feels about it.  Siri’s stubborn insistence on having a party is a reflection of the family dynamic at play–on the surface, everything appears normal and healthy, but underneath there’s a dysfunctional family with many hidden secrets.

Then the book moves forward to 2010 with the discovery of the remains of a young girl named Milla who disappeared on the night of Jenny’s birthday party two years before. Milla was employed as a nanny for Siri’s two children: Alma, a rather troubled, feral child and the younger girl, Liv.  Most of the plot centres on Siri and her philandering husband, writer, fifty-year-old Jon–a man who has written and published the first two books of a trilogy, “great successes,” but he’s now deep in a case of writer’s block. Hiding out in the attic, his resentment grows as he pretends to write while Siri monitors his so-called ‘progress.’ Milla is employed with the hope that she will solve both Siri and Jon’s problems. With Milla supervising the children, Siri can concentrate on her restaurant and Jon can, in theory, write the last book of the trilogy.  Heavily in debt, with his advance already spent, and painfully aware that he’s no longer attractive to young women, Jon has taken over the attic as his writing den. He even resorts to typing out entries from  Danish Literature: A Short Critical Survey, so that when Siri listens at the door, she’ll hear him typing and imagine that he’s working.

So day after day Jon sat at his laptop intending to write, either that or he lay on the floor next to his dog and tried to sleep, or he gazed out the window,. or he read the newspapers online and wrote text messages to women who might or might not reply, and after a lot of all that he ate peanuts and drank beer.

Milla, the daughter of a famous artist, who applied “to the ad on the internet for a summer job,” initially seems to be the perfect choice as a nanny. She’s young, carefree and happy to be away from home for the first time. This excursion into adulthood should be safe as she’s living with a family, but while she’s supposed to be looking after the children, an attraction grows between Jon and Milla–an attraction that Siri is all too aware of.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m willing to discuss, but I’ll add that as the summer progresses, relationships between the various characters grow increasingly toxic. The family members seem to harbor old resentments against each other, and Milla, while employed to solve problems, only magnifies them.

Milla isn’t a particularly compelling character, well to be honest, there’s no one here to like, but for this reader, Milla’s lack of appeal was a bit of a problem. The poor girl has no idea that she’s treading on the toxic quicksand of a rotten marriage,  and she becomes Jon and Siri’s scapegoat for an entire summer. If she were more appealing as a character, the story would have had added poignancy, but without that, she’s just another person thrown into this poisonous domestic scene. I felt as though I didn’t care about Milla as much as I was supposed to. That put me in the same pot as Siri and Jon, so perhaps Milla’s lack of appeal was deliberate.

The fallout of Milla’s disappearance and death examines everyone’s responsibility towards a young girl who was, after all, the least culpable person in Jon and Siri’s marriage. Under the surface, there’s the intriguing question as to exactly why Siri employed  a beautiful young girl and then left her alone with her philandering husband–a man whose infidelities are definitely directed against his wife and are a distracting excuse to not write. It’s one of those situations when human motivation seems so fascinating & complex. When Milla disappears without trace, of course, there’s an alarm raised and a hunt for the missing girl. But does anyone really care? Isn’t it easier with her gone?

And anyway, the whole house was a reminder of Milla. Siri imagined finding strands of dark hair along the baseboards and around the doorframes, in the annex, in the meadow behind the house, in the vegetable plot, under the maple tree, and in her white flower bed.

Translated from Norwegian by Barbara J Haveland. Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Ullmann Linn

A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson

Moving from a non-fiction book by a French author about her mentally-ill mother, I read Danish author Jonas T. Bengtsson’s dark, compelling story of a father and his son, A Fairy Tale. While this is fiction, this first person story, which begins in 1986 when the narrator is 6 years old rings with painful authenticity in its examination of the destructive side of love and family. The narrator who is unnamed but uses the name Peter in a couple of instances (“‘Peter’ I think it’s a good name. I could easily be a Peter,”) leads a strange life with his father. Always living in wretched flats on the fringes of society, the narrator retells the story of his nomadic life of poverty with his father who works a series of menial jobs: making faux antiques for the German market, providing muscle as a bouncer in a nightclub, building a garden path for an isolated elderly lady, and working in a small theatre. All of these jobs are underpaid, on a cash basis, for the narrator’s father either lacks, or refuses to use, documentation–this even extends to “Peter” who, in this life of fringe anonymity, does not attend school and is not able to even borrow library books.  

a fairy taleLiving a hand to mouth existence, there are times when the boy, who is sometimes left alone for long periods of time, seems much more worried than his father about where the next meal is coming from. The father believes that “people who cling to their money become unhappy,” and there are several times the father manages to persuade people to forget about money as he gets free dental treatment for his son, or slips into the cinema without tickets while the cashier looks the other way.  At times, the boy and his father are relaxed and enjoy moments we would consider ‘normal,’–an ice cream, for example, but there’s also an edge of paranoia to their lives which becomes more pronounced when their anonymity is threatened or there’s the possibility of long-term relationships. “Peter” is told “You must always keep an eye out for the White Men,” and while the boy lacks formal education, his father gives him lessons in survival within the Black economy and also teaches him to be wary of other people. Some of these lessons are built around an ongoing fairy tale.

Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.

The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.

The King and the Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only one who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.

“Is she really called the White Queen?” I asked my dad.

“Peter” and his father are incredibly close, bound by adversity, their own rules of behaviour, and a life on the run. With each sudden, unexplained move, the boy notes that some of their few possessions are inevitably left behind. One night two men standing near the building where the boy and his father live cause yet another move.

I follow my dad’s finger with my eyes. Two men are standing in the archway leading to the courtyard of the building where we live. They’re both wearing jeans and windbreakers over their shirts. I nearly fall off when dad slams on the bike’s brakes.

“Look how they stand,” he whispers into my ear. “Notice how hard they try to look as if they just happen to be there. Far too relaxed. Smoking casually.”

I narrow my eyes, but struggle to see anything other than two men in an archway.

“Do you remember what I told you about the White Men?”

“The Queen’s helpers?”

“Yes, them.”

“Are they the White Men?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t think we should try to find out.”

We get back on the bicycle. We ride out of the city until the tarmac turns into gravel, which later turns into hardened earth. When we can no longer see the city lights, dad pulls over. He paces up and down, then he sits against a tree and smokes. I try to be quiet. I don’t want to disturb him while he’s thinking.

Two cigarettes later he gets up.

“I think we might have to move again.” 

We don’t know what the father is running from or why he feels the need to train his son to see the world in a very specific way. All these questions are resolved towards the end of the novel, but it’s enough to say that the father fabricates a very specific world for his son, and while some of that world is desirable, part of it is not. The father clearly loves his son, but at what point does love lead to damage? And of course, fairy tales can’t go on forever….

This is as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, but I will say that the fairy tales that the father tells to his son are not the only fabrications going on here. A Fairy Tale, a very unusual novel, was not at all what I expected. Like the Grimm fairy stories, there’s some very very dark material here, and sometimes, perhaps the only way you can make sense of the world is by turning your life into some kind of fairy tale to explain good and evil. Most of us grow up with fairy tale touches to life: Father Xmas, the Tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, Andrew Lang’s wonderful fairy stories, and those fairy stories, as we grow older can leave feelings of nostalgia and wonder–a magical time of innocence. But here, fairy tales are an explanation and a sort of protective element (protecting the boy from the truth) but also an element that makes the boy more compliant, damaged and isolated. Both sides of the mirror here–good and evil as with any fairy tale. With its wonderfully dark, bleak ending, I really liked this novel.

Translated by Charlotte Barslund

Review copy

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Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan

Thanks to Emma, I was introduced to French author Delphine de Vigan’s novel  Underground Time, but Nothing Holds Back the Night is completely different.  This is a non-fiction book about the author’s mother, Lucile, who committed suicide at the age of 61; she died alone and was in her apartment for 5 days before her daughter found her. The book was written by Delphine de Vigan partly as a way of understanding her mother, a woman who was a bright, beautiful child model, whose life somehow took a wrong turn as she made a series of bad choices in men, plunged into madness and was institutionalized.

 

Nothing Holds back the nightThrough the process of writing this book, the author basically discovers it’s not so much a question of what went wrong, but more an issue of uncovering the incidents that shaped Lucile, nicknamed “Blue”  by one of her brothers “because of the sad expression on her face.” On the surface of Lucile’s family life, it would appear as though she was part of an incredibly rich, boisterous family with happy parents and nine children (one is adopted), and at one point in the book we discover that Lucile’s family was the subject of a television documentary filmed in 1968 and aired in 1969. Delphine de Vigan watched the film which “shows a happy united family in which priority is given to the children’s autonomy and the development of their personalities.” But reading about the film through the author’s eyes, we can glimpse that there is something terribly wrong with this seemingly perfect picture of family life. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something quite different underneath… .

While the book is about the life of the author’s mother, Lucile, it’s also a quest to understand this complex, very private woman. Part of the quest involves the author’s struggle to write the book and her doubts about where to start, what to include, what to leave out. She’s also very aware that as she peels back the layers of Lucile’s childhood and the “myth” at the heart of the family, she risks hurting people even as she wrestles with various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan describes her journey–the interviews she conducted with relatives, the family photos she pored through, and the tapes she listened to.

But the further I go, the deeper my conviction that it was something I had to do, not as an act of rehabilitation, nor to honour, prove, re-establish, reveal or repair something, solely to get closer. Both for myself and for my children–who, despite my efforts. feel the weight of distant fears and regrets–I wanted to go back to the source of things.

And I wanted some trace of this quest, however futile, to remain.

When the book begins, there’s a definite, curious emotional distance between the author and her mother, and this is one of the elements of the story that interested me so much. The book is obviously not only the author’s attempts to understand her mother but it’s also part of the grieving process and a legacy–an explanation for the author’s own children.

The book is a  little awkward at first as it describes Lucile’s childhood in the moments when the author places thoughts in Lucile’s head that quite obviously could not belong in the head of a small child–it’s the author’s words as we read Lucile thinking about a “nameless protean being,” for example. But as Lucile grows older and increasingly more withdrawn and remote, her daughters enter the picture, and then we read about Delphine’s childhood and her views of her mother. The author appears to become much more comfortable with her subject as the book builds, and she’s also very frank about the difficulties she faced during the composition of this book. As the years tick by in Lucile and the author’s lives, we slowly, as the tragedy of Lucile’s life is revealed,  begin to understand the emotional distancing between the author and her mother. ‘Dysfunctional families’ is a term that’s vastly overused these days. Most of us seem to have crawled out of the debris of some domestic disaster or another, but Lucile’s family is the epitome of the term for while a façade of normalcy and function is maintained, underneath there’s rot.

The author’s journey to understand her mother addresses the past, and that includes complex questions regarding memory and various versions of events. Delphine de Vigan’s journey to the heart of the past includes the idea that family pathology is so easily skirted and avoided in silence. The author also shows how versions of events can collide, tainted by fragmented memory, absence or even simple misinterpretation of events, but in spite the novel’s subject matter and its examination of the very damaged Lucile, there are triumphs here. Even though the darkness in Lucile’s life never completely left but seemed to lurk in the corners of her mind, she beat incredible odds, and later in life, battling her demons, she managed to overcome mental trauma and find a level of peace and happiness.

Lucile made friends everywhere she went in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life … She exerted an odd and eccentric form of attraction around her, mixed with a great spirit of seriousness. This brought her strange encounters and lasting friendships.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is at once an incredibly private and painful book, and one gradually feels, turning these pages, that its completion is also a triumph for Delphine de Vigan.

Thanks to Emma for pointing me towards this book.

Translated by George Miller. Review copy.

 

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Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Great Granny Webster by British author Caroline Blackwood came recommended by commenter, Leroy. The novel also had the advantage of being from New York Review Books, and since I’ve had such good luck with their titles, I decided to read it. This is a largely autobiographical tale written by Blackwood, the heiress to the Guinness fortune. The introduction from Honor Moore notes that the book was a finalist for the Booker, but that it did not win thanks to “the decisive vote cast from Philip Larkin who reportedly insisted that a tale so autobiographical could not stand for fiction.” Well so much for the Booker. I always seem to prefer the losers anyway.

great granny websterAt a mere 108 pages, it’s a deceptively slim read, and it’s a story that you think is taking you in one direction, but then by the final page, you realize that the destination was rather unexpected, and instead of a coming-of-age story, Great Granny Webster is the story of a search for identity through one’s relatives.  The story starts in 1947 with a 14-year-old girl, our unnamed narrator, who following an operation, is sent to the home of the fearsome Great Granny Webster to convalesce after the doctor advised that she would benefit from sea air. Great Granny Webster, who lives preserved in strict Victorianism, is attended by the crippled-one-eyed maid, Richards, in her mausoleum of a house in Hove. Just a few miles away from the “staid and wealthy gentility” of Hove was the “gay and tempting paradise of” Brighton, “tantalizingly near” but considered common and vulgar by the joyless, unbending Great Granny Webster:

Great Granny Webster knew that I was meant to need sea air, and this suited her very well because apparently she needed it herself. At four o’clock every afternoon a hired Rolls-Royce from a Hove car firm appeared at her door with a uniformed, unctuous chauffeur, who would then drive both of us, as if he was driving two royalties, at a slow creep along the misty sea-front of Hove. To and fro, to and fro, we would drive for exactly an hour while one of the windows of the Rolls-Royce was wound down just enough to let in a very small sniff of salt and seaweed-smelling air. 

Marooned for several months with her implacable, pessimistic elderly relative, the narrator finds the “grim and fiercely joyless” Great Granny Webster a curiosity–a woman with a “passion for pointless suffering,” and yet in spite of the tedious days of stiff propriety, there’s some undefined bond between the narrator and her great-grandmother. For her part, Great Granny Webster finds that the girl is quiet and “retiring.” While the girl is “chilled” by the frightening thought that she “would turn out to be exactly like her,” nonetheless she feels an inexplicable sense of panic when she finally leaves Great Granny Webster and returns home.

Ultimately this stay with Great Granny Webster sparks the narrator’s curiosity about her dead father, Ivor, killed in WWII, and his insane mother (Great Granny Webster’s daughter) safely locked up in an asylum. The narrator learns that her father visited Great Granny Webster frequently when he was on leave, and this, initially seems puzzling since the narrator can’t imagine why her father chose to spend time with his dour grandmother during his all-too-precious leave.  Unfortunately  “Death had obscured him as a reality,” and the narrator seeks the answers through his history.

The narrator’s Aunt Lavinia, Ivor’s sister, is a brilliant, glittering butterfly of a woman who’s worked through several millionaire husbands, and she is perhaps the ‘missing link’–a human antidote to Great Granny Webster.

A play-girl in the style of the ‘twenties, she was famous for her beautiful legs and for the fact that she had been married briefly to three millionaires while taking at the same time a large selection of lovers, who were not only friends of her husbands’ but almost as well-endowed financially. Her attitude to life appeared so resolutely frivolous that perversely she could seem to have the seriousness of someone with a driving inner purpose. She believed in having “fun” as if it was a state of grace. Taking nothing seriously except amusement, she caused very little rancor, and although she was considered untrustworthy and wild and was reputed once to have gate-crashed a fashionable London party totally naked except for a sanitary towel, she managed to slip in and out of her many relationships, which she invariably described as “divine,” like an elegant and slippery eel.

Could there be two more diametrically opposed people: Aunt Lavinia–who surrounds herself with luxury in a life which is an endless, irresponsible party and a pursuit of pleasure, and her indomitable grandmother, Great Granny Webster, a woman who takes pride in a joyless life of deprivation? Through recollections from Tommy Redcliffe, a family friend, the family tree is completed with memories of Lavinia and Ivor’s parents. Tommy was an old school friend of Ivor’s and an unfortunate visitor to the ramshackle inhospitable eccentricities of the family home, Dunmartin Hall in Ulster. Eventually the layers of memory are peeled back to reveal three generations of bizarre women: the gothic misery of Great Granny Webster, fey, quite mad grandmother Dunmartin who’s sure that the “evil fairies”  have stolen her children and replaced them with changelings, and Aunt Lavinia, whose superficial, relentless pursuit of fun and pleasure masks a dark desperation.  Not the greatest legacy, then, if you are that next generation.

For its incredible depictions of decaying Anglo-Irish aristocracy, Great Granny Webster serves as a wonderful companion piece to J.G. Farrell’s superb novel, Troubles, as the two novels could be describing the same family. Through Tommy Redcliffe’s recollections of his visits to Dunmartin Hall, “a gigantic monument to more prosperous and eternally lost times,” we see eccentricities cross the line into madness. Everyone in the Dunmartin family seems to have entered into a silent conspiracy that life there is ‘normal.’ The “grandiose and unwieldy” mansion comes with “crippling inherited debts,” so every year the house falls into deeper and deeper decay.

Having tried to exist by aping an English feudal system most unsuccessfully, it was only the scale of the diminishment of this enormous Ulster house that remained impressive in its period of retribution and impoverishment. Its vast stone-carved swimming pool, surrounded by busts of Roman emperors, still remained somehow imposing, though it rotted in a scum of dead leaves and insects. The same was true of Dunmartin Hall’s once valuable libraries, though many of the pages of their books had become glued together and blued with mildew.

Into this damp, rotting house with its leaky roof, rank, inedible food, and practically non-existent plumbing, Grandfather Dunmartin, in an insane effort to maintain standards hires an English butler and footmen. The result of this are horrifyingly, sadly hilarious.  And through it all, everyone pretends that daily life isn’t torturous despair.

When my grandmother spent most of the day shut up in her bedroom , she sat cross-legged on the floor and cut out coloured pictures of elves and fairies from her enormous collection of children’s books. What everyone found blood-curdling was that she herself had started to look very like the model fairies that you see on the top of Christmas trees. She had the same frozen blank expression, the agelessness that made her seem neither child or woman.

Through mordant and perceptive detail, the narrator exposes the deep, dark secrets of the generations that have gone before her. We are left wondering where the madness began, for while one woman is locked up in an asylum, arguably for violence more than anything else, is there anyone normal here–except possibly Ivor who died before he had time to prove his sanity. This deliciously wicked exposition of the grubbier side of the Webster/Dunmartin family argues that we cannot escape our pasts, and that we are more a product of past generations and our upbringing than we’d sometimes care to admit. Yet while our narrator learns about her family, there are many questions left unanswered, and Great Granny Webster manages to have the last word in her farewell to the world.

Thanks for the recommendation, Leroy.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”

I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw)  appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.”  Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.  

the dinnerThe story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society.  At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.

I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers,  I was laughing out loud:

“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,”  with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.

As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a  “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.”  Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts

I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.

The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks  and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman