Tag Archives: guilt

In the Garden of the Fugitives: Ceridwen Dovey

“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”

Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.

So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.

In the garden of the fugitives

As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?

As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:

We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.

We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.

While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:

In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.

The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn  your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”

I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity  I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.

The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.

This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.

This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.

Review copy

Advertisements

8 Comments

Filed under Dovey Ceridwen, Fiction

Three Days and a Life: Pierre Lemaitre

“The wheel was coming full circle.”

Pierre Lemaitre’s novel, Three Days and a Life is essentially a study of guilt, the fallout of violence, and small town prejudices in the aftermath of a murder. Murder is an irrevocable act, and the consequences, as we see in this novel, are unpredictable. The story begins in 1999 with Antoine, a twelve-year-old boy, the son of the divorced Madame Courtin. Antoine and his mother live in the small, dying town of Beauval–a place where everyone knows everyone else. You can live there for years and still be an outsider.

Antoine is a normal twelve-year-old who longs for a Playstation of his own, and with a sudden awareness of his own sexuality, he has a crush on blonde Émilie. The Courtins live next to the Desmedts: the brutish Monsieur Desmedt, his wife and two children: Valentine and 6-year-old Remi. The Courtin household is rigid whereas the Desmedts’ home is chaotic. but the best thing about living next to the Desmedts is that Antoine can play with their dog Ulysses.

three days and a life

One day in the woods, Antoine accidentally kills Remi, and in a blind panic, he hides the body. Will he get away with murder? ….

About 2/3 of the book follows Antoine’s actions as the townspeople realise that a child is missing. Paralyzed with guilt, and waiting for the police to knock on his door, Antoine watches events unfold from his home. Unpopular residents are rounded up and questioned, and then nature intervenes.

The second, last third of the novel opens in 2011. Antoine now lives in Paris, is in a wonderful relationship, and is close to becoming a doctor when he reluctantly agrees to return home He is being recalled by fate to meet his punishment. ….

Truth be told, the terror never went away. It dozed, it slumbered, and it returned. Antoine lived with the knowledge that, sooner or later, this murder would catch up and ruin his life. 

I’m very glad to have finally read a Lemaitre novel. For this reader, the first section with Antoine as a boy was good but overly long–especially when he repeatedly imagined various scenarios. However, the second part paid off in its conclusion. To say more would spoil the novel for other readers, but Fate shows, once again, that one cannot escape, no matter how hard we try to run. In the case of Lemaitre’s tale, do not expect simple retribution. The plot is far too subtle for that.

Reading the acknowledgments, I saw the name Patrice Leconte pop up. This made me mull over the idea of this book as a film. The first two-thirds are introspective while Antoine wrestles with his guilt, but with the right script, this would make an excellent film.

Review copy

Translated by Frank Wynne

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lemaitre Pierre

Paula Spencer: Roddy Doyle

“And the good things kind of glide past you. You can take them for granted. But the bad things, the regrets. They fuckin’ sting.”

After reading Roddy Doyle’s wonderful novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, I turned to the book’s sequel: Paula Spencer. We met Paula in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors on the day she heard about her estranged husband’s death, and most of the novel, told in the first person was a retrospective look at Paula and Charlo’s violent marriage. Fast forward almost a decade, and Paula is a widow, still living in the same house she lived in with Charlo, still making a marginal living as a cleaner. The lives of Paula’s children have changed: Nicola is successful, Leanne is an alcoholic, Jack, a teenager still lives at home, and John-Paul, who was mostly just a memory in the first book, is a recovering heroin addict.

So between the spousal abuse, the alcoholism and the drug dependency we have two novels that tackle some tough issues, but in spite of the weighty issues, Paula’s story is told with a light humour.

Paula Spencer

When this ultimately optimistic sequel novel begins, Paula is now 47 and dry. That’s not to say that she doesn’t think about drinking … she does .. all the time, but accompanying the longing for a drink are shameful memories of her vomiting, passing out dead drunk in the house, and even being drunk in the supermarket.

She remembers going through the supermarket with a trolley full of six-packs and mixers and the rest. She couldn’t make the trolley go straight. Jack was in the carrier part. She was afraid the whole thing was going to topple over. Leanne was pulling on the other side of it, asking for every biscuit and family pack they passed. And she actually-did she?-she smacked Leanne, until she let go of the trolley.

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is the question raised about guilt: Paula feels guilty for the sort of mother she was, but occasionally she chafes against the guilt. She knows she’s right to feel guilty about being a drunk, but at times her children seem to forget or ignore the fact that Paula was driven to douse her fears in alcohol. Is there ever to be an end to the guilt? And what of Charlo whose absence, violence and irresponsibility somehow has removed him from the guilt equation?

Paula Spencer is set during the Celtic Tiger, so we see a different Ireland. Paula’s sister who owned a caravan on the coast in the first book is now talking about about buying a place in Bulgaria. Paula, however, is still on the bottom of the economy, still stuck as a cleaner–although now she’s a manager, managing foreign workers who seem to pop up everywhere.

That’s another big change, maybe the biggest. The men do the cleaning work. Nigerians and Romanians. She’s not sure if they’re legal. she doesn’t want to know. She’s not paying them. They come and go. They’re grand. They’re polite. She feels sorry for them. It’s not work for a man; she’ll never think different. The African lads come in dressed to kill, like businessmen or doctors. They change into their work clothes and back into their suits before they go home. Ashamed. 

The world is changing and Paula makes the decision to move along too. She makes the gigantic move of opening a bank account, has a television, a giant fridge, and in one wonderful scene she makes a list with “a mad woman’s pen.”

It’s a good fridge, though. It takes up half the kitchen. It’s one of those big silver, two-door jobs. Ridiculous. twenty years too late. She opens it the way film stars open the curtains. daylight! Ta-dah! Empty. What was Nicola thinking of? The stupid bitch. How to make a poor woman feel poorer. Buy her a big fridge. Fill that, loser. The stupid bitch. What was she thinking?

The Woman Who Walked Into Doors was told in the first person, so we entered Paula’s mind. For some reason Paula Spencer is told in the third person so we lose that intimacy, and Doyle’s elliptical style is quite marked here. On the down side,  Paula Spencer is quite disjointed. Time and space can leap from one sentence to the next, so the sequencing of events is disorienting at times. One minute we’re in Paula’s house, and in the next sentence, she’s in a caravan going nuts, pacing up and down obsessing about a drink. But that aside, it was well-worth revisiting Paula’s life and her problems.

2 Comments

Filed under Doyle Roddy, Fiction

The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”

I get a lot of snooty looks when people ask me what I am reading and I reply ‘crime fiction.’ That’s not the only type of novel I read, but it seems inevitable that I have a crime novel in my hand when someone asks me that question. I also get a range of snotty replies which range from: “oh … I don’t like wasting my time on that sort of book,” (like I’m reading porno) to “You should read something worthwhile. I wouldn’t waste my time on something like that.” Whatever. Up Yours. I read what I want to read.

But once in a while, I come across a fellow crime reader and we have a nice little chat about our favourite sort of crime novels. After all, there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ crime novel–that’s a huge umbrella term. Crime novels run the gamut from cozies set in picturesque, quaint English villages to very violent, heavily detailed novels about predators and their sick pastimes. I don’t care for cozy mysteries but neither do I like to wallow in torture details. Give me a crime novel that teaches me something and stretches the genre into something special, and that brings me to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook. Is this a crime novel? Well the word is in the title, so crime is definitely part of the equation, but the novel is much, much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the nature of guilt, and on a larger scale, a treatise on the basest aspects of human nature. Thomas H. Cook has a reputation for writing cerebral crime novels with a strong psychological component, and that description is certainly well-deserved in The Crime of Julian Wells.

The book begins with the suicide of middle-aged American author Julian Wells. He leaves no note–no clues as to why he chose to kill himself on this day, in this fashion, and as is usually the case with suicides, family and friends are left to put together the pieces as they try to understand what happened and whether or not they failed in some way.

Julian, a writer with a respectable reputation occasionally lived at Montauk with his widowed sister, Loretta. The rest of the time, he spent either travelling the world researching his non-fiction books and articles or writing in a rented garret in Pigalle. Loretta, and Julian’s friend, literary critic Philip are the two people Julian left behind. After talking about Julian’s last weeks, Loretta and Philip identify a few peculiarities in his behaviour: a cancelled trip, unusual agitation, and a circled place on a map–the Argentinian village of Clara Vista right next to the border with Paraguay. Stunned by Julian’s death, Philip begins to question all of his memories and conversations with Julian. He is drawn to solving the mystery behind Julian’s suicide which he begins to believe is somehow connected to a month-long trip the two men took to Argentina thirty years previously.

Philip questions whether Julian committed suicide due to his prolonged exposure to depressing subjects. After all, he’d spent a lifetime delving into the darkest deeds of humankind.  With each book, Julian immersed himself in the crimes under consideration, and according to Loretta, “he was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”  Julian’s books never followed a template. His first book was The Tortures of Cuenca (about afabled injusticethat took place in Spain 1911), and there was also a study of Gille de Rais, The Terror, and a book about the crimes of Countess Bathory, The Tigress. Julian also wrote about serial killer, Henri Landru, the crimes of Paul Voulet, and the horrendous massacre at Oradour in 1944. Julian’s latest book, six years in the making and to be published posthumously, is The Commissar, the story of Russian serial killer Chikatilo. Loretta feels Julian’s constant exposure to some of the worst human behaviour cost her brother dearly and that “each book was like a nail in his coffin.” And our narrator agrees:

I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eying the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

Philip’s father, a retired state department official, doesn’t believe that Julian was ‘tainted’ by his work, but rather that he had “morbid” tendencies. Was Julian’s suicide the result of 30 years of researching the lives of psychopaths and their victims? In the end, was all that darkness too much for Julian to absorb? Or was there something behind Julian’s obsession with the many faces of evil and his very particular interest in disguise and deceit? There seemed to be some desperate need behind Julian’s work to explore and understand cruelty that had nothing to do with his writing career or selling novels. Julian’s work seemed integral to his character: 

The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

The Crime of Julian Wells takes us to Pigalle, London, Moscow, and Argentina as Philip retraces Julian’s career, but all roads lead back to Argentina and Philip and Julian’s vacation during the years of that country’s Dirty War. Along the way, we meet some very Graham Greenesque characters from Julian’s shady underworld: a hearty but suspicious former KGB agent, and René, Julian’s liason in France.

The Crime of Julian Wells narrowly misses being sublime, and its one, fault, and I hesitate to write that word as I enjoyed the novel a great deal, can be found in the character of Philip. He’s Julian’s doppelgänger, and yet he’s also a blank slate in many ways. While he’s necessary to the plot’s structure and revelations, he’s not that interesting a character in his own right, and so he acts as a device that folds back the layers of the past. In spite of this, The Crime of Julian Wells is a wonderful crime novel for many reasons. For all the anti-crime novel snobs out there, with allusions to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, author Thomas H. Cook shows just how serious and philosophical a crime novel can be. The characters aren’t solving crimes as much as they try to find the answers to haunting questions concerning the nature of guilt, the utter randomness of cruelty, how some people can sleep well, eat, and laugh after horrendous acts of cruelty while others can never expiate their guilt, and how easy it is for someone to simply disappear….

For here was Julian’s sense of life’s cruel randomness, life a lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended, how because this streetcar stopped on this particular corner at this particular moment, nothing for this particular human being would ever be the same again.

Review copy.

38 Comments

Filed under Cook Thomas H., Fiction