Not a great deal happens in this tale. We see the Stevens family as a unit with Mr Stevens organizing and marshalling the family like troops. Yet we also see them as individuals; Mary meets a young man and senses that this is the last holiday she will spend with her family. Dick, who started work a year before, is “terribly unhappy,” and is withdrawn. Away from the daily grind, the holiday appears to restore his spirits. There’s the sense that in spite of ritual and annual return trips, that life is changing for this family. There’s a sort of beauty in routine–as if our lives will stretch out to infinity. Published in 1931, there are big changes ahead. The world of Seaview, Dulwich and the life of the Stevenses will change forever.
Tag Archives: holiday
The Fortnight in September: R.C. Sherriff (1931)
Filed under Fiction, Sherriff R C, Sherriff R. C.
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.
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
Filed under Fiction, Middleton Stanley
Rush of Blood: Mark Billingham
In Mark Billingham’s suspenseful crime novel, Rush of Blood, three British couples meet at a Florida resort, and in spite of the fact they are all quite different, they spend their days and evenings together on the beach, at the mall and at various bars and restaurants. Just as the holiday concludes, Amber, a young girl from Georgia who is also staying at the resort with her mother disappears. While the mother frantically looks for her child, the three couples lounge by the pool; it’s their last day. Why should they spend it chasing after a girl who was a bit of a nuisance to the holidaymakers?
The three couples return to their lives in England while the search for Amber rages on in their absence. Then her body is found and a murder investigation begins. In Florida, the investigation is headed by Detective Jeffrey Gardner, and for the purposes of tying up loose ends, he asks the British police for some follow-up information from the three couples. Trainee Detective Constable Jenny Quinlan is assigned to the task as it’s considered a very minor job, but Jenny doesn’t see it that way; she takes it seriously. Then when another girl similar to Amber goes missing in Kent, it seems that the six holiday makers have moved from being witnesses to being suspects.
Mark Billingham takes us into the lives of the three couples: the obnoxious Ed whose job in the publishing industry is in a downward spiral and his teacher wife, Sue. Then there’s builder Barry and his second wife Angie. Finally there’s would-be actress/writer Marina and her boyfriend Dave–a very mismatched couple.
When the three couples parted ways in Florida, there were some airy promises made about exchanging e-mails and keeping in touch. Angie is the one who pushes keeping the connection almost as though the unsolved crime leaves unfinished business between them. The novel goes back and forth between the couples and the three dinners they have together back in Britain, and we view the “Sarasota Six” as they see themselves but also as they are seen by others. Ed, with his constant sexual innuendos, is clearly the alpha male, and Dave’s fascination with crime is supposed to be seen as creepy (we crime readers can understand), but the relationships between the women are not so easy to define. TDC Quinlan finds them all a bit weird
Barry Finnegan was clearly capable of snapping without much provocation. Ed Dunning was a sleazebag and Dave Cullen was just downright creepy.
Some chapters are also told by the killer, and of course we try to guess the masked identity. I loved the novel’s premise of the holiday that goes wrong and the plot structure which shows the couples trying to sink back into normalcy but that happy state evades them. The relationships between the couples are well done and highlight the competitiveness through the dinners. The weakness for this reader resides in the way that it seems fairly obvious, through the process of elmination, who the killer is. The plot breadcrumbs to the solution were so obvious that I knew it couldn’t be that simple and guessed the identity of the killer fairly early on.
Luck and lies then, that’s about the size of it. The other thing, the ‘why’, well that’s not really for me to say, is it? Anyway, I’m not sure I could put it into words that made sense and how could anybody? Whatever it is that makes your blood race and puts your hands where you know they really shouldn’t be.
The thing that opens the cage.
Here’s Cleo’s review.
Filed under Fiction
Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig
Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,” has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.
You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life.
The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:
But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.
Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”
Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….
This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs. Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.
Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.
Translated by Anthea Bell
Filed under Zweig Stefan
Siracusa: Delia Ephron
“An eight-day vacation-how could that hurt”
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for tales about people on holiday, and that explains why I was drawn to Delia Ephron’s novel, Siracusa. This is a tale of two married couples who decide to spend a holiday together in Siracusa, Sicily. Both of the marriages under scrutiny here are pathologically troubled, and yet on the surface, everyone functions within those troubled relationships. But more of that later…
New Yorker Michael is a Pulitzer prize-winning play writer who’s stymied with his novel (featuring his alter ego and heavily influenced by The Red and the Black). He’s cheating on his wife, journalist Lizzie, who in the internet age, can’t quite seem to find her niche. Years earlier, Lizzie had a fling with Finn, who is now a restaurateur in Maine and married to Taylor, a beautiful blonde who heads the tourist bureau in their hometown. Finn and Taylor have a 10 year-old daughter, Snow. They all met in London the year before and had a great time, and this year Lizzie plans a trip to Italy. First stop Rome and then on to Siracusa.
Siracusa is told through four different narrative voices–the only character we don’t hear from is Snow ( a wise choice by Ephron). Snow, according to Taylor, suffers from Extreme Shyness Syndrome. Well I suppose that’s one way of putting it. In reality, the child is disturbed, extremely manipulative and communicates, sometimes in “clucks,” with Taylor acting as both Snow’s conduit to the world and as her mostly intuitive interpreter for the rest of the company. According to Finn, Taylor, “doesn’t have a clue where she ends and the kid begins.”
While the two marriages here are pathological, I’d say that Taylor’s relationship with Snow trumps the lot. Taylor (think Blonde American Princess), who already has a superiority complex, and thinks that she’s married beneath her, sees her daughter as perfect. Snow is an accessory to Taylor’s beauty and perceived pedigree, but since Snow and Taylor sleep together, the child also acts as a wedge between Taylor and Finn. Not that Finn really ‘gets’ it. This is a man who takes life lightly; he smokes secretly (breaking his promise to Taylor) and is busy contemplating an affair of his own.
Ephron does an excellent job of showing just how dysfunctional marriages still manage to function. The dynamic between Finn, Taylor and Snow is appalling, yet everyone acts as though their interactions are normal–as if Taylor’s relationship with Snow isn’t pathological. Taylor orders food for Snow, speaks for her, voices her opinions, and even tells Snow how to react emotionally to her father’s laughter. Taylor may think she’s helping her daughter but in reality, she’s enabling Snow’s behaviour.
Taylor, wrapped up in her daughter, never letting her out of sight, admires Michael as a great writer, and Snow… well Snow develops a crush on Michael. Egomaniac Michael, sensing Snow’s worship begins paying her attention. In the meantime, Taylor thinks the whole holiday has been organized by Lizzie so that she can get her hooks into Finn. As for Finn, he sees something that puts him in a moral quandary, and Lizzie is so busy trying to get Michael’s attention, she doesn’t see some warning signs.
Although you never know in a marriage who is responsible for what, do you? Husbands and wives collaborate, hiding even from themselves who is calling the shots and who is along for the ride.
Given the festering nature of these two marriages, and that these people decide to holiday together in order not to be alone with their respective spouses, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the holiday goes horribly wrong, and that some of the characters find themselves in therapy afterwards. Ephron’s tale, however, is not as predictable as it might seem to be. …
Some authors can never seem to pull off creating different voices, but there are four very convincing separate voices in this tale. Through the different narratives, Ephron shows us how these two sets of spouses don’t really know each other at all. The fussy, perky slightly neurotic voice of Taylor is convincingly annoying.
Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, it’s importance, is overrated, and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.
And in contrast here’s Finn:
I felt like something dirty she’d forgotten to wash off. Tay threw herself into packing. I watched that sick enterprise–the compulsively neat way she folded things. One uneven crease and she begins again.
I had fun reading this. About the first half of the book is spent in the build up to Siracusa, and on one night there’s a seemingly innocent conversation that takes place around the dining table when the adults all answer the hypothetical question whether or not they’d “give an alibi to someone you loved for a crime they committed.” An all-important moment as it turns out…
I don’t know if I was supposed to find the novel funny. Perhaps that’s a question for the author, but for this reader, the novel was nastily funny (I laughed in quite a few places as the situation devolved). Aside from Lizzie, all of the other characters are appalling people, so if you want to read about likeable people, then this book is not for you. Delia Ephron has a disturbingly canny eye when it comes to dissecting the complicated politics of marriage. Taylor, for example, is insufferable but rather than confront her, Finn refuses to take things seriously and makes everything a joke. Taylor is constantly referencing her divorced mother, and Finn gets his digs in with comments such as Taylor’s dad “escaped.” Then there’s the entire Snow Situation… this child gets so much attention and yet still manages to slip under the parental radar. When bad things happen, in “Siracusa. Where everything went in the shitter,“ we know these characters brought this all upon themselves.
Filed under Ephron Delia, Fiction
The Sin-Eater: Alice Thomas Ellis
“In Llanelys the size of the dogs was in inverse proportion to the social status of their owners, except for poodles of course-the hairdresser and the barmaid from The Goat each had one of these. The doctor’s wife had two miniature dachshunds like unwrapped toffees and the solicitor kept a Jack Russell terrier, while the parvenus kept alsatians and labradors and enormous Afghan hounds.”
The Captain, the patriarch of a wealthy Welsh family is dying, and that brings various family members back to the ancestral estate at Llanelys. There’s daughter, Ermyn whose “future was shadowy and obstacle-ridden,” and son Michael as well as his wife, Angela. They gather at the family home with the other resident son, Henry and his Irish-catholic wife, Rose ostensibly to say goodbye to the Captain but also to celebrate the annual cricket match, locals vs. visitors.
In the days just after the war when the Captain had given the Elysian field to the village in a fit of grateful generosity and instituted the annual match against the visitors, Llanelys had still been smart. Racy cotton-brokers and sober merchants had brought their families for the summer. Academics in shorts had made it their base for hiking, and among the Captain’s opponents had been a few as well-born as himself. But, gradually at first, and then with alarming speed, the people had taken over Llanelys and made it their own. Uncouth accents echoed on the wide sea shore, and the sand, ridged like buckled linoleum, felt the naked tread of inferior feet. The Grand Hotel had struggled to accommodate itself to the new demands, added an American bar, offered bingo evenings, but had finally gone under and was now merely a collection of holiday flatlets.
The annual cricket match, the culmination of the novel, has become a bit of a thorn in the family’s side. Tradition must be upheld, especially in light of the Captain’s imminent death and with Welsh Nationalism actively lurking in the background. This year, the cricket match is a debacle that sinks into an orgy of food, bad behaviour, and illicit sex while the house sheep, named Virginia Woolf, “because of the facial resemblance, which was very marked,” wanders the grounds feasting on Rose’s snapdragons while ruminating with seeming solemn intensity.
Author Alice Thomas Ellis often creates a character who is, to put it politely, ‘the cuckoo in the nest.’ A not-so-polite description would be a character who stirs up or draws trouble. In the trilogy, The Summer House, that character is the flamboyant, promiscuous, middle-aged, Lili. In The Sin-Eater, the trouble maker is the practically-minded Rose who manages Llanelys with a smooth, yet slightly disapproving touch. Whereas Lili disrupts life in Croydon, the wily Rose appears to sustain tradition and the established lifestyle with its out of control servants at Llanelys, but in reality, Rose is a subtle saboteur, whose roots were formed in a different class and a different religion.
The Captain, once upon a time, was an irascible force, but now he’s bedbound and given a ceremonial viewing by the family. The seven deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath reside in these characters. Michael and Angela spend the entire trip to Llanelys “quarreling covertly.”
Neither of them were given to open displays of anger. They came from the same background–conventional, incurious, outwardly pacific. But confined spaces and solitude didn’t suit them. Without other people and distraction they regressed and bickered in a sexless, pre-pubertal way.
Yet, Angela, locked in a sexless marriage, falls prey to unbridled, unseemly lust when houseguest, journalist Edward arrives, a man whose “wife tried to kill him a few months ago,” so he escapes to Llanelys, mostly to eat, whenever he can.
‘Does your wife write too?’ she [Angela] asked Edward, hoping to discover by this means the true state of his feelings about his marriage. She didn’t believe Rose’s version.
‘She used to,’ he said rather abruptly. He was unwilling to discuss his marriage in front of Rose since it made her laugh. For some reason he had married a small but powerful and foul-tempered Scot with pretty, vicious features, a great mass of hair and a tendency to give way to intermittent fits of drunken violence. Her life, she was wont to tell him, was centred in her children, of whom there were three, and she didn’t give a damn for anyone else-not anyone, d’ye hear.
‘Did she write for a daily paper?’ needled Angela.
‘For a while.’ said Edward. ‘Did it take you long to get here? The roads were …’
It was too late. ‘She was a cub reporter,’ said Rose joyously. ‘She told me so. A little glossy, fluffy, sweet little cub reporter–till she turned rabid.’
‘She’s very highly strung,’ said Edward, ‘but they’ve just started her on a new pill. They’re very hopeful.’
Angela spoke to him for a while about the strides made by medicine in the field of nervous illness.
Henry looked unusually sombre.
As in The Birds of the Air, the story centres on a supposedly circumspect family gathering which gradually devolves into chaos. Not a great deal happens in this novel–there’s a country party for the local toffs and a cricket match, but the delight here is found in the interactions of the characters who mostly behave very badly indeed while pretending otherwise.
The two main characters–women on opposite sides of the attitude and stability equation–are the very capable Rose, a woman who gets what she wants, and Ermyn, a woman who has no idea what she wants. The daughter of the house, Ermyn, who always feels slightly out of sync with society in general, realizes that “there was something wrong with the world,” watches and draws conclusions. Even though she isn’t Catholic, she daydreams about being a nun, with the “church as a last resort,” and decides to read the bible. It’s through the unworldly Ermyn’s strange disconnected train of thought that we realize how peculiar she is.
Ermyn’s religious yearnings were the result not so much of an urge towards virtue as a fear of evil and unkindness. The Church seemed to her a very good and powerful thing, combining as it did the qualities of rocks and lambs-and kings she thought confusedly, and fish…
While Ermyn’s opinions are confused, fuzzy and rarely spoken, Rose’s opinions are sharp, tart, well-formed, and range from the Catholic church (“the Church has lost its head,”) to Freud (“psycho-analysis is Freudulent conversation,”), a do-gooder who works for the release of prisoners (“the only sins people are able to forgive are those committed against themselves,”) adultery (“a filthy habit […] like using someone else’s toothbrush,”) and even the English:
‘The English don’t have passions,’ said Rose. ‘They have tastes: for porcelain and flagellation, and Georgian porticos–things like that.
As with all Alice Thomas Ellis novels, this is delicate, lace gossamer, conversations loaded with innuendo about sins and sinners from characters whose behaviour is frequently suspect and very slyly funny.
Filed under Ellis, Alice Thomas, Fiction
The Past: Tessa Hadley
“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”
I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.
The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.
Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.
Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.
Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”
The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.
It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.
-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.
-Sort of used to her.
-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.
-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.
-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.
Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?
At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:
When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.
While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:
Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.
As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces – which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.
New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.
Filed under Fiction, Hadley Tessa
Mr Lynch’s Holiday: Catherine O’Flynn
Given my interest in books that send characters off on holiday, it was easy for me to pick up and read Catherine O’Flynn’s Mr Lynch’s Holiday. The title encapsulates the action perfectly, and yet it also gives the impression of a very light beach read, but there’s a lot more going on in these pages than the title implies. While most of the action concerns a group of ex-pats, post boom, who’ve committed financial suicide by electing to pursue a fantasy of life in Spain, this is essentially a story about compromise and how we make the best of what we have.
Dermot Lynch, a 76-year-old retired bus driver, hails from Birmingham but was originally from Ireland. Now widowed, he arrives in Spain for a fortnight to visit his son, Eamonn, who decided, along with his long-term girlfriend, Laura, to abandon the UK and telecommute from Spain. And why not? Property values were soaring, and there was a sense of everyone stepping into a new exulted societal status, so it seemed easy for Eamonn and Laura to take the plunge and move to Spain.
Their original plan had been for one of the big cities–Barcelona or Madrid or Bilbao. They had no interest in joining the hordes of expats clustered along the Costas in vast apartment complexes and chintzy hillside developments. Eamonn saw the majority of British settlers in Spain as an amorphous mass of Daily Express readers riddled with hypocrisy: railing against benefit cheats at home while happy to avoid Spanish tax; indignant at immigration levels in the UK but oblivious to their own immigrant status. These were people for whom Spain’s greatest cultural achievement was its tireless dedication to polished floors and gleaming kitchen worktops.
Things didn’t go as planned:
They spent a depressing two weeks in Barcelona, looking at a succession of tiny apartments with increasingly inventive layouts. Mildewed shower cubicles in the corner of bedrooms, toilets on balconies, a mezzanine bed platform suspended above the kitchen, and everywhere perky Ikea accents to mask the squalor.
When dreams or elaborate plans don’t pan out, many people have a way of hammering their dreams to fit reality–ignoring the clear warning signs that the dream is impossible and should be abandoned. And that’s exactly what happens here; Eamonn and Laura can’t afford Madrid or Barcelona and so instead buy one of the completed homes in a new, remote housing development:
The houses and apartments were described as minimalist cube structures with a nod to the principles and aesthetics of Bauhaus. Lomaverde claimed to offer all of the style and sophistication of city living but without the bureaucratic wranglings and complexity. Where Barcelona had been difficult and impenetrable, Lomaverde was easy and welcoming.
So here we are years later; Lomaverde is an unfinished ghost estate inhabited by a group of stubborn ex-pats who either won’t give up or who now cannot afford to return home. The community pool is empty and cracked, the post isn’t delivered regularly, and a road leading out of the estate ends suddenly, unfinished, dropping off into the harsh landscape. Eamonn and Laura both lost their jobs and Laura has returned to the UK.
Visiting the deeply depressed Eamonn becomes a rescue mission for his father, and perhaps not too surprisingly, Dermot mingles well with the other ex-pats on the estate even though his son has withdrawn from everyone’s society and is wallowing in self-pity. Dermot is a great character, and as the plot continues we see glimpses of a young Dermot arriving in Birmingham, his history and some of his disappointments in life. The most balanced, socially conscious character in the book is Inga, a divorcee from Sweden who is strangely happy that Lomaverde failed:
“I came here expecting the same as everyone else. A new community, a fresh start in this beautiful place.” She lit another cigarette. “My marriage was over. Thirty years of trying to turn a blind eye, of thinking my husband would change. That felt like a mistake, a terrible waste of time. I thought I could come here and lose myself in a new place.
But imagine somewhere in which everyone is like that. So intent on happiness, on living a fairytale. They have not emigrated from places with no work and no money to a place with jobs and opportunities. No, they have left comfortable lives in search of somewhere even better. It’s a kind of greed, don’t you think. And if you’d have said that to me two years ago, I’d have said. ‘So what? why not be greedy for happiness? what’s wrong with that?’ “
Eamonn was always closer to his mother and dismissive of his father. With Dermot’s visit, he now learns things he never knew about. While I enjoyed Mr Lynch’s Holiday and I wouldn’t hesitate to read another book from this author, it does have IMO, two flaws: 1) the character of Eamonn is too weak. He’s so weak that he’s a complete disaster–from the inappropriate things he says to one of his internet ESL students to his drunken gropings of a fellow resident. No wonder Laura ran for the hills. 2) The ending regarding Eamonn is sewn up too ‘nicely’ and while Dermot’s decision makes sense, what happens with Eamonn is supposed to be a happy ending but in reality just opens the doors to more disaster.
Author Catherine O’Flynn is very generous and well-disposed towards her characters, so consequently there are no villains here. While one of the British ex-pats is an ethnocentric bore, most of the other people are just trying to take a day at a time and make the best of things in this bad situation.
There’s one great scene when the residents hold a homeowners’ meeting, and its formality is in direct inverse proportion to the chaos of the estate. One very poignant, very realistic scene focuses on grandparents who watch their grandchildren back in the UK via Skype. These sessions conclude with either the grandparents falling asleep or the grandchildren wandering off, forgetting that they have a live audience. The grandparents moved to Spain telling themselves that their grandchildren would be able to visit and have free accommodation, but with the children’s father unemployed, those planned holidays never come to fruition, and since Lomaverde is riddled with places up for sale (at savagely reduced prices), the grandparents are stuck and cannot return to the UK.
I closed the book, a gentle pleasant read, and contrasted it to Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye which is set in an estate with residents who’ve fled the city for a variety of reasons. Garnier, in his trademark way, is pitiless with his bourgeois characters who mostly live in a state of constant paranoia and fear that outsiders might break in. In Mr Lynch’s Holiday, the same theme occurs, but it’s handled in a gentler, much more generous way that’s slightly unbelievable, but that attitude may depend on how you see basic human nature.
Filed under Fiction, O'Flynn Catherine
Nate in Venice by Richard Russo
In the novella Nate in Venice, former English professor Nate, now in his 60s, is persuaded to take a tour of Italy by his semi-estranged brother Julian. First stop Venice where he joins the Biennale tour group “most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts.” We know, almost immediately, that something has gone wrong in Nate’s life when we learn that he worries “his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude.” If the tour is supposed to help with Nate’s depression, it’s not working. The tour group members are a sorry lot, and “a few appear fit enough, but others strike him as medical emergencies waiting to happen.” One couple is “extremely elderly” and very fragile while others have to stop and rest every few feet and appear to be “heart-attack candidates.” But things begin to look promising when Nate spies another member of the tour, Rene, an attractive older woman who has an air of fragility and anxiety. Interesting that Nate’s drawn to a woman who’s so obviously damaged while he overlooks the much more confident Evelyn:
The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but work up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier.
Nate, a lifelong bachelor, isn’t smooth with women, so it’s not too surprising that Nate’s older brother, salesman Julian swoops in and takes over Rene. This move, probably inspired by deeply-rooted sibling rivalry, is a repeat of history as far as these two brothers are concerned. While Julian’s invitation to Nate seems both unusual and unexpected, the minute the two brothers meet at the airport, all their troubled history floats to the surface:
Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years, and he already wanted to strangle the man.
There are many clues about trouble in Nate’s recent past along with hints that there’s some disgrace connected to his retirement. Accompanying this is Nate’s fundamental fear and preoccupying thought that he took the wrong path in life and that he should never have been a professor in the first place.
Say this for Julian, a career salesman: he’s lived the life he meant to live. He’s sold cars, time shares, stocks, television advertising. Indeed, people are always impressed by the wide range of things Julian has sold, but as he always explains, selling is selling. It’s all about knowing people better than they know themselves. Figure out who they are and that they really want and they’re yours. Julian always makes a fist when he says this, as if inviting people to imagine themselves in his grasp. Knowledge is power, he maintains (though apparently not the kind of knowledge that leads one to a Ph.D. in English). Julian claims his head is full of the kind of algorithms Google would pay millions for. In Nate’s opinion, it isn’t just algorithms Julian’s full of. And he disagrees that his brother can sell anything. He’s known Julian a long time, and he’s only ever sold one thing: Julian.
Nate is a self-confessed “career bachelor,” but he’s happy to admit that “his true love has always been Jane Austen.” There’s a back story on both of those admissions, and that back story leaks out gradually over the course of the novella as the scandal concerning Nate’s career emerges.
This novella, one of those kindle singles, is a story of life’s disappointments, and it offers a Richard Russo short read in about 90 minutes. While it’s not as satisfying as his novels, Nate in Venice offers a sample of the author’s style. Some sharp observations of academic life emerge in these pages, but this is not Straight Man— one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Nate is a bit of a depressive hence the medication he takes, and while many of us would consider Nate’s life successful, he still isn’t convinced that he took the correct career path, and it’s as though his decision to stick with academia somehow left part of Nate behind. It’s of those the road-not-taken scenarios. Most of us don’t end up with the sort of life we imagined in our youth, but in Nate’s case, there’s an emptiness and a general lack of involvement as he failed to engage in his own choices.
As a main character, Nate is problematic: mired in depression, he’s not very appealing, and then there’s his almost complete disengagement from his own life–until the one moment he reached out…. The ending seemed a little too arranged–although at the same time, questions about Julian remain unresolved.
Filed under Fiction, Russo, Richard
Us by David Nicholls
Regular readers of this blog are aware of my fascination with books set against the backdrop of holidays. There are, of course, reasons for this. People cast adrift from their usual surroundings will sometimes test the boundaries of their behaviour–in other words, they behave in ways they wouldn’t at home, and that can make for an interesting story. But there’s another facet to holiday books I enjoy–if you send a family with problems away on holiday together, chances are the pressures of a confined space and 24/7 intimacy will make the cracks in the family relationships blow wide open, and this is the scenario in the engaging novel Us from British author David Nicholls.
Douglas Petersen and his wife Connie have been married for almost 3 decades when she announces, without warning, that the “marriage has run its course” and that she “think[s] she wants to leave him.” 54-year-old Douglas, the narrator of the novel, is stunned at the news. He’d thought that the marriage was happy, but with their only son, Albie, about to leave for a three-year photography course, Connie argues that their son is the reason why they’re together.
“I try to imagine it, us alone here every evening without Albie. Because he’s maddening, I know, but he’s the reason why we’re here, still together…”
Was he the reason? The only reason?
“…and I’m terrified by the idea of him leaving home, Douglas.
I’m terrified by the thought of that … hole.”
What was the hole? Was I the hole?
“Why should there be a hole? There won’t be a hole.”
“Just the two of us, rattling around in this house …”
“We won’t rattle around! We’ll do things. We’ll be busy, we’ll work, we’ll do things together–we’ll, we’ll fill the hole.”
“I need a new start, some kind of change of scene.”
“You want to move house? We’ll move house.”
“It’s not about the house. It’s the idea of you and me in each other’s pockets forever more. It’s like … a Beckett play.”
I’d not seen a Beckett play, but presumed this was a bad thing. “Is it really so … horrific to you, Connie, the thought of you and I being alone together? because I thought we had a good marriage…”
I loved that quote because it reveals so much about the marriage and the dynamics between Connie and Douglas. He’s the product of a very reserved conservative, undemonstrative home, while Connie grew up in a large noisy, supportive family. These two people are completely unalike, but their marriage worked–at least for a while, but there’s always been the sense–agreed upon by both spouses–that Douglas was ‘lucky’ to get someone like Connie. The quote also reveals that Connie is the power figure in the marriage; she calls the shots and Douglas scrambles to catch up. Not only has she declared that she thinks she wants to end the marriage, but she fully expects Douglas to participate, without any awkwardness and no demands, in the last family holiday before Albie leaves home. Given Albie’s interest in Art (Connie is a failed painter and now works in a museum), Connie has organized what she calls the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour to “prepare” Albie “for the adult world, like in the eighteenth century.” This month-long holiday includes stops in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Padua, Verona, Florence and Rome.
Douglas’s first reaction to the news that Connie wants a separation is to cancel the holiday which he predicts will be like a “funeral cortege” with the imminent separation “hanging over” the marriage. Connie argues that it will “be fun,” and that Douglas should not be “melodramatic.” Albie isn’t thrilled by the holiday either and argues that “if it’s meant to be a great rite of passage and you’re both there, doesn’t that sort of defeat the object?”
Of course there were further sleepless nights, further tears and accusations in the lead-up to the trip, but I had no time for a nervous breakdown. Also, Albie was completing his ‘studies’ in art and photography, returning exhausted from screen-painting or glazing a jug, and so we were discreet, walking our dog, an ageing, flatulent Labrador called Mr Jones, some distance away from the house and hissing over his head in fields.
Common sense should tell these people to cancel the trip, but as you probably guessed, the Holiday from Hell begins…
The story goes back and forth in time with scenes of this miserable holiday contrasted with the history of Connie and Douglas’s life together. We see how Douglas, a shy man, almost 30 and a responsible scientist with no social life met Connie through Douglas’s wild and uninhibited sister, Karen. The fact that Karen (“Love was Karen’s alibi for all kinds of aggravating behaviour,“) can’t cook doesn’t stop her from throwing parties which include vile tuna casseroles, and it’s at one of these parties that Douglas meets Connie. We could say that Connie, who’s had a series of unreliable boyfriends in her checkered, exotic past, is out of Douglas’s league. She’s outgoing, drinks like a fish, and is ready to sample all the drugs passed her way–unlike Douglas who has no interest in drugs whatsoever. Douglas is a dud at parties and Karen says that “he had skipped youth and leapt straight into middle age.” The scenes at the party, when somehow Douglas finds himself competing for Connie against an aggressive hairy, circus performer are hilarious.
Jake, the trapeze artist was a man who stared death in the face, while most nights I stared television in the face. And this wasn’t just any circus, it was punk circus, part of the new wave of circus, where chainsaws were juggled and oil drums were set on fire then beaten incessantly. Circus was now sexy; dancing elephants had been replaced by nude contortionists, ultra violence and explained Jake, ‘a kind of anarchic, post-apocalyptic Mad Max aesthetic.’
As the story continues and Douglas relates the history of his marriage and the crises he and Connie faced, we also see how Douglas tries to keep up the pretense of a happy holiday amidst his laminated itineraries and Connie setting the rules about intimacy.
I loved this novel. Nicholls captured the dynamics of a dying marriage–a marriage which met the needs of one spouse while another felt stymied and bored. Nicholls also nails the subtle idea that one person in a family can so often be the low man on the totem pole, and, of course in this case, it’s Douglas. Many scenes underscore the intimacy between Connie and Albie which leave Douglas as an outsider (“Connie took to twisting her finger in the hair at the nape of his neck. They do this, Connie and Albie, grooming each other like primates“), and while Douglas is a conservative individual who lacks an ounce of spontaneity, this is how he was brought up. There’s another scene at a restaurant in which Albie and Connie shut Douglas out entirely and he becomes the butt of some rather malicious humour.
Due to its well-drawn characters who exist on opposite planes of values, Us may be the sort of novel to polarize readers. I had no sympathy for Connie and thought her a remarkably selfish human being who makes the dramatic announcement that the marriage is over and then expects Douglas to play Happy Families for four weeks for the course of an expensive holiday. Readers may also have a range of reactions to Albie’s behaviour. Douglas has moments of authoritarian fantasies, but there’s never any doubt that Connie is the one firmly in charge of the marriage, and one parent can afford to be lax as long as there’s someone else on the scene who tries to enforce some sort of reasonable behaviour. Nicholls also shows how we marry people knowing what they are, with no illusions, and then we rail at those very characteristics –at one point we learn, for example, that Connie makes snarky comments about Douglas reading nonfiction–“fascism-on-the-march” books as she calls them and not fiction which is her choice. The very characteristics that drew Connie to Douglas–stability, reliability, and security, are elements that Connie then rails against in her 50s.
My sympathy was with Douglas all the way, and for me both Connie and Albie behave atrociously (Albie insists on taking his guitar on holiday and guess who gets to carry it around). The disastrous Holiday from Hell does have its good points as it becomes the impetus for self-realization for Douglas. Us is a brilliantly clever, witty, insightful examination of power dynamics in a marriage and in a family, but even beyond that Nicholls questions the attributes valued by our society–a society in which experience and risk-taking are valued over restraint. At one point, I was very concerned that Nicholls was leading me down the PC path to cliché, but I was spared… . Us, incidentally, made the longlist for the 2014 Booker prize, and this goes to prove once again, how I prefer the Booker Losers.
Incidentally, I’ve read a few articles recently that delved into the issue of post-50 divorces. One article stated that since the 90s, the divorce rate for people over 50 and older has doubled. I initially thought, to be honest, that that was a little weird. After all, haven’t people worked out their differences by then? I asked a divorce lawyer I know if she was seeing more post-50 divorces and she replied, ‘yes, absolutely.’ I asked why this is on the rise and she said that, in her experience, she’s seeing people who don’t want to live in retirement with the current spouse. She said she has female clients who come home and see the husband sitting on the couch watching TV and they say “I can’t take 20 years more of this.”
Filed under Fiction, Nicholls David
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