Tag Archives: metafiction

The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

the-eskimo-solutiom

Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal

The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe

“Let me give you a warning about my family,” he said eventually, “in case you hadn’t worked it out already. They’re the meanest. greediest, cruelest bunch of back-stabbing bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth. And I include my own offspring in that statement.”

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jonathan Coe novels: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58. While I liked both books, neither of them hit me as ‘best-of-year’ reads, but that all changes with the novel The Winshaw Legacy which has to be one of the cleverest, most unusual books I’ve read in some time. The Winshaw Legacy was a group read suggested by Séamus (Vapour Trails) with fellow participants Jacqui (Jacquiwine’s Journal),  and Kim (Reading Matters), and just in  case you are wondering if we read the same book, the UK title is What a Carve Up. How on earth do these two titles connect? What a Carve Up is a very real film watched as a child by Coe’s central character and sometime narrator, Michael Owen. It’s a film which has a profound impact on Michael’s life, and if you’ve seen it (I have a copy) you know that it’s a weak version of the Carry-On films and features those ever-popular Carry On team actors and characters who appear, briefly, in the book: Sid James and Kenneth Connor.

The premise of the film What a Carve Up concerns the reading of a will in ghastly, remote country mansion, and as the relatives gather and stay overnight, they are gradually murdered. What a Carve Up haunts Michael for inexplicable reasons and his obsession with the hints of sex in the film don’t seem to adequately explain his profoundly disturbing inability to move on from a scene involving Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor.

winshaw legacyThe Winshaw Legacy is a complex novel and a great deal of the central mystery of the book focuses on the revolting Winshaw family–a horrible lot of grasping self-styled aristos whose sycophantic links to the rise and reign of Margaret Thatcher reflect the worst of British society of the 70s and 80s, and it’s here we get into the novel’s complexities. The title What a Carve Up could refer to the carve up of the British socialist state: the demise of the Labour Party and the rise of Conservatives. Or perhaps it refers to our hapless hero, Michael’s obsession with the film he saw as a child. But then again What a Carve up could refer to some of the strange life-mirrors-art antics that occurred inside Winshaw Towers in 1961–a night that ended in the death of one man and the re-institution of Tabitha Winshaw, declared insane, but who may very well be the only sane member of the Winshaw family.

There are three essential mysteries at the heart of this novel:

  • Is there any truth in Tabitha (known as Mad Tab) Winshaw’s accusation that her brother Lawrence is to blame for the death of Godfrey Winshaw, a pilot shot down over Germany during WWII?
  • What really happened in 1961 when a burglar broke into Winshaw Towers and was killed by Lawrence?
  • What is Michael Owen’s role in all this? And why has he been paid a ridiculous amount of money by a vanity press to write a history of the Winshaw family?

The Winshaws have their dirty fingers in every pie during the sprawling period covered by the Great Carve Up: banking, arms dealing, privatization of the NHS, politics, pension plundering and even factory farming; they leave no avenue of possible wealth and asset stripping unmined:

When the Conservative government announced that they were abolishing free eye tests on the NHS in April 1988, Thomas phoned his brother Henry to tell him that they were making a big mistake: there would be a public outcry. Henry told him that he was over-reacting. There would be a whimper of protest from the usual quarters, he said, and then it would all quietly die down.

‘And I was right, wasn’t I?’

‘I should have bowed down to you political judgement, as always.’

‘Well, it’s quite simple really.’ Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon in early October 1989, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club’s private rooms. ‘The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There’s no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public have had a chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than … a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at a time.

So while What a Carve Up is an appropriate title for the book, The Winshaw Legacy is equally appropriate. This is a book that is impossible to narrow down to just a few sentences. On one hand it’s the story of a writer who struggles with unknown and unrecognized demons and whose life is influenced by factors he’s unaware of, but it’s also about the Carve Up of Britain, the rise of Thatcher, the links between bankers (which Coe reminds us rhymes with wankers), politicians, financiers, arms dealers, chemical weapons manufacturers and the Saddam Husseins of this world. This is an intense complex book which even manages to weave in the  execution of Farzad Bazoft. Here’s a private discussion between Henry and Thomas Winshaw:

‘I know Major hasn’t been in the job for long and we’re all a bit worried that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s playing at. But take it from me–he’s a good boy. He does what he’s told. He took a sip of tea. ‘And besides he might be moving again soon.’

‘What, already?’

‘It looks that way. Margaret and Nigel seem to be heading for a final bust-up. We suspect there’ll be a vacancy at number Eleven pretty soon.’

Thomas tucked this information away at the back of his mind for future reference. It had considerable implications, which he would need to contemplate and examine at his leisure.

‘Do you think they’ll hang him?” he asked suddenly.

Henry shrugged. ‘Well he was a rotten chancellor, it has to be said, but that would be a bit drastic.’

‘No, no not Lawson. I mean this journo character. Bazoft.’

‘Oh, him. I dare say they will, yes. That’s what happens if you’re silly enough to get caught snooping around Saddam’s arms factories, I suppose.’

‘Making trouble.’

‘Exactly.’ Henry stared into space for a moment. ‘I must say, there are one or two snoopers over here that I wouldn’t mind seeing strung up on Ludgate Hill, if it came to that.’

‘Nosey parkers.’

While the book is the history of one of Britain’s most horrible, most powerful families, it would be wrong to say that this is only a political novel; it’s not. It’s an extremely witty social satire with multiple story threads (which all connect by the novel’s conclusion) that include voyeurism, the nepotism of the art world, and the vagaries of vanity publishing. These threads unfold from the 40s through the 90s through various voices–including author Michael Owen, and the diaries of Henry Winshaw. But also mention must be made of the fantastic cast of characters: chocolate addicted, Shirley Eaton fixated, reclusive author Michael Owen who’d “gone a bit strange,” his childhood friend, the uncomplicated yet board-game aficionado Joan, sweet Fiona–yet another victim of the long grasping fingers of the Winshaws, artist/nurse Phoebe who learned the hard, humiliating way just how unscrupulous the Winshaws could be, and dapper, geriatric sex-obsessed detective Findlay Onyx.  Author Jonathan Coe also manages to bring in, repeatedly, the idea that fiction mirrors life. At a few salient points, Michael’s life takes on a surreal quality as he imagines himself in a film or on the other end of a screen.

It was as if cracks had started to appear in the screen and this awful reality was leaking out: or as if the glass barrier itself had magically turned to liquid and without knowing it I had slipped across the divide, like a dreaming Orpheus.

All my life I’d been trying to find my way to the other side of the screen: ever since my visit to the cinema in Weston-super-Mare. Did this mean that I’d made it at last?

Since Michael’s conscious life as a child awoke with a film which included the reading of a will at an old manor house, Coe’s metafictional story comes full circle when Michael finds himself reliving scenes from the film What a Carve Up. The scenes of the loathsome, exploitive Winshaws are shockingly brilliant, savagely funny and yet also sadly reflect a secret fictional history in which the Winshaws assume the identify of the monstrous powerbrokers who carved up the nation. Michael Owen is the stunned Everyman who must emerge from his reclusive state and confront a new corrupt reality.

For Jacqui’s review 

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Kehua! by Fay Weldon

In the extraordinary, funny metafictional novel, Kehua! British author Fay Weldon explores the lives of two sets of characters surrounded by supernatural elements that interrupt and accompany the non-linear narrative. An unnamed writer, obviously a fictional stand in for Fay Weldon, tries to complete her novel in the basement of her haunted house. She frequently interjects her own thoughts into the text even as she tries, with moderate success, to control her fictional characters who develop and evolve sometimes beyond her control. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t, and instead we see the way the writer’s fictional characters become their own beings, get “out of hand,” and capable of acts that “shock[s] even” the author who creates them. This fictional author doesn’t hesitate to demystify the writing process for her audience, and at one point states that “your couple of hours’ reading is my half-year’s work.” Indeed we readers get a sense of the difficulties of the writer’s life as her characters grow increasingly out of control, plot developments pop up like toadstools, and the author is interrupted by the various ghosts who haunt her Victorian mansion. The fictional author occasionally despairs at the way her plot meanders, and that she feels “less real [while] these characters get more real.” But then so much of Weldon’s personal life seeps through the pages, it’s no wonder Weldon’s fictional characters need a great deal of herding towards the desired plot developments.

Kehua!This is a tale of murder, adultery, incest, family, and the way the actions and decisions of one generation work upon those that follow. The latter, incidentally, is a favoured interest of Fay Weldon whose works concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon is a very inventive writer which sounds peculiar as fiction writers are supposed to be inventive since they are, after all, in the biz of imagination, creation and keeping us amused.

Now to the plot …

And this is how the novel begins, and this quote, is, I think, the essence of Weldon, for who else (certainly not Wordsworth) would connect “a host of golden daffodils” with a “life lesson” in rampant male sexuality:

Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.

The family under examination consists of 4 generations of women–there’s matriarch Beverley, originally from New Zealand, a veritable Black Widow who’s been married 3 times to three very different men with each marriage representing a specific phase in Beverley’s life. Her first husband, who traded Beverley for political favours, was a Marxist “who disappeared on his way to join Che Guevara in the jungle,” the second killed himself following a “homosexual scandal,” and the third was a “right-wing journalist and notable drunk.” There was also an early childhood phase, spent in New Zealand, in which Beverley’s past was reinvented for her by the couple who cared for her.

Beverley’s daughter Alice, probably in some sort of fundamental knee-jerk response to her mother’s unconventionality, is very religious. Then there are Alice’s daughters Cynara and Scarlet whose birth names were very boring–Mary and Joan (no wonder they changed them), and Cynara’s precocious daughter, 16-year-old “wayward nymphet,” Lola. Lola left home after her mother threw out her husband, “declared herself a lesbian,”  and moved her S&M fixated lover, D’Dora, with her whips, handcuffs and chains, into the house. D’Dora is a member of LGS “a gay and lesbian subgroup whose members prefixed their given names with D for Dyke.” Lola, disgusted and rebellious, moves in with her aunt Scarlet temporarily while she supposedly waits for the paperwork necessary to travel to Haiti as an aid worker. Lola’s mother, Cynara tells Scarlet “for your sake pray she leaves the country soon.” Scarlet soon has reason to regret allowing Lola to move in, especially when Lola notes Scarlet’s abbreviated sex life with her husband, and with faux innocence comments: “it usually goes on only for about ten minutes, shouldn’t it be longer?” But then perhaps there’s no keeping Lola happy:

“When Mum did it with Dad, you could hardly hear when they had sex,” she goes on. “Now she’s with D’Dora there’s more noise. A lot of giggling and slapping and dressing up. I think perhaps it’s S&M. It can go on for hours. They never even think about my exams and how at my age I need sleep.”

The story opens with Scarlet at her grandmother, Beverley’s house. Scarlet is married to Louis, the owner of an eccentrically designed house, built in the 30s named Nopasaran. The house has become a point of division between Scarlet and Louis, and very possibly a good excuse for Scarlet to indulge in a torrid affair with not particularly bright, but good-looking television actor, Jackson, whose career is in the toilet, but who still has a legion of teen fans swooning over Jackson’s Vampire Rising films. Scarlet confides in her grandmother, and Beverley, who knows rather a lot about affairs has some advice:

Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.

Beverley knows what she’s talking about. She survived the jealousy-based murder-suicide of her parents back in New Zealand when she was three years old. But wait… . Was this murder-suicide or was it murder-murder? And just who was Beverley’s father after all? Was he the man married to Beverley’s mother or was Beverley fathered by the charismatic doctor who sneaked around making ‘house calls’? The question of fatherhood, and just who impregnated several female members of this eccentric family comes up more than once in this tale. So much so in fact that there’s a family myth which conveniently pops up from time-to-time involving a mystery man met while on holiday.

The men in Weldon’s novels are often seen as Attractive Nuisances, temporary fixtures that float in and out of the lives of the women, either leaving them pregnant and fending for themselves or else simply disappearing to greener pastures. They are seen primarily as mostly superfluous beings to the matriarchal structure–at  best trophies for the female characters who scheme against one another to either stir trouble (as Beverley does) or steal another woman’s male (as Lola tries to do). Ultimately, Weldon tells us that women survive and have the scars to prove it. As Beverley ruminates:

it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.

One of the remarkable things about the novels of Fay Weldon and one of the reasons she ranks as one of my all-time favourite modern British authors is that she has no sacred cows and simply isn’t afraid to take the piss out of everything, so there are references to Lady Gaga, Beryl Bainbridge, and we learn a little bit about Louis and his mother through a very funny reference to yet another author:

Louis’ mother is called Annabel: she is a lone parent with genteel aspirations and family money. See him as the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turn him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds. Perhaps he was already married and she didn’t wish to upset his wife.

I loved this quote–not only for its humorous dig at another novelist whose work is so different from Weldon’s but also because the quote shows how the author is in complete control of the narrative. Louis and his mother seem a little out-of-place in this Weldon novel, a little overwhelmed and shoved aside by the other characters who are made of far stronger stuff. Sensitive Louis, whose nickname is “poofter,” is a man who “became hysterical and threatened” suicide at the very mention of the slightest modernizing of his beloved house, Nopasaran. So Weldon’s explanation that Louis and his mother belong in a Brookner novel makes perfect sense.

While in Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, we see a woman who reinvents herself through plastic surgery, here the plot goes back and forth between the fictional writer in the basement and four generations of the McLean family–women who reinvent themselves through their marriages and relationships. Weldon’s females are by far the more interesting sex. They tend to be creative, and capable of making tremendous mistakes, especially in the male and sexual appetites departments, yet they transform themselves to fit life as it is offered to them until that moment when they decide to seize life and make it subordinate to their desires. As always, Weldon’s women are at their best if and when they can patch up relationships with their own sex and finally put that troublesome many-headed beast, Divide and Conquer in its grave.

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The Child’s Child by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

The remarkable Ruth Rendell at 82 is still writing, and here’s her latest, The Child’s Child, a book written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, which examines prejudices against homosexuality and illegitimacy. This metafiction story, a novel within a novel, begins with the narration by a 28 year-old PhD student, Grace, who is given a privately published manuscript by a friend who wants her to evaluate whether or not it’s worth publishing. The manuscript was written in the 1950s by an author who had published a respectable number of books, but hesitated to publish The Child’s Child for two reasons: its controversial themes (homosexuality which was still illegal at the time) and the fact that the story was based on real events which concerned individuals who were still alive. Now it’s 2011, the author of The Child’s Child is dead, and his son asks Grace to evaluate the novel and give her opinion. Since the book’s themes are illegitimacy and homosexuality, Grace agrees to take the book–after all her PhD thesis is on illegitimacy in English Literature.

the childs childGrace lives in a huge house in Hampstead which she and her gay 30-year-old brother, Andrew co-inherited from their grandmother. They were expected to “do the sensible thing, the practical thing: sell it and divide the proceeds.” But Grace and Andrew, who are very close, take the unexpected option and decide to live in Dinmont House  together, dividing up the rooms and sharing the kitchen. It’s a wonderful arrangement until Andrew brings home his lover, novelist James Derain, and it’s at this point that things begin to sour….

James has rather strong feelings about the unpublished book The Child’s Child. Although the names of the characters have been changed, the story concerns his “uncle or great uncle,” and one night a rather ugly and pointless argument erupts over who was treated worse by 19th century society:  women or homosexuals. Since Grace PhD’s thesis is concerned with illegitimacy, she argues: “if gay men killed themselves from fear of discovery, so did [pregnant] young women dreading disgrace.” Rendell is particularly good at creating toxic crucibles of personality, and that is true here. Tension builds in the house, but soon all of that is swept aside when events show that in some sectors of society, attitudes towards homosexuality are still hateful, archaic and a throw-back to the early 20th century.

At page 69 of my review copy, Grace finally picks up and starts reading the novel The Child’s Child. It’s the story beginning in 1929 of John, a young homosexual man who shields his sister, Maud, and her illegitimate baby from society at terrible cost to himself. John’s choices are to live a homosexual life in secret or to become celibate, and he tries both with tragic results. The story of the lengths John goes to in an attempt to protect himself and his sister offer a glimpse into an intolerant cruel world of 1920s-1950s Britain. Back in the present, James argues that historically, unmarried women need “only to put on a wedding ring and they’d be alright,” whereas homosexuals were “ostracized, attacked, killed.” John and Maud’s story shows that putting a wedding ring on a woman’s finger didn’t solve the social problems faced by a woman with an illegitimate child, and while in 2011  illegitimacy no longer carries a such a stigma, there are dark, violent recesses of society that still instill fear in the homosexual community. As a result Ruth Rendell’s novel, a call for tolerance and acceptance, shows that the placing of social stigmas for illegitimacy and the discrimination of homosexuality leaves people vulnerable to criminals–this was true in the 1920s Britain depicted in the novel and unfortunately it’s still true today.

Grace’s ruminations of the treatment of illegitimacy in 19th century British literature are a delight for anyone interested in the period. There are literary allusions galore of the novels of Trollope, Hardy, Gaskell, George Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and Wilkie Collins, so if you don’t have at least some familiarity with the plots of these novels, readers may be a bit lost for a few pages. On the other hand, lovers of Victorian literature will positively wallow at the mention of some of the great titles:

Ruth isn’t a slow read, it’s an almost compulsive read, and I raced through the early chapters. What struck me was that while those other novels are about other things as well, have subplots and  interwoven stories, Ruth is concerned entirely with seduction and illegitimacy. Hardy’s Tess has the courtship of Angel Clare and marriage to him; Wilkie Collins’s No Name and The Woman in White are much more involved with the legal aspects; Hetty Sorrell’s history is important but still subservient to Dinah’s work and religion and to the Bede family’s way of life. So here I was in Verity’s study learning exactly what it was really like to know one is pregnant by a faithless lover, to put on a wedding ring and call oneself “Mrs.,” yet ultimately deceiving no one. Every character in Ruth believes she has committed a terrible sin, even the sympathetic ones, the kindly ones who take her in and share what little they have with her, even they speak in hushed tones of her sin and her “crime.”

review copy

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Miss Peabody’s Inheritance by Elizabeth Jolley

Last year when I posted a list of The Best of 2011, Gummie from Whispering Gums mentioned that she hoped I’d have an Australian category included in the Best of 2012. This seemed a good idea, so I’ve made a point to read a few Aussie books this year. While Tirra Lirra by the River is still the best Australian novel I’ve read this year, a serious challenge to that title appeared as I read and laughed at Elizabeth Jolley’s novel, Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. I’ve read a couple of Jolley’s novels, and I considered them ok–nothing more, nothing less. Before Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself a fan, but that all changed with this extremely funny, subversive novel that’s really a novel within a novel for Miss Peabody’s Inheritance is a marvellous example of metafiction.

So here’s the premise:

Miss Dorothy Peabody is a lonely middle-aged spinster who works an office job in London and scurries home every night to take care of her demanding, bedridden mother who has the uncanny ability to know whether or not the downstairs furniture has been dusted. Nothing much ever happens in Miss Peabody’s dreary life, and a daring act for Miss Peabody is to get into the lift and squeeze between the males with “Je Reviens of Worth Paris dabbed on her wrists and behind her ears.” Miss Peabody has a secret yen for romance, and as a people watcher she notes the lurid office affair between the married Mr Bains and Miss Truscott, embellishing the affair with her imagination. There’s only one bright element to Miss Peabody’s life, and that is her amazing correspondence with the Australian  novelist, Diana Hopewell.

After reading Diana’s novel, Angels on Horseback, Miss Peabody writes a fan letter, and to her astonishment, Diana replies. Soon a lively correspondence begins between the two women. Miss Peabody sends details of her life, work and her dreams, and Diana writes about her horses and her beautiful ranch in Australia. Diana is also writing a new novel, and she includes the latest installments for Miss Peabody, and through the correspondence, Miss Peabody is drawn into Diana’s story of Pine Heights, an exclusive boarding school for girls….

In Diana’s installments, she introduces the world Pine Heights–a boarding school which is managed on a tight budget by the idiosyncratic headmistress, stout, middle-aged Miss Thorne (picture an Aussie Miss Fritton from St Trinian’s). Miss Thorne, also known as Prickles, is a strange blend of conformity and radicalism. A proponent of an annual school bra-burning ceremony, she has little time for men and every year she enjoys an annual holiday in Europe with her current companion, the nervous, clingy Miss Edgely, and Miss Thorne’s long-term friend Miss Snowdon, a matron of Queen’s Hospital.

Both Miss Snowdon and Miss Thorne have the same kind of figure; a portliness brought on by years of responsibility, plenty of money, comfortable accommodation and good meals. Both women have the education, the background and the capabilities required for their positions. neither of them care too deeply for other human beings and they are not dangerously touched or moved by the human predicament.

Miss Edgely shares some of the qualities but, by contrast, is small. She has no taste and far less money.

Miss Peabody receives, via her correspondence with Diana, installments of the novel, so the delightfully funny Miss Peabody’s Inheritance goes back and forth between Miss Peabody’s personal life (which grows increasingly out of control) and Miss Thorne’s fictional trip to Europe.  In these installments, Miss Thorne, Miss Snowdon and Miss Edgeley make their annual Mecca to “the wine houses at Grinzing,” but this time, Miss Thorne elects to take schoolgirl Gwendaline (Gwenda) Manners along. Gwenda’s widower father recently re-married a young Brazilian woman, and after bouncing a cheque for Gwenda’s tuition and board, he more or less disappeared. Miss Thorne argues that a trip to Europe is just what Gwenda needs and that it will give her “a little finishing,” but is Miss Thorne really motivated by altruism or lust? Miss Edgely “all but smashed the place up” in a jealous rage at Gwenda’s inclusion in their annual holiday, and as the trip continues via installments to Miss Peabody, a disaster unfolds with unexpected consequences.

Over the course of the holiday, we see how the formidable Miss Thorne organises her relationships so that she’s always in charge, always has the upper hand and always gets what she wants. Poor boring Miss Edgely:

Somewhere between Vienna and Paris Miss Edgely gets left behind in a station lavatory, the novelist’s letter starts straight in without any enquiries or remarks of a personal nature.

“D’you think I’ve got time?” Miss Edgely asks.

“Oh, rather! Edge of course you have, but don’t be all day.” Miss Thorne notices that the guards are slamming the doors of the Express. All around them are the noises of departure. She knows Miss Edgeley has not really time. Whistles blow and flags wave.

As Miss Peabody continues to receive letters from Diana which include fragments of the adventures of Miss Thorne, she begins to live for the arrival of the next letter, and as she burrows deep in the lives of Diana’s fictional characters, Miss Peabody begins to lose her grip on reality.

Miss Peabody’s evenings had become another world. A world of magic and enchantment. She lived for the evenings and for the time spent with the novelist’s letters and the composing of her own replies.

All the different things her mother asked for hardly mattered. The petulant voice calling down the narrow stairs could not remove the anticipation of her happiness.

Miss Peabody’s correspondence with Diana serves to broaden her horizons and it also brings several titillating issues to the fore. For example, partly inspired by Miss Snowdon’s paper, The Forgotten Placenta, Miss Thorne hopes to organise a lecture at the school for the edification of the “gels” as she calls them: Chasing the Orgasm: How When and Where. This makes rather shocking reading for the very sheltered Miss Peabody, and the correspondence between Diana and Miss Peabody ultimately has startling results.

Often with novels that have a clear division (in this case the division is between the life of Miss Peabody and the letters from Diana), there is a range of quality, and one strain becomes stronger than another. Not so with Miss Peabody’s Inheritance. In fact the two strands come together and mesh extraordinarily well. Miss Peabody’s Inheritance, is of course about loneliness, but it’s also about how little we human beings need to jettison our imaginations beyond our lowly, and often restrictive conditions.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Jolley Elizabeth

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright

“The novel as revenge is preposterous, but the idea won’t go away.”

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright was originally published in 1993 and is now a well-deserved re-release. Wright, also known as Austin McGiffert Wright (1922-2003), was a professor at the University of Cincinnati who wrote 7 novels and also a few books of non-fiction. I’d never heard of this author before, and it’s only due to the fact that Tony and Susan is being reissued now, that I  ‘discovered’ him. I decided to read the book for its very attractive and intriguing premise (more of that later), and while the novel is extremely entertaining, it’s also a marvellous example of metafiction. This makes the multi-layered plot more difficult to explain.

Susan Morrow, a married university teacher in her late 40s, unexpectedly receives a letter from her ex husband Edward. They’ve had no direct contact for over twenty years, and Susan knows little about Edward’s life except that he’s remarried to someone called Stephanie and now sells insurance. In the letter, Edward tells Susan that he’s written a book that he wants her to read as she’s always been his “best critic.” This seems an odd request that’s possibly loaded with meaning as Edward’s so-called writing career was a major problem in their brief marriage. Edward and Susan knew each other in childhood and reconnected by chance in college. Susan was studying English and Edward was in law school at the time, but shortly after their marriage, Edward dropped out to become a writer. His efforts were not successful, and since the topic was fraught with emotional minefields, Susan could not broach the subject. About two years into the marriage, Susan, now the sole wage earner, began to realise that there was a problem. At first Edward produced short poems about their sex life, but then he began to hide his work, and at one point even retreated to the woods in order to concentrate:

He talked of larger projects. He had been working on a novel but had not mentioned it because it was so unfinished. It was pretty long. She gathered it was autobiographical, with twelve hundred pages so far, and had brought young Eddie up to the age of twelve.

They grew apart with the abyss of Edward’s non-existent writing career spanning the distance. Susan wrote Edward off as “phony” and they divorced.

So now fast forward twenty years. Edward and Susan are both remarried. Susan is married to Arnold, an eminent cardiac surgeon and they have three children together. Edward’s unexpected request arrives as a blast from the past, and Susan finds the prospect of reading the manuscript both intriguing and disturbing. She wonders if he has a hidden agenda. Does he want to show her that she was, after all, wrong about him? Does he want to prove that he can write? All these thoughts make her recall her first marriage and she reluctantly re-evaluates the fictions she’s woven about Edward and Arnold:

There’s a gap in the saga of Susan’s official memory, almost a year between Edward’s return  from the woods and her marriage to Arnold. When she looks back, she finds the time blank. It could not have been totally without  event. There must have been daily drives to the college with snow scenes and slushy streets. Also grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking for Edward. And moods and arguments, movies, a friend or two. She remembers the apartment: dark walls, tiny kitchen, the bedroom with books on the floor and view of the alley.

The reason for the blockage is that the period was about to end with revolutionary change. Arnold would replace Edward with new laws, values, icons, everything. The new regime rewrites history to protect itself, burying Edward’s time like the Dark Ages. It takes Edward’s return to remind contemporary Susan of what is hidden and challenge her to rewrite the old saga through imaginative archaeology.  

As it turns out, Edward’s novel, a dark thriller, which appears in its entirety here, is a remarkable pageturner. It’s not at all what Susan expected from her ex-husband. The novel is called Nocturnal Animals, and it’s a story that penetrates into the unexpressed fears of any spouse, any parent. In Nocturnal Animals, mathematics professor, Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter, Helen decide to drive through the night to their holiday home in Maine, but the trip is derailed by three psychotics.

As Susan reads Nocturnal Animals and then occasionally puts the book down, Tony and Susan goes back and forth between Edward’s novel and Susan’s personal life. With Arnold off attending yet another conference, Susan uses the novel as a much-needed distraction from some unpleasant things that she’d rather ignore in her troubled marriage. But Edward’s novel is more than a mere distraction, and while Nocturnal Animals certainly does entertain, it also disturbs Susan. She wonders what sort of a man Edward has become, and then there’s the uncomfortable feeling that some aspects of her old life with Edward have crept into his novel.

Tony and Susan  is a splendid, clever multi-layered novel, a perfect example of metafiction. On one level, we get the gripping story of Tony and how one man faces his fears and inadequacies, and then we have Susan’s reaction as a reader to the tale. She’s pleased with parts of it, disappointed at others, but enthralled with the characters who are sufficiently diverting that she is able to shelve her problems, temporarily at least: 

Well, she was a reader. If Edward couldn’t live without writing, she couldn’t live without reading. And without me, Edward, she says, you’d have no reason to exist. He was a transmitter, spending his resources, she was a receptor who became richer the more she received. Her way with the chaos in her mind was to cultivate it through the articulations of others, by which she meant the reading of a lifetime with whose aid she had created the interesting architecture and geography of herself. She had constructed over the years a rich and civilized country, full of history and culture with views and vistas she’d never dreamed of in the days when Edward wanted to make his visions known.

Some reviews of the novel state that while Nocturnal Animals is a gripping tale, by comparison the bits we see of Susan’s life are boring. Nocturnal Animals is a crime novel set within a contemplative domestic scene, so the pace of these two stories are entirely different.  There’s a stark contrast in tone when Susan puts down Nocturnal Animals, picks up various domestic tasks and begins to mull over her personal life. I did not find these sections boring, but while Nocturnal Animals comes to a conclusion, Susan’s life and the dilemma she faces is not neatly sew up with a tight, discrete ending. Instead Susan’s life must continue after the novel she reads concludes.

Tony and Susan is a rich novel which tackles many thematic issues within Susan’s relationship with Tony, Arnold and Edward. While exploring the subjects of family, marriage, and divorce, Wright shows that what we want, what is important, shifts with age. Through Susan’s readership of Edward’s manuscript there’s the idea of a parallel universe at play. Susan finds herself asking if she did the right thing in divorcing Edward and marrying Arnold–not that she still has feelings for Edward at this stage, but in changing husbands, did she simply swap one set of problems for another. Is Edward, on some level, for example, a more sensitive human being than Arnold?

But twenty years of marriage (no idyll, to be sure) allow Susan to wonder with an open mind what sticking to Edward would have been like. If she’d stayed with him, she’d now be Stephanie.

Not only is Tony and Susan a marvellous example of metafiction, but it’s also a superb instance of the literary theory The Transactional Theory of Reading and Writing developed by Louise Rosenblatt–a theory that argues that the meaning of a piece of literature or poetry does not reside solely in the text to be analysed by the critic, but that the work is fluid with each reader extracting his/her own subjective meaning which is  influenced by a unique frame of reference.

It’s a path going somewhere, made by Edward up ahead. The question for Susan, do I want to follow? How can she not? She’s caught, just like Tony.

Copy read on my kindle courtesy of netgalley

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Filed under Fiction, Wright Austin