Tag Archives: miserable marriages

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

“The slivers of ice which were her buried resentments against Leonard strangely hardening rather than melting in her astonishingly found new climate.”

I can’t remember where I first heard the name of author Celia Dale, or how I came across her books, but a recent dig through the TBR stacks led me to grab Helping With Inquiries, a novel from 1979. At first I thought I was reading a police procedural, but no, this is a deeply psychological character study–a tale of bitterness, isolation, control and motivation for murder.

helping with inquiries

Helping with Inquiries (and what a great innocuous title that is) begins with Leonard Henderson, a married man in his 60s, a creature of absolute rigid habit, an advertising manager at an old-fashioned dying company, arriving back home after a day’s work. Leonard and his wife, Enid live in a pleasant, semi-detached home in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. It’s a terrible shock, then, for Leonard to return home to Cherrywood Crescent and find his wife Enid, a woman that no one seems to really know or talk to, battered to death in the front room.

The Hendersons have lived next door to the their neighbours, the Thorpes for over 20 years, and although they share a “thin party-wall” the two couples only ever exchanged a nod or the few odd words. The Thorpes heard nothing, saw nothing, and are in a state of shock that something like this could have happened in their quiet street.

D.S Simpson and DI Hogarth, two very different men with two very different styles investigate the case. There’s a definite good-cop-bad cop game afoot with Simpson’s strong social skills and affability and the laconic Hogarth who prefers to ambush suspects and witnesses with rudeness. Whereas Simpson is “delighted” by human nature “as intriguing manifestations of the bizarre,” Hogarth is interested in motive only in as much as it furthers the investigation

This view of his profession gave him a majestic insensitivity which was often useful, outraging or stunning people into shows of emotion that under gentler handling they might have controlled. While they erupted or collapsed, a mind as shrewd if not as intelligent as any judge’s ticked away inside Hogarth’s balding head. If there were something to be noticed, assessed, slotted into place, Hogarth would do it.

As the police detectives poke around the Henderson home, they discover that while no one seems to really know Enid (she has no friends, no social life) she was a magpie, “her untidiness had been concealed, stuffed into drawers and cupboards.”  According to Leonard his wife was “a middle-aged woman, –a domesticated, simple, not very clever housewife,” and yet someone hated her enough to beat her to death. But is this a random crime? There’s an alley that runs along the back of the houses. Did some “maniac” wander into the home and murder Enid? 

As the novel unfolds, a couple of suspects emerge. Leonard is required to make a written statement, and Leonard’s short, succinct sentences are then juxtaposed with the history of Leonard’s miserable childhood, dominated by a cold, cruel and domineering woman while Leonard’s father cringed in the background. As Leonard’s statement later continues to explain how he met Enid, author Celia Dale cleverly reconstructs their courtship and married life. Enid is dead when the book opens, and yet her character is constructed in detail, so that just who she really was is clearly evident.

Yes, this is a crime book, but it’s brilliantly constructed with Dale showing just how much can be accomplished by a crime novel, and while bulky DI Hogarth may not care about motive, readers do. Dale creates a fascinating picture of domestic life and an inexorable case of murder.

Finally, Dale can write. There are some marvellous moments here–most I can’t include due to spoilers. At one point, Leonard lands a job, after the war, at Forbes’ for Furnishing.

Behind their majestic frontage decline and fall could be sensed. The Board was ageing, the holding company impatient for them to be gone; real estate was more real now than Forbes’ for Furnishing. There was no future there and Leonard knew it with a bitterness that burned deeply behind his cool facade. The Advertising Department consisted of no more than Leonard himself, whatever trainee youth was going through the store, and a typist. The advertisement copy was written by an outside agency and appeared mainly in appropriate local and provincial newspapers. It was, he knew sourly, a dead end job. But at least, he was, at last, Manager.

Enid’s happiness was tactlessly great. She brought a bottle of sparkling white wine with which to celebrate his first week, kissed him and pressed her face against his for a moment. ‘I’m so glad for you Lenny darling. It’s such a relief. I know how anxious you’ve been all these months. And being in an old-fashioned firm’s much nicer really, isn’t it. even if it’s not quite so important.’

In a way she was right. Shutting his mind to everything he might have preferred, he sank himself into the work, treating his tiny department as though it were the most important in the firm, himself its ruler. So the years settled in Cherrywood Crescent, muffling all sounds. 

The book is also a snapshot of its times with reference to Mrs Woodhouse, Women’s Lib and bottom-pinching considered normal behaviour at work.

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The House Swap: Rebecca Fleet

I liked the premise of Rebecca Fleet’s The House Swap. We live in a world that’s changed a great deal in the last few decades: the internet makes the globe smaller in some ways and also much more dangerous. Through the story of a troubled marriage, The House Swap shows the ease with people can elbow into our lives.

The House Swap

The novel opens in 2015 with Caroline and Francis, a married couple, parents of a small boy, traveling to Chiswick on a house-swap arrangement. Caroline signed onto a house swap site “on an idle whim,” but then was contacted by an S. Kennedy who expressed interest in swapping a Chiswick house for the couple’s flat in Leeds. Francis had wanted to go abroad, but Caroline nixed that due to concerns about leaving their son. So the book finds the couple, who’ve left the child with a grandmother, a bit combative and miffed with each other. Chiswick seems a poor exchange for Paris or Spain.

The truth underneath the choice of location is that neither Caroline nor Francis have the energy to rustle up a holiday that requires much planning. You see, their marriage is on the rocks. Caroline has been a bad girl, but their marriage has survived the affair. Sort of….

Not in the best of moods, the couple arrive at the Chiswick house. Caroline finds the house a bit odd.

It’s the emptiest house I have ever seen. Nothing on the walls, not even a mirror. Pale pine floorboards and smooth blank doors opening into near vacant rooms. 

Weird, weird weird…. But then things get weirder when Caroline finds items in the house that remind her of her former lover, and what of the nosy, pushy neighbour a few doors down.

The story goes back and forth in time through a few different voices, while the background of Caroline’s affair and her marriage to Francis unfolds. Francis is a therapist, and gradually we see what a wreck Francis is, his unhealthy behaviours and exactly what pushed Caroline towards another man. Against this backstory, events in the past also occur which trouble Caroline in the present; she’s tried shoving thoughts of the affair into the back of her mind, but the Chiswick house brings memories flooding back.

This is a domestic thriller about two married people who had a lot going for them but threw it away, and now the consequences are there, back in their lives in spite of their best efforts otherwise. The characters are not likable (which is often a plus for me) but they were also not terribly interesting. Caroline ‘wakes up’ too slowly IMO, but the novel is stronger when showing that when a marriage is wrecked, the pieces never fit together again…

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books.

review copy.

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My Mortal Enemy: Willa Cather (1926)

“We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeletons.”

Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, a story of an unhappy marriage and the bitterly unhappy woman who gave up a fortune for love, is reminiscent of both Edith Wharton and Henry James. In this instance, our Jamesian narrator is Nellie, a teenage girl when this novella opens, and the story follows Nellie’s observations of an older woman over the course of three meetings that take place during a ten-year period.

Nellie has heard so much about Myra Henshawe, and to Nellie, Myra’s life is swathed in romance. Nellie’s mother and Aunt Lydia were friends with Myra Henshawe (Myra Driscoll as she was known), and they all grew up in the small southern Illinois town of Parthia. Myra lived with her wealthy uncle, and she was his heir, but everything derailed when Myra eloped with Oswald Henshawe against her uncle’s express wishes. Myra married Oswald knowing that she would be completely disinherited

My Mortal enemy

When 15-year-old Nellie first meets Myra, the young impressionable girl already has images of romance in her head, and those ideas evaporate when she meets the flesh-and-blood woman who is now plump, matronly and 45 years old. Myra and her husband live in New York, and while they are affectionate towards each other, there are sinewy troubling undercurrents in their marriage. Nellie who finds Myra “perplexing,” is disturbed by the meeting and her observations, and yet Nellie is too young to process what she sees. Myra has a way of taking control of every situation by making unsettling comments. Nellie notes that “it was like being touched by a metal so cold that one didn’t know whether one is burned or chilled.”

“How good it is,” my mother exclaimed, “to hear Myra laugh again!”

Yes it was good. It was sometimes terrible, too, as I was to find out later. She had an angry laugh, for instance, that I still shiver to remember. Any stupidity made Myra laugh–I was destined to hear that one very often! Untoward circumstances, accidents, even disasters provoked her mirth. And it was always mirth, not hysteria; there was a spark of zest and wild humour in it.  

A second meeting with the Henshawes occurs shortly afterwards, and this meeting takes place when Nellie and her Aunt Lydia travel to New York. This visit yields more glimpses into the Henshawes’ marriage. There are tensions, hints of unhappiness, and Myra’s extravagances (which Oswald comments on but can’t curb).

During this visit, Oswald makes a strange request of Aunt Lydia regarding a pair of cufflinks. This is a fascinating section of this short, finely structured novella, for the incident seems to make Myra, at least in Aunt Lydia’s eyes, even more unreasonable, but there very well could be a deeper story about the cufflinks.

The Henshawes’ apartment was the second floor of an old brownstone house on the north side of the Square. I loved it from the moment I entered it; such solidly built, high-ceiled rooms, with snug fire-places and wide doors and deep windows. The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs.

I’ve included that quote simply because it is so beautifully evocative.

The final meeting takes place ten years later when Nellie is 25 and Myra is 55. I shan’t say more of the novel as to detail the meeting would give away too much of the plot.

For this reader, My Mortal Enemy encapsulates the mysteries and subtle politics of marriage.  Clearly Myra and Oswald loved each other once, and Myra made a tremendous sacrifice to be with him. Does she regret it? Did she make the right choice? Would she have been any happier if she’d turned away her impoverished suitor and kept the money and the mansion? Are we human beings, flawed as we are, capable of forgiving someone for letting us sacrifice? And then there’s the incident of the cuff links, and Myra’s bits of hidden money.

Aunt Lydia seems hard on Myra and I don’t think that’s totally fair. It’s impossible (unless there’s gross misbehaviour) to untangle the knotty threads of a marriage.

Light and silence: they heal all wounds–all but one, and that is healed by dark and silence. 

TBR stack

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Three Floors Up: Eshkol Nevo

Three Floors Up from Israeli author Eshkol Nevo takes a look at the lives of three residents of a Tel Aviv apartment building. The novel is split into three sections, each told by a first person narrator. While it may seem that the commonality here is proximity, gradually it becomes clear that all three narrators live on the fault lines of a fractured family. Each of the three characters are drawn, unwillingly, into moral dilemmas that will change their lives.

Three floors up

Arnon, a retired officer tells his tale to a writer, an old friend from the army. Arnon is married to lawyer Ayelet. There’s the sense that Arnon’s professional life hasn’t quite worked out as he planned, and he often recalls his time as a soldier. Tension exists and simmers in the marriage between Arnon and Ayelet. They have two daughters, Ofri and Yaeli. There are already indications that there were personality clashes between Ofri and her mother before Yaeli’s birth, but Yaeli’s ill health seals the divide in the family. Ayelet favours Yaeli, or at least Arnon sees it that way. Before long, the family unit is subtly divided into two, with Arnon and Ofri on one side and Ayelet and Yaeli on another.

Arnon and Ayelet are in the habit of leaving Ofri with their elderly neighbours, Ruth and Herman. Arnon has indications that perhaps this isn’t the greatest idea, but he goes ahead anyway, and when a crisis occurs, the fault lines in his family explode.

In every fight, there’s a moment when you say something you shouldn’t and there’s no turning back. Know what I mean? So that’s what happened. And what did I actually say to her? “If it was Yaeli, you wouldn’t be so calm.”

It isn’t a state secret, right? Just one of those little kinks that families have. Even in the bible, in the story of Jacob and Esau, it’s obvious that Jacob was his mother’s favorite and Esau was his father’s. The point is that it’s natural for a parent to prefer one child over the other. Even love him more. What isn’t natural-it turns out-is saying it out loud. Those little kinks are supposed to be transparent, invisible. But I just couldn’t control myself. She was sitting there in her prim lawyer’s outfit with her hair pulled back, talking to me in that patronizing way, like she was civilized and I was a savage. So I had to put her in her place. Every once in a while, you have to put them in their place.

The second narrative takes the form of a letter from housewife, Hani to her friend in America, Netta. Hani is known as “the widow” by her neighbours due to her husband’s continual absences. Hani, at home alone with the children, remarks to Netta that she married her husband thinking he would be a good father, but even when he’s home, he doesn’t get involved in family life.

Hani’s letter recalls the events that took place when her estranged brother-in-law showed up at her apartment. As a major embezzler, he’s on the run from the police, his former clients and even loan sharks.

The third narrative is told by a retired judge, Devora, whose husband, also a judge, died the year before. Devora’s tale is told by her to her dead husband, and she relates how she became involved in local demonstrations.

Of the three sections, Arnon’s is the strongest, possibly because we’re not quite sure how much is reality and how much is guilt. Plus an undercurrent of suppressed violence flows under his words, and this makes his side of things more complex (and epic as it turns out.)  Hani’s letter to Netta is also slippery, and the actions of her brother-in-law are highly suspect. Devora’s tale also presents a moral dilemma as she recalls a decision she and her husband made regarding their son.

The skill here is in the narrative, and the way each creates an intimacy with the reader, so that we become the listener to these confessions involving the most private moments. But even beyond that, as each story evolves, we ask ourselves what we would have done? What choices would we have made?

review copy

translated by Sondra Silverston

Marina Sofia also read and reviewed Three Floors Up

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The Last Mrs. Parrish: Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. Parrish, a tale of betrayal, adultery and revenge is the debut novel from sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine (pen name = Liv Constantine).  This page-turner is already being compared to Gone Girl which probably guarantees sales, but it is an unfortunate comparison for this reader as Gone Girl pissed me off more than anything else.

That said, expect The Last Mrs Parrish to make it to either a TV series or film. And who would I cast for the lead stars … well more of that later.

the last mrs parrish

Approximately the first half of the novel is told from the view of Amber Patterson, a young women who moves to the affluent area of Bishop’s Harbor, Connecticut with the sole goal of seducing a billionaire international real estate magnate in his 40s, Jackson Parrish. Amber, and that’s a fake name by the way, has done her research. She knows all about the Parrish family, how much they are worth, what they own and what their interests are. It doesn’t matter to Amber that Jackson is married with two children. In fact, Amber uses Jackson’s wife, Daphne, a woman who runs a charity foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, to worm her way into the lives of the Parrish family. Soon Amber is Daphne’s friend, and she pretends to like Daphne’s two little girls in order to get invited to family events.

Amber has her work cut out for her. Pencil-thin Daphne is gorgeous, educated, elegant, and an overall nice person, and what’s more, Jackson Parrish appears to adore his wife. But Amber conducts a ferocious, single-minded, obsessive campaign to hunt and bag Jackson. At first she dresses plainly but gradually moves to tarty as she gets closer to Jackson.

The strength of the novel lies is Amber’s tart, vindictive self-justified POV:

Amber leaned forward and did her best to look interested while she calculated the total worth of the diamonds on Daphne’s ears, the tennis bracelet on her wrist, and the huge diamond on her tanned and perfectly manicured finger. She must have had at least a hundred grand walking around on her size-four body, and all she could do was whine about her sad childhood. Amber suppressed a yawn and gave Daphne a tight smile.

And then there’s her malicious, brooding resentment of the two little girls

Once she was Mrs Parrish, those two brats were on borrowed time. They could go to community college as far as she was concerned. 

It can be tough to create sympathy for characters who are so wealthy they are removed from the cares most readers share, but the authors initially create Daphne as viewed by a conscienceless predator. Even though we don’t get to see Daphne’s first person narration until the second half of the novel, Amber’s vicious intentions are so vile (she wears Daphne’s perfume and takes her underwear,) you can’t help but see Daphne as an Everywoman walking right towards her own destruction. When the novel switches to Daphne, the novel loses some of its power which just goes to prove that ‘nice’ people are far less interesting than nasty ones. We all love someone we can hate, and the character of Amber keeps the reader turning those pages. While I regretted the loss of the novel’s momentum as Daphne took the helm, I was committed to the bitter, bitter end of this one.

Angelina Jolie as Daphne Patterson. Alexander Skarsgård as Jackson Parrish. Can’t decide who should play Amber–arguably the most difficult role. (But I’m still thinking about it.)

Review copy

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The Puzzleheaded Girl: Christina Stead

“Once I wrote to an asylum to take me in.”

The Puzzleheaded Girl from Christina Stead is a collection of four novellas, all of which explore that tangled, complicated relationships between men and women. Stead seems to aks if one gender will ever understand the other, and the resounding answer is  …. NO. The first novella in the collection, The Puzzle-Headed Girl is the story of a man, Debrett, an idealist who employs a young woman named Honor Lawrence as a filing clerk. He offers the young woman a job out of pity as she obviously needs money and is poorly dressed. Over a number of years, Honor drifts in and out of Debrett’s life, always with some strange story, sometimes cadging meals or money. Debrett, “a married bachelor,” thinks she has “principles” and admires her, even as he scripts her life with wrappings of romanticism, but as she repeatedly inserts herself into his life, it becomes clear that Honor is unbalanced. Debrett rather dimly asks himself,“Was she just a child; or a free soul?”

For its tone and pacing, The Puzzle-Headed Girl reminded me of A Little Tea, A Little Chat although of course the subject matter is entirely different.  In both books, Christina Stead shows the separate worlds of men and women. Particularly enjoyable is the idea that a lower-level of craziness can pass for quirks or principles in the young (or wealthy).

The puzzleheaded Girl

The Dianas is the tale of Lydia a rather giddy young woman who’s unleashed in Paris. We first see her in a hotel juggling dates with various men and contemplating marrying a Frenchman. While she says she can’t make up her mind which man to go out with that evening, she spies Russell, “someone she recognized, a middle-aged American with a half-bald sandy head and fat sandy face, an upstate professor of psychology,” a friend of her mother’s. Lydia decides to torture and humiliate Russell. It’s fairly easy to see Russell as Lydia’s victim. Perhaps Lydia is giving Russell a taste of his own medicine, or perhaps she’s just practicing on someone she can easily outclass.

The third novella, The Rightangled Creek, is quite different from the rest of the stories: it’s the tale of a ramshackle cottage which is inhabited by a number of couples over the course of a few years. When the story opens, Sam Parsons returns to America and visits Laban and Ruth Davies, a couple he met in Paris. Laban is a writer and a raging alcoholic and the idea of stashing him in the cottage out in the middle of nowhere is essentially to ensure that he will stay dry.

They had been lodging in artists’ colony but spotted this farm and rented it for $12  a month. Laban is writing a book, “a history of European culture,” drinking three or four pots of coffee a day while Ruth grows their food. They invite Sam and his wife Clare to join them. The Davies’ plan is for Laban’s book to sell which will enable them to buy the farm and send their son, Frankie to Princeton.

Ruth is mother, wife, caretaker, nurse,  housekeeper, jailer and general drudge to her husband Laban, and while she realizes his weakness when it comes to alcohol, she will go to any lengths, sacrifice everything, for this man.

“We save money here, I do everything,” she said in her warm round voice in which there was a strident note.

Over the course of the novella, some past incidents reveal how insane Ruth’s relationship is with Laban.

The fourth novella, Girl From the Beach, is the story of a man named George, a womaniser who blames all of the women in his life for his actions. Again his rants led me back to the character of Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat. Robert Grant and George are two slightly different versions of the same man. George has a number of ex-wives, a “swarm of little-girl gadflies.” And it’s not easy to nail down how many ex-wives there are but he admits to “three in this country.”

“I wanted to get married. I fell in love with each; and each one,” he said, getting red and shouting, “did not love me; or only as children love. Marriage was an outing. Papa would buy the candy and the ride on the loop-the-loops. I can pay. Don’t worry about my health.”

And:

American girls are bloodthirsty. Their honour is in sucking a man dry; then they throw out the corpse. Why, I have known women here who destroy a man’s happiness and faith in himself, ruin his career, divorce him, turn his children against him, blacken his name to all his friends, suck him dry, and then marry him again to show they own him.

And, of course when George rants about the venal nature of women, he’s trying to persuade another victim to take a trip down the aisle. George eventually meets another woman, Linda who seems to be a prototype of Lydia in The Dianas.

Putting all four novellas together and examining them as a whole, I was struck by the significance of a few things. 1) Paris appears in all four novellas. Stead uses Paris rather as Forster used Italy: people go wild there. Take the saying “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” and in Stead’s novels it becomes “what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.”

Oh, Paris is an obsession; I feel it like paprika. And then the men fluttering round, so aimless and asking you to decide. 

Male-female relationships dominant here, and it isn’t pretty. One character in The Puzzleheaded Girl brags about his spouse: “My wife’s as good as two hired men”–shades of the much abused Ruth in The Rightangled Creek. I was also struck by the reoccurring character of  Robert (A Little Tea, A Little Chat) George (Girl From the Beach) and even, if we stretch it, Laban (The Rightangled Creek)–men who want the women in their lives to be all aspects of the feminine ideal while they are … well …dickheads.

Review copy

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The Woman Who Walked Into Doors: Roddy Doyle

The protagonist of Roddy Doyle’s 1996 novel, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is 39-year-old Dublin mother of four, Paula Spencer. When the novel opens, a Guard arrives at Paula’s door. This is not an unusual event as the police frequently come knocking at the door looking for Charlo, a man with a criminal past, but this time is different…

From that moment, Paula recalls her story of life with Charlo, how they met, their torrid courtship, her father’s strong disapproval, and the highlight of Paula and Charlo’s life together: the wedding. From here, things go downhill, and reader, I’m going to insert a spoiler here, the novel includes some flashback details of domestic abuse.

The woman who walked into doors

The novel goes back and forth from the present to the past as Paula recalls her marriage. In the present, Paula, an alcoholic (and we gradually learn how that happened) is a cleaner. She cleans a bank in the early evenings, and during the day, she cleans the houses of women her age who are considerably better off.

I like seeing into other people’s houses. Funny, I hardly ever feel jealous. And I should, because some of the houses are incredible. Huge. Some of the stuff in them, I wouldn’t want most of it myself but it must have cost a fortune. Dark furniture, flat-screened tellies, CD players with tiny little speakers. I love music. There’s one house I do on Mondays, in Clontarf; they’ve a great collection of CDS, all the seventies stuff. I got her to show me how to use the CD player. There was no problem. I like her, the owner. Miriam. We’re the same age. We both went to the same dances when we were kids. I don’t remember her. She married a doctor. I married Charlo. 

Paula’s story is intimate: she talks to us of her adolescence, burgeoning sexuality (you were either a “slut or a tight bitch,”)  her harmless married fantasy life (at one point, she had a crush on a bus conductor), her relationships with her family,  Charlo’s intimidating family, and her children. All through these memories, Charlo appears, almost as though he enters and exits the door, looking for his meals, his clean, ironed clothes and someone to absorb his violence. Author Roddy Doyle convincingly shows Paula’s reluctance to admit how bad her marriage became, how she lost an entire decade somehow.

Paula tells her story with vibrancy, tenacity, and intense humanity. There’s also the sense that it’s an underground voice, swelling from behind closed doors, and emergency room visits that hide the true nature of her injuries. She meets other women shepherded in to the ER by their supposedly caring, concerned husbands. Yes the number of ‘clumsy’ women at the emergency room are legion. No one asks awkward questions, no one looks directly into the eyes of the victims, but everyone goes along with the stories that these women have fallen down the stairs or, as the title states, ‘walked into doors.’

A word on style. I read some reviews complaining about the author’s style. This was very readable, but without quotation marks if that bothers anyone. The sentences are sometimes very short as they mirror speech, and Paula is speaking to us here, so sometimes she corrects or expands her thoughts with one word. The domestic abuse is recalled with a surreal quality that echoes the rapidity and illogical circumstances of Charlo’s violent rages. So in other words, it’s not blow-by-blow but rather the violence is impressionistic.

Finally, a quote about the wedding day which was one of my favourite scenes in the novel.

The Spencers were in charge now. My crowd were huddled in a corner, sipping their drinks and waiting for going-home time. The Spencers had taken over. They even took the instruments off the band, got in behind the drums and started messing with the knobs on the amplifiers. The brothers. Liam, Thomas, Gregory, Harry, Benny and Charlo.

The wedding was over. I was married now, one of them. They were finished with my family. Not just the brothers. His mother and father, all his aunts and uncles and cousins. They took over the whole place. they kept on singing.

-I’m in lurve-huh-

I’m all shook up-

My crowd started leaving. They crept along the walls. there were cousins whispering behind me; a fight going on in the men’s toilets. Harry started bashing the guitar on the floor. The Virginians stood beside their gear and pretending it was a real gas. 

Of course, we all cheer for Paula, a likeable woman who feels very real and who’s survived adversity with the scars to prove it.

 

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Family Matters: Anthony Rolls (1933)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read quite a few titles from British Library Crime Classics, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The delightful Family Matters from author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) is one of the strongest titles in the series. Yes there’s a murder, but the structure and content of this highly entertaining tale is quite different from the usual. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives an overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, and mentions that he wrote his crime novels during two very specific times of his life. Sadly all of his other work (apart from Scarweather) is oop and used copies are either impossible to find or pricey.

Family Matters is a domestic crime novel and concerns the troubled household of the Kewdinghams who live at Number 6 Wellington Avenue in the town of Shufflecester. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, a man from a solid middle class background, married Bertha, the daughter of a Canadian Wesleyan minster and a French governess. The Kewdinghams, with a couple of exceptions, are not happy about the match (especially the French part), and don’t consider Bertha good enough. Robert and Bertha have one child, and also living at Number 6 is Robert’s crotchety elderly father who looks at his daughter-in-law with dislike and writes her nasty notes with very pointed quotations.

family matters

Following the economic collapse, Robert, an engineer, lost his job. The Kewdinghams have modest independent means, but there’s never enough money. Robert, now unemployed, has turned to his many hobbies: The Great Kewdingham Collection, cabinets and “precarious piles of cardboard boxes” litter the house.

Inside these receptacles there was an astounding medley of junk: bits of coral, broken pots, beetles and butterflies impaled on pieces of cork or stuck on cards, odd fossils, bones, brasses, dried flowers, birds’ eggs, little figures in soapstone and ivory, ushabtis from the tombs of Egypt, fragments of uncertain things, weird scraps of metal, badges, buttons, mouldy coins and innumerable varieties of suchlike trash.

These days we’d call Robert a hoarder, but poor Bertha must tolerate other ‘eccentricities;’ her husband’s political activities (he thinks Shufflecester is “full of Bolsheviks“), he’s a hypochondriac who medicates himself with bizarre potions, and he has a “vast library of occult books and magazines, which he was constantly reading.” Add this to his belief that he lived an earlier life as “the High Priest of Atlantis, Keeper of Wisdom.”

He was now in middle age, without a profession, impecunious, full of absurd notions, a wretched hypochondriac, irritable, silly and resourceless. 

Life at Number 6 is fraught with “incessant bickering,” and several outsiders, including the dapper little Doctor Bagge, and relative John Harrigall, feel bitterly sorry for the attractive Bertha who is trapped in an insufferable marriage to a selfish, egomaniac who has long passed the label of eccentric to mental case.

Friends of Robert, Mr and Mrs Chaddlewick also visit, and Mrs Chaddlewick with her cooing flattery and seemingly “amiable vacancy,” both encourages Robert’s foolishness and fosters domestic strife. It’s testament to Bertha’s tenacity and arguably her inflexibility  that she refuses to ‘manage’ Robert in the same way.  With criticism from Robert’s relatives and vicious notes from her father-in-law, it’s not surprising that Bertha should seek solace from the handsome John Harrigall. As Robert’s tirades escalate and become more violent, Bertha begins to consider murdering her husband.

Family Matters is an unusual crime novel for its structure and its conclusion, but it’s also separated from the herd by its attitude towards women. The court at Shufflecester, for example, is “bleak and hideous,” and we are told that “it is only possible to find this degree of squalor, of neglect and of ugliness, in courts of law–places where the sane influence of women has not yet penetrated.” There’s also mention of sex with a hint dropped of “three hours in a disused gravel-pit.” Anthony Rolls seems to understand the lonely, treacherous path to murder trod by the otherwise respectable member of society:

The inception of the idea of murder is not immediately recognised. Such an idea enters the mind in disguise-a new arrival in a sinister mask, not willingly entertained and yet by no means to be expelled. Or, in more scientific terms, it is introduced by a sort of auto-hypnosis, the mere repetition of the thoughts or words not immediately connected with personal action. Between the highly civilised individual and the act of murder there are so many barriers, so nay conventions and teachings-or so many illusions. 

In the introduction, Martin Edwards argues that Rolls had good ideas but sometimes couldn’t sustain plots. That weakness is not evident here. With its caustic look at society, marriage and norms Family Matters is an impudent, lively novel,  a delight to read.

Someone .. please bring The Vicar’s Experiments back into print.

review copy.

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Caribou Island: David Vann

“If you wanted to be a fool and test the limits of how bad things could get, this was a good place for it.”

Dark, bleak, and with a pervasive sense of impending doom, these are words to describe David Vann’s book: Caribou Island, a tale of a miserable marriage pushed to the limits in Alaska. The book argues that Alaska draws certain types: adventurers, yes, but also failures–people who are looking to fulfill a dream. This is certainly the case with Gary, who was working on his doctorate,”becoming a medievalist” at Berkeley. He realized that he would never finish it, and that he wasn’t that good, so he decided to take a year off and travel to Alaska.  In tow was Irene, a girl he met and married, thinking that he could do better. She thought Gary was taking a year off, but in reality, he was “running away.” They never left Alaska. Fast forward thirty years

Alaska felt like the end of the world, a place of exile. Those who couldn’t fit anywhere else came here, and if they couldn’t cling at anything here, they just fell off the edge. These tiny towns in a great expanse, enclaves of despair. 

When the novel opens, it’s late summer. Gary and Irene are engaged in building a log cabin on Caribou Island. For Gary, with his history of failure and “impossible projects,” the cabin is his next white whale. The couple, whose two adult children, Mark and Rhoda reside elsewhere, live in a ramshackle house on the shore of Skilak Lake. Their house is “tucked back into the trees so the lake still could seem prehistoric, wild. But it wasn’t enough to be on the shore, they were moving out, now, to Caribou Island.”

caribou island

It’s not long before we realise how insane Gary’s plan is. Gary and Irene are in their mid 50s, and now he’s decided to build a log cabin with no running water, no indoor plumbing, perhaps a fireplace, on an island that is only accessible by water, and inaccessible once the lake has frozen. Gary has no plans for this log cabin and has no idea what he’s doing; he builds as he goes along. Nails don’t fit properly through the logs, and there are gaps between logs so that there will be no protection from the upcoming sub zero winter. The plan is doomed from the start, as Gary doesn’t begin until late in the season with storms already on the way. We follow Gary and Irene as they drag logs onto a boat to take to the island, and it’s in these scenes that author David Vann captures the subtle politics of a toxic marriage:

We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary would never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure for him.

Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done to each other for decades now, irresistibly. 

The game of mutual punishment begins, and after a torturous day in the rain loading logs, with several mishaps along the way, Irene becomes ill. …

The plot shows man vs nature and also man vs man in a daily battle for survival. With man battling nature, the war is clear-cut, well-defined, but when humans battle each other–as they do in Gary and Irene’s case, the battle is more subtle with a series of barely visible hits scarring a marriage and psyches.

But Gary and Irene are not the only battling couple here. Their daughter, Rhoda, lives with Jim, a dentist. She’s 30 and he’s in his 40s turning to flab. It’s a relationship in which both parties have compromised. Rhoda loves Jim’s home with its fantastic views, and she takes care of him, planning an upscale wedding in Hawaii while ignoring Jim’s disconnectedness and lack of enthusiasm for the plan.  With her former boyfriend, “the payoff had been a small trailer home with a few free halibut steaks. Whereas with Jim she had unlimited canned peaches and all the Krusteaz pancake mix anyone could ever want.”

As a reader I can’t say that I enjoyed the book; it’s too bleak and depressing for that, but the book is very well written, haunting and capable of creating visceral reactions in this reader. Through Irene’s illness, we get a sense of the remoteness of this community, and how getting an MRI involves a major excursion. Irene’s illness shows the fragility of the human condition, and yet Gary flies in defiance of this. I was committed to watch this train wreck of a marriage to its bitter end.

The book includes descriptions of fish gutting, and I skipped these. I read this along with Emma. Emma’s review is here.

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Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

“Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”

I recently watched Olive Kitteridge, and I liked the sour, yet sturdy character of Olive Kitteridge so much, I decided it was about time I tried some of the author’s work. That brings me to Anything is Possible which isn’t a novel as much as a series of interconnected stories, mostly set in Amgash, Illinois. While there’s no one single theme to these nine stories/chapters, family secrets, life’s disappointments, certainties and doubts are highlighted as we flow into, and out of, these characters’ lives.

The first story, The Sign, is told by Tommy Guptill, a former dairy farmer turned school janitor, who in his 80s, reminisces about the child Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a famous author living in New York, and her memoir is on sale in town. The memory of Lucy, who Tommy suspected was abused, causes him to drive out to the isolated Barton homestead and visit her damaged brother. This visit in turn leads Tommy to question an event that uprooted his life.

anything is possible

Other stories concern an overweight, widowed high school guidance councilor who has a meeting with Lucy Barton’s niece, and the councilor’s sister, who’s so afraid of ending up living in a trailer, alone, that she buries her head in the sand concerning her husband. In another story, a married man frequently meets with a prostitute, and fittingly, in “Sister,” Lucy returns home to visit and reconnects with her siblings.  Of the collection, “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast” stood out for its portrayal of the marriage of Dr and Mrs Small, so miserable and pathological that Dottie feels “comforted about her divorce.

What Dottie had not understood until the Smalls came to stay was that there were different experiences she attended to in this business that made her feel either connected to or used by people. 

I disliked the first story, The Sign as for its cliches, and while I warmed to some of the characters, (Patty, Dottie) for the most part these are a miserable lot. A thread of deep melancholy runs through these stories, and while we all have to live with our mistakes, these lives of quiet desperation made me wonder about the suicide rate among these characters, but no, then again, they seem to carry on, shouldering the burden of disappointment, mistakes, and secrets.

I haven’t read Lucy Barton, and although other reviews state that it’s not necessary to read Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible,  it might have helped to be given some background to these characters. I seem to be in the minority opinion here and glowing reviews dominate, but in spite of my disappointment, I still intend to read Olive Kitteridge. 

Review copy

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