Tag Archives: neighbours

The Miranda: Geoff Nicholson

It sounded like flattery. I never liked or trusted that.”

In Geoff Nicholson’s novel, The Miranda, Joe, a divorced psychologist whose work in cognitive behavior therapy led to employment with a government agency, buys a house solely for its 100 yard circular pathway. He intends to “act out a script that in some form or other, I’d had in my head for my entire life.[…] I would walk around the world, and I would do it without ever leaving my own yard.” He appears to be removing himself from society, but all of his neighbours begin to pester him in various ways.

Joe is no longer employed but in the not-so-distant past, he started treating torture survivors for PTSD and then that gradually morphed into becoming a torturer who prepped “volunteers” for torture. No pictures, diagrams or slideshows: Joe actually did the torturing.

I won’t go into the precise details of what I did. For one thing, I’m not allowed to, but the fact is, I don’t believe I did anything to the volunteers that would surprise you. I was going to say I did everything you can imagine, but that couldn’t possibly be true. Any of us, even the most innocent and vanilla, can easily imagine forms of torture that are far, far beyond anything that I did, that I was allowed to do, to the volunteers. I stayed within limits. I was constrained by laws and decency, and to an extent by my own inherent squeamishness.

A point came when Joe, after ‘breaking’ volunteer after volunteer “couldn’t stand it any longer,” and he walked away from the job, but it’s the sort of job that gets under the skin. At first he lives in a flophouse motel, but then crawling back from that low point, he decides to buy a house, and that decision grows into a project:

If your garden, by some chance, happened to contain a circular path that was exactly 100 yards long, you would need to walk around it 440,000 times in order to cover a distance equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator. To put it another way, you would need to make 17.6 circuits of your garden path in order to cover a mile. Repeat that 25,000 times and the job would be done. And that was exactly what I intended to do. That was my plan, my grand project.

Joe decides to set a goal of 25 miles for 1000 days, stating that “in other words, my entire journey [around the world] would take just 95 days less than three years.” It is his “grand obsession.” And while Joe spends his days walking, seeking solitude, various annoying neighbors and even the postman find creative ways to pester Joe. Soon he’s employed an eager woman whose bartending ambitions include creating a timeless drink called “The Miranda.” Trouble looms in the form of violent neighbours who move in the rental behind Joe.

In fact, over the next few days, evidence appeared that the new guys were practitioners of various marital arts. An old-school, leather punching bag appeared, hanging from a tree branch, and they set up one of those rubberized torsos on a spring-loaded base that you can kick and punch to your heart’s content and it always bounces back for more, and (probably more important) it never retaliates. There was much shadow boxing and sparring and the whiling of nunchucks. The boy’s training regime seemed undisciplined, though highly enthusiastic, and it required a lot of shouting.

Before long I also noticed that these new inhabitants had spray-painted the abandoned cars in the driveway with various tags, patterns and symbols, and again from what I could see, it appeared the work was more enthusiastic than skilled, though this was by no means my area of expertise. The boys played their music loud, and they owned a number of big, energetic, brutal dogs; about half a dozen of them, somewhere between mutts and monsters.

These new obnoxious neighbours begin a process of intimidation, but they have no idea what they are dealing with.

In general, I’m not one of those people who worries too much about things that haven’t happened yet. Worrying about what might happen strikes me as a waste of time, because absolutely anything might happen and absolutely anything might not. You can’t be prepared for an infinite number of events and outcomes. The skill, as I see it, is not trying to foresee every possible situation in advance, because that’s impossible, but rather be confident that you can handle any situation as and when–and if–it arises.

I laughed and marveled at the way Joe handles his neighbours, the nosy ones and the violent ones. He is, after all, a therapist specializing in cognitive behaviour therapy. Underneath Joe’s grand walking project there’s the idea that this scheme, while admirable, is just a way to pass the time. Joe is waiting for his past to catch up with him. …

In The Miranda, we find the classic elements of Nicholson’s novels: mania, obsessives, collectors, quirky misfit characters and a quest. The novel explores the theme of walking (one of Nicholson’s personal hobbies/obsessions), specifically “walkers who turned their geographical constraints into virtual projects.” Joe describes how Albert Speer “paced out a walking path” at Spandau Prison where he walked seven kilometers a day “virtually” from Berlin to Heidelberg. Later, Speer’s virtual walking goals expanded but he “fretted that any route he chose [to Asia] would involve walking through some dreaded communist countries. He couldn’t face that. Not even in his imagination.”

Joe discusses some famous walkers, walking as therapy, walking as meditation and even compares walking to sex.

Sex and walking are things that some people like to do alone, that some people like to do with just one other person, and that some people like to do in groups of all sizes. Some prefer the company of men while doing it, some prefer the company of women, some are prepared to do it with either. Some will only do it if certain very specific conditions are met. A few require special clothing and equipment. Others are eager to to do it anywhere, any time, in any conditions, at the drop of a hat. A certain number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, really don’t like to do it at all.

Joe’s ex wife and his neighbours find Joe’s project troubling, unsettling and even looney. This witty, entertaining novel mines the idea of neighbours as a special kind of hell. We can’t choose who we live next to, unfortunately, and occasionally neighbours give us insight into our patience (or lack thereof) and what we appreciate and accept as ok behavior. simply to get peace. There’s irony here as Joe knows the intricacies of torture and understands the significance of intimidation and now himself becomes the target of bullying. He craves privacy yet interest in his solo walking in his own back garden makes people curious.

There are several virtual walking sights on the internet. Some cost, some are free, some require membership. Anyway, thanks to The Miranda which will make my best-of-year-list, I have started walking circuits in my back garden.

Virtual walking

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A is for Angelica by Iain Broome

Engaging, unusual, and strangely funny (as you will see from the quotes), are all terms which describe British author Iain Broome’s impressive debut, A is for Angelica. Written in alphabetized chapters (such as Valentine, Vicious Circle, and Zero Tolerance), this frame story centres on Gordon Kingdom, a now unemployed middle-aged man who is the full-time caretaker of both his incontinent elderly dog, Springer Spaniel, Kipling, and his wife, Georgina. 18 months earlier, Georgina had a stroke, and thanks to Gordon’s obsessive care, she was recovering, but now she’s been hit with another stroke and a crisis looms.  Then Gordon’s attention shifts to Angelica, a free-spirited, outspoken woman who moves into number 23, Cressington Vale.

a is for angelicaIf you take a look at the cover, you’ll get a sense of the book. All those identical little houses lined up perfectly with nothing out-of-place, and that’s how Gordon, former coordinator of the Neighborhood Watch committee would like his street, Cressington Vale, to be, and while the cover not only reflects the structures of a neighbourhood, with its bird’s-eye view it also reflects Gordon’s spying. He keeps notes on his neighbours which then form files, and these alphabetized files are hidden up in the spare room and taken out and added to at appropriate moments. As a leftover from his old Neighbour Watch days, Gordon still keeps a file called “Suspicious Behaviour,” mostly about neighbours and the more bizarre inexplicable things Gordon sees them doing–“incidences” as he calls them:

It started the day I caught the vicar’s wife masturbating with the blinds open, her full-length mirror tipped at an unfortunate angle. In truth, he’s not really a vicar and she’s not really his wife. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s his bit on the side. I thought about slipping a note discreetly under the door to stop it happening again, but I decided against it. Besides, she should have known better. She’s older than me. After that, I found myself sitting by the window for hours on end, surveying the street. Letting the world drift past. Taking my mind off things.

Is there something wrong with Gordon? Probably. But since I’m not a therapist, I’m not going to try to put a label on this engaging character. We know that at one point, Gordon was gainfully employed, but now as Georgina’s full-time caretaker, he’s grown obsessed with the details of his ever shrinking world. Advised by the family doctor to keep notes on Georgina’s progress, Gordon has written an entire manual, but his obsession has spilled over onto the neighbours, and perhaps because he no longer has much a life of his own, he spies on the lives of others, on the opposite side of the street, “where the action is.” Gordon explains that his notes (and by extension his spying) have given him “structure, purpose and something to do.”

Narrated in a very simple fashion by Gordon, this novel’s strength is not found in beautiful, elaborate sentences but by Gordon’s delightful voice and refreshing world view, and the way the novel’s clever structure follows Gordon’s very literal, detail-oriented mind.  Through Gordon’s eyes, Cressington Vale comes alive with its various characters, including Don Donald, a man who lives alone since his wife ran off in 1984, the overworked NH Doctor Morris, a “suspected paedophile,” beleaguered by false charges and under siege from the demands of a large, brand new practice, and Judy, the clueless, well-meaning vicar. Gordon’s obsession appears to shift from Georgina and spying on the neighbours in general when Angelica moves into the neighbourhood. Suddenly Angelica with her painted fingernails and odd coloured gloves becomes far more interesting than everyone else combined. However, while Gordon is able to keep Don at a safe distance when it comes to Georgina’s care, it’s not so easy to dissuade Angelica from getting involved. She’s very direct, and doesn’t have much time for people who dissemble. 

Gordon’s narration goes back and forth in time, so we see Gordon and Georgina’s wedding, the newlywed Gordon and Georgina first moving into their new home armed with bright hopes for the future, and Gordon conducting a Neighbourhood Watch meeting he’ll never forget. While Gordon’s life is marred by tragedy and regret, this is by no means a depressing read, and the humour is to be found in Gordon’s unintentionally funny view and explanations replete with Gordon’s signature attention to detail:

Reverend Benjamin Christopher Gregory moved to Thailand eighteen months ago. He was marrying a young couple when he broke down in tears and had to be escorted from the altar. He came back minutes later, walked up to the best man and head-butted him square between the eyes. Soon after, someone sprayed graffiti across the side of his house and a picture appeared in the local newspaper of him sat on his doorstep, smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey from the bottle. He had bright red paint behind him, giant letters on a white pebbledash wall. It read ‘arsehole’. One word. No hypen.

Both medicine and religion fail Gordon in different ways, and while Gordon’s visits to the doctor could potentially be depressing in Gordon’s inability to ask for help, instead these scenes are replete with gentle humour:

Doctor Morris has a notice board stuck to the wall behind his desk. I stare at it while he pokes and prods me. It’s covered in leaflets and information booklets. A mixture of colours and slogans. Do this. Eat that. say no. Don’t be caught without one. 0% interest free credit. Buy one, get one free. There are six anti-smoking posters. They make me want a cigarette and I don’t even smoke.

Author Iain Broome shows, with both gentle humour and poignancy, a great deal of generosity and compassion towards his characters. Broome’s Gordon is both unique (which makes him interesting to read about), but also flawed. He’s focused so squarely and minutely on Georgina’s care that he’s lost all sense of balance. Caretakers share, by proxy, the diseases and illnesses endured by the ones they love, so while Georgina suffers from another stroke, her husband Gordon absorbs the fall-out: isolation, depression, and the heavy, relentless burden of 24/7 care.

Her life taken. My life too. Our life together. If I think about it long enough I start to get resentful. I start to blame Georgina. She could have done something differently. Spent less time at work. Spent more time with me. Even now, watching her sleeping, her eyes closed, her face devoid of colour, it’s hard to understand.

While the narrative appears to focus on Gordon’s observations, along with risk factors associated with various acts and recommendations, it’s the space in-between these details that leave intriguing gaps for the reader to interpret. Although the novel spins on its plot for a brief moment concerning the Angelica development, I loved this wonderfully fresh, engaging first novel which tells the tale of an average life of quiet desperation. Iain Broome is a very talented young man, and readers out there…  this is your chance to get on at the ground floor.

Review copy

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