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Little Monsters by Charles Lambert

A few years later, Jozef said that I could make my life whatever I wanted, but I didn’t believe him. I thought he was simply repeating words that other people had said to him, words of consolation. I sometimes think most consolation comes to that, repeating things we know are unlikely to be true, and will almost certainly never be true for us, because otherwise everything we have lived through will be meaningless.

First the backstory to the review: Last year I won a copy of Charles Lambert’s novel Any Human Face from The Fiction Desk and enjoyed it a great deal. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to read the author’s first novel Little Monsters which came highly recommended by Kevin. Unfortunately and annoyingly Little Monsters is now OOP. A trek through several bookshops yielded a big zero, but I finally found a copy and meant to read it in 2010. Fast forward to 2011.

Little Monsters is an intriguing book and certainly one I can’t neatly slot into some genre category. This is an intensely readable book, and part of that readability is due to the fact I had no idea where the book was taking me. Another reason that  Little Monsters is such a good read is explained by the explosive plot bombs dropped on the pages. More of that later. Here’s the book’s first line:

When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.

How’s that for a grabber first-line?

The novel’s narrator is Carol. After her mother’s murder and her father’s arrest, she’s sent to live with an aunt, her mother’s sister, Aunt Margot–a cold, bitter, unpleasant woman who runs a pub, rather romantically called The Mermaid. Under better circumstances, perhaps Carol would see life at The Mermaid as an adventure, but when she arrives there, hustled through the procedure by strangers who drop her off with a hastily packed suitcase, Carol is really too numbed to feel much at all. She heard her parents’ last fight–one of many as it turns out, and feels partially responsible for what happened. When she first arrives, she’s in a state of shock and cannot really grasp the direction her life is about to take.

Aunt Margot doesn’t exactly welcome Carol with open arms, and Carol’s first days at The Mermaid are painful. Margot is married to a Polish man named Jozef, and it’s an arrangement of convenience. Margot’s husband was killed in WWII, and as a single woman she’s not allowed to run a pub. She marries Jozef, and he has an underling role in the relationship. Margot also has a son, Nicholas–a boy about Carol’s age who’s obsessed with the army and can’t wait to sign up.  Margot introduces Carol to Jozef, “Uncle Joey,” and then follows up the politeness with curt work orders. This clever scene signifies Margot’s utilitarian attitude to relationships and also lets the newcomer (Carol in this case) know just how Jozef rates in the scheme of things. If there’s any doubt about Jozef’s lowly status, it’s further clarified by Nicholas who describes Jozef : “He’s nothing. He’s a bloody Pole.” Margot’s bald, unemotional approach to her relationships sets the tone for the novel, and while it appears that the relationships between the main characters are clearly and bleakly defined by impenetrable demarcations, as the story unfolds, there’s a dark eerie undercurrent of things not known and not fully understood running beneath this splendid, unsettling story.

There are some people who are so unpleasant, they dominate and set the tone for the household, and this is true of Aunt Margot. She shows no tenderness to anyone, and she directs her acidic, critical comments to her family while her sly smiles and well-worn flirtations are reserved for male customers. Jozef responds by hiding out in the basement and working on gliders. Nicholas’s refuge is his dream of escape & promise of masculinity through enlistment in the army, and no one in the family seems to find the fact that Nicholas covers his walls with pictures of Churchill, Stalin & Hitler in the least bit disturbing.

Life at the pub is contaminated by the toxic atmosphere of resentments, anger, and disappointments.  There are no emotional bonds between the people who live there, and their relationships function solely to run the pub:

Nowhere was worth staying in for more than a few moments; nowhere held me. I though at the time that it was the bareness, the shabbiness, the way the furniture was pushed up against the walls. But now I think it was because the pub took over everything. Boxes of crisps in the corner of the living room, which was never used except for storing things; crates filled with ginger beer and tonic water behind the kitchen door; even when The Mermaid was closed you could smell the sickening sweet mixture of beer and smoke. before long my clothes were permeated with it, although I didn’t realize this until I was outside and suddenly smelt myself, shocked.

None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know that we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.

At 13, Carol is dropped into a household where she has no place–no defined role. Carol isn’t ready to accede to her aunt’s dominance, and that’s partly because the dominance includes a very nasty view of Carol’s mother. Sensing Nicholas’s loneliness, she strikes up a tepid friendship with him, but the relationship between Carol and Jozef is that of equals. Margot directs her taut, bitter disappointments towards Carol, and while Carol doesn’t set out to defy Margot, the two inevitably clash. To Margot, Carol is a “little monster.” Here’s a rather terrifying portrait of Margot tarted up for a night in the pub flirting with the male customers who are passing through:

The first time she walked downstairs I didn’t recognize her. She had piled her hair on top of her head and sprayed it with lacquer. With the light of the landing behind her, it shone like candyfloss. She wore a lot of make-up, more than anyone wears today, green eyeshadow, thick mascara and pale pink lipstick. She had on what she called a cocktail dress, stiff shiny material that reached to her knees, with lacy white stockings beneath, but nothing on her feet. I found out later that she kept a pair of slippers behind the bar and a pair of white patent high heels by the flap that led to the other side, so she could put them on when she had to go out into the lounge and collect glasses, or join a customer for a drink. She often did that, sitting on a stool with her legs crossed at the thigh, letting a shoe swing from her foot.

 Little Monsters taps into 60s Britain, and in this well-crafted, multilayered novel, nothing occurs without a reason. The insertion of the seminal film Whistle Down the Wind, for example, is no chance selection. Is there a better film that portrays children caught up in events beyond their moral comprehension?

I don’t care for a child-narrator, but in this case the story is told by a now-adult Carol who’s living in Italy with Jozef (yes, one of those plot bombs I mentioned earlier). The novel goes back forth between Carol’s life at The Mermaid and decades later when she meets her own “little monster,” a 13-year-old refugee named Kakuna. Unfortunately Carol’s childhood experiences have created a void of vulnerability, and in an effort to repair her own childhood, she’s unable to deal with Kakuna objectively. Author Charles Lambert asks whether we ever completely heal from our darkest & most tragic experiences:

Sometimes I think there in only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.

The plot-bombs planted in the story render this tale a great deal of its power, and the fact that the author does not feel compelled to connect all the dots only increases the novel’s readability and subtle air of mystery. This powerful, quietly disturbing tale of displacement is forgivably marred only by the last few pages, but apart from that, this really is an excellent novel.

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Any Human Face by Charles Lambert

I had a bit of luck recently when I won a book give-away held by The Fiction Desk. The book, Any Human Face by Charles Lambert arrived and I almost immediately picked it up. I planned to read the back cover and perhaps a page or two as I had another book I intended to get to first. I ended up devouring this book in two separate readings over the course of a twenty-four hour period. The blurb on the front of the novel promises: A dark, fast-paced story of love, sex, abduction and murder, and the book certainly lives up to all those qualities.

The main character of the novel is Andrew Caruso, a man in his 50s who owns a sad little bookshop in Rome. His father was Italian and his mother Scottish, but Andrew manages to be neither. It’s 2008, and he’s lived in Rome now for decades. While he ‘fits’ in when it comes to adaptability, there’s a sense of impermanence to his life. This is expressed in the squalor of his neglected apartment (shared with a “half-starved” cat) and his complete indifference to his appearance. Even though he barely scrapes a living from the bookshop, he’s too kind to chase away the occasional shoplifter.

Andrew lives in a world of dilapidated, permeable borders. The books inside the shop, on the shelves and outside the shop, on the bargain table, are fluid categories, the membrane between his home and his place of work as punched with holes as a long-distance train ticket. Half the time, he doesn’t know where he’s put things and it’s a source of constant niggling disquiet that something important–but what?-might have gone missing.

Andrew is working on an article about one of his past lovers, a passionate explosive young Belgium photographer named Michel who killed himself back in 1983. Andrew has ‘moved on’ from the relationship, but he’s still deeply wounded by the affair. Searching through a box of Michel’s possessions brings back painful memories, but then he discovers some packages of photos he was unaware of. Pushy neurotic art director Daniela dell’ Orto comes up with the idea of holding an exhibition of Michel’s work. And from this point, things go rapidly downhill….

The narrative goes back and forth over time with each section focusing on one of the handful of characters. In 1983, for example, a young hustler named Alex has a close brush with violent death when his older lover, Bruno, is brutally murdered. Alex takes shelter at the home of former actor, the Birdman, a strange character who lives in the Piazza Vittorio. Gradually the segments of the novel show the connections between the characters, and the mystery of the photos deepens. This doling out of information makes the novel intense and an addictive read. At the same time, there’s this nagging feeling that this is a yarn–mainly due to the novel’s structure, but it’s a yarn in the best sense of the word. Any Human Face is described as “part thriller, part love story,” and while I wasn’t crazy about the love part, the story is far richer than a thriller. Yes there is a faceless power structure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but this is a book that primarily examines the shifting relationships between its characters as they cope with corruption, fear and monolithic abuse of power. How does the average person endure when they are surrounded by corruption? Well if you are lucky, you have family and friends you can count on. If you’re alone, you’re screwed.

Any Human Face tracks the way in which some characters mature or disintegrate. Alex, for example, morphs from being a selfish hustler to a decent human being, and in the process he learns to appreciate the generosity of caring relationships.  The novel also explores the idea that fringe-dwellers like the Birdman are quite aware of the darker, seamier side of life, but while they rub elbows with these elements, they manage to maintain some ethics in their personal behaviour. The Birdman dabbles in pornographic photography, and yet he is one of the kindest people in the book. He’s a marvellous friend, generous, forgiving and unselfish, yet he hardly fits into any sort of acceptable societal rules. He’s the one character who immediately grasps just what’s going on and the dangers involved of plunging in too deep. Here’s the Birdman warning Alex:

 “I don’t mean decent, respectable working-class homes like yours. I’m talking about our ruling classes. Bureaucrats, pimps, upholders of the faith. The worst kind of scum, but they don’t know that because nobody has the nerve to tell them, and if they do they’re branded as mad, or bad. As I have been, to my cost.  I’m talking about people with money and power.”

In one part of the novel, Andrew engages in anonymous wanking via an internet video, and while it’s a pseudo encounter with very little risk, it’s bleak, lonely and ultimately unsatisfying. Andrew catches himself trying to read the book titles in the background behind the anonymous man who’s wanking for an unknown audience.  There’s an emptiness to the experience that echoes through Andrew’s life. Any Human Face is a novel of connections and contrasts–anonymous sex and pornographic photographs, a missing girl snatched from the streets of Rome, sex and power, sex and vulnerability, human beings who use and exploit each other and relationships that endure.

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