Tag Archives: sisters

A Sister in My House: Linda Olsson

“Love is not fair. You don’t get in proportion to what you give. And you can never make someone love you.”

It’s been two years since the death of Maria and Emma’s mother, and it’s also the last time they saw each other. The two women aren’t close–they each had different fathers, and in adulthood, both sisters went their separate ways. Emma, who married and had children, took care of their mother in her final illness. Following the funeral, for reasons she can’t explain, Maria impulsively invites Emma to stay.

When the novel opens, Maria is now living in Spain, and she’s shocked when Emma writes to her accepting her impulsive invitation, and now two years later, Maria acknowledges that the invitation was “ill-considered.

a sister in my house

Maria, now in her 40s, is a very private person, and more than anything else, she resents Emma’s invasion of that privacy–her favourite time of days in the house, her favourite rooms and even her favourite restaurant all become exposed to Emma. Normally we enjoy sharing these sorts of things with people we care about, so what exactly are the issues between Maria and Emma? Maria, who is our first person narrator, considers Emma “just a kind of extra in my personal life drama.”

We had somehow been given parts in the same play, without understanding what it was about. We had played along, year after year, together yet not together at all. Whether we wanted it or not, we were inevitably connected by our common past.

To Maria, Emma’s life is smooth, traditional and uncomplicated. How little these two know about each other …..

A Sister in My House is about familial relationships: how little we know about people we grow up with, how two children who grow up in the same home share some memories while other memories seem diametrically opposed.

Nothing seems to be anybody’s fault when you look back. It’s as if everything just aimlessly happened. Evolved without anybody’s interference, and turned into a hopeless mess. A chaos where all you could do was to sit in the edge, hold on for your life, and hope that eventually a pattern would emerge. That something would point you in some direction. That somehow you would survive.

As Emma’s visit continues, Maria learns that her sister’s life isn’t as perfect as she assumed, and gradually over the course of the visit, layers of memories peel away and reveal that Emma and Maria’s early lives were complicated by stepfathers, their mother’s multiple relationships,  a stolen lover, and a dead sister, Maria’s twin Amanda.

While this is written with great intimacy, there’s a lack of passion, a distance coldness here that trivializes the issues under scrutiny. I didn’t warm to the characters. Perhaps things are resolved too easily.

Review copy.

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During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

I’d never heard of Joan Chase’s novel: During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, and while the title caught my eye, I wasn’t sure if I’d like the content. This was a case of trying the book simply because of the publisher, New York Review Books, and after ending this magnificent tale, I can easily predict that it’ll make it to my best-of-2014 list.

during the reign of the queen of persiaDuring the Reign of the Queen of Persia is set in the 50s and concerns the lives of a three-generational matriarchy with Gram at the top, her 5 daughters and 4 female cousins: Celia, Jenny, Annie and Katie. The title has an edge of irony, as the ‘Queen’ is a not an exotic figure, but a tough Ohio woman who in one scene throws a tin can at her retreating husband while yelling “horse-piss. shit-face.” Still, Gram, a woman whose early life was miserable until she inherited money, in definitely in charge, and she does what she wants:

“The way Gram told it was that all she had ever had in life was kids and work and useless men and what she wanted, and had earned besides, was to be left alone.”

The story, divided into 5 very specific chunks of history, is told collectively by the 4 young cousins. It’s impossible to tell which girl is the narrator, and identification defies logic. I tried to narrow the choice in the first section, and thought I’d nailed it, only to be trumped in the other sections. The result of this unusual, superb narrative style is that the reader intuits that the thread of the story is childhood, and its fluid narration transcends a specific character or a single version of events. Instead we have the collective experience of four young girls as they witness, respond to, and try to make sense of the tumultuous lives and the messy world of adults. The collective narrative occasionally acts as a chorus of experience as in this section which follows an episode with one of Gram’s son-in-laws, ne’er-do-well Neil, as he symbolically reestablishes his male dominance over females through a strange, sadistic ‘game’ that takes place with his two daughters (Annie and Katie), and two nieces (Celia and Jenny):

We four climb up into the haymow, up to the rafter window. We vow we will never forgive him. We swear to avenge ourselves, even if we have to pay with our lives. We tell each other how he’d feel if we died. Dry-eyed, exhausted at last, we lie in the sun-shot darkness of the barn, and the soft cries of the doves seem to be the sound of Neil’s grief when he knows that he has lost us, when he views us, innocent girls, cold and still in death.

We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. after our dip, cool, absolved, we lie upon the bank, brushed dry by the coarse grasses, which hold a mosaic of daisies and Queen Anne’s lace.

While each of the sections covers some specific, non-sequential events in the history of the family, common threads appear throughout the book: the unreliability of men, the treachery of sexuality, and the importance of the female hive. Women dominate the story, and most of the men in the story are feral–either on the periphery or drifting in and out periodically, causing trouble. The book’s first section, appropriately called Celia introduces the multi-generational family as it describes Celia’s explosive entrance into puberty which begins with the appearance of a “pack of boys” who hang around “with a patient wistfulness.” Celia’s burgeoning sexuality sprouts a series of inappropriate lectures from her mother, Libby.

“Don’t think I don’t know the charms of young men,” Aunt Libby said, and we knew she did; beautiful again, a trace of blood spurting from her cold heart, illuminating the texture of her skin, warming yellow to gold. And her eyes softening like a melting amber. They hardened again. We trembled to hear her. In Aunt Libby there was none of Gram’s flip “You may as well fall for rich as poor.” For Aunt Libby it was a matter of outrage and contest.

She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babies–stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble.

Nor would Aunt Libby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed to liquor–which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.

Even Rossie, a young male cousin, is a destructive, disruptive presence for the duration of his unsettling visits, and significantly he never integrates with his female cousins. Rossie, as a male child, cannot penetrate the world of his female cousins, and after the death of one of Gram’s daughters (in spite of the best efforts at intervention by a Christian Science sibling) we see that according to Uncle Dan, the exclusion of males continues beyond the grave:

Gram had refused to pay for that kind of burial. She had said she wasn’t going to get mixed up in any heathen ways when not a bit of it meant anything anyhow. “She’ll lay up there aside of me, where she belongs,” Gram said then. granddad was already there, on top of the hill at the cemetery, and Gram had bought plots for herself and her five children. “I don’t know what the rest of us are supposed to do,” Uncle Dan had said. “Just wander, I guess. Outside paradise.”

For most of the book, two men are residents at Gram’s Ohio farm; there’s Gram’s husband, Granddad, a surly man who takes care of the cows, and whose relationship with the rest of the family is restricted by his own resentful, anti-social behaviour, and Dan, the husband of Gram’s daughter, Libby. Dan, a butcher, the father of Celia and Jenny, and one of the book’s most stabilizing forces, who never meant to stay at the farm for long, appears to have made some sort of pact with his wife which included the return to the farm and leaving California behind. Dan, “the surviving male figure” for part of the novel, surrounded by women, is affable and easy-going–although he does have a brief rebellion through the purchase of an outdoor swing which represents his longing for California.

There was one memorable fight; it lasted two days. Uncle Dan came home with groceries and a flowered lounge for the yard or porch and Aunt Libby hit the roof the second she saw him unloading it, yelling from the window, “we can’t afford that kind of thing. you have no business. What would we do anyway with a thing like that?” Going on to tell Uncle Dan that he was forever needing some new trinket for amusement. When would he ever grow up? And when had he ever had a spare minute to lay in the sun?

“In California,” he said, as he worked to adjust the mattress, “they’re set up for this kind of thing. They don’t mind a little fun. A fellow works all his life. What’s the harm?” His face looked as though it had rained all his summers, his eyes gray from clouds that had passed over his heart.

Aunt Libby’s voice spurted anger and something of alarm too. “You! You have an uncontrollable notion to lay in the sun. What are you, a beach boy/ Use a blanket. a towel, for god’s sake. I don’t live at home with my mother, scrimping and saving, to look out the window and see you snoozing on a bed of roses–orange roses at that. The thing reminds me of an orgy, just looking at it.”

“That thing reminds me of everything I’ll never have,” Uncle Dan said.

It would be easy to say that not a great deal happens in the book–people die, fall in and out of love, one girl becomes engaged, one gets married and a baby is expected, but in this rich story of life with all of its messy complications, the focus is on the details of these tribal relationships. Gram, a wise, solid life force, has experienced and endured a great deal, and “fed up with cooking” and work, she spends her evenings at “bingo parties, horse racing, roulette at a private club” opting to stay out of her children’s lives, except for the occasional battle with her husband or one of her sons-in-law. Now her children are adults, she mostly ignores them even though her large home is a refuge from trauma for her daughters. With just one daughter, Libby, there permanently, the other daughters come and go, particularly at times of crisis, gathering strength from each other even as they acknowledge differences and weaknesses. Interestingly, apart from the occasional neighbor, we don’t see much of life beyond the farm, but it simply doesn’t matter in this wonderful, timeless tale of family, childhood, love and loss.

 

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Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing by Jane Dunn

“Sisters are,” author Jane Dunn tells us “special,” and with a backlist which includes the book, Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, it’s easy to conclude that the author, Jane Dunn, is drawn to these “protean” relationships. Dunn admits in the intro to Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing to a fascination with the du Maurier sisters: Daphne, Angela and Jeanne. Not only does the author find it “psychologically interesting” that Daphne’s fame “so eclipse[d]” her siblings, but she found it even more “intriguing” that the three entirely different sisters who led vastly dissimilar lives were so “strongly imprinted with family values.” Before arriving at the book, I was unaware that Daphne du Maurier had any siblings at all, but then again, although I have read many of her novels, I knew very little about her private life other than a few facts about the fabulous du Maurier family and Daphne’s connection to the “lost boys” who inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. For those who enjoy reading biography, Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Private Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing comes highly recommended especially for those who have a healthy appreciation of Daphne du Maurier’s work. Some readers, I’m aware, prefer not to know the details of the private lives of the authors they read and enjoy. With this book, Daphne du Maurier fans will gain an almost-blow-by-blow account of exactly how each of her books came to be created. I’ve read my fair share of biographies and yet I can’t remember one in which events in the author’s life so clearly morphed into a novel, and author Jane Dunn carefully fleshes out Daphne du Maurier’s life, the books and the themes that became signposts of the various events that took place as well as the places that inspired several of her better-known works.

Daphne du maurierBut here I am allowing my description of the book to concentrate on the very talented Daphne du Maurier to the neglect of her siblings. As Jane Dunn explains, searching for information about Angela led to an “intriguing journey” while the search for Jeanne has been “blocked” by her lifelong partner who retains all of Jeanne’s paintings and papers and is “adamantly set against” any biography of the sisters. This explains why a clear image of Angela emerges while the portrait of Jeanne remains somewhat murky.

Taking a chronological approach, the book opens with the unusual and privileged childhood of the three du Maurier girls–the last of the du Mauriers. Their father, Gerald, an actor and later a theatrical manager, wanted a son, and Daphne, the middle child became his clear favorite serving as a surrogate son while the youngest daughter, Jeanne became the favourite of the girls’ actress mother, Muriel.  Gerald appears in these pages as a glamorous figure, dashing and gregarious, and yet at the same time there is a darker side. While the three girls were definitely brought up in a protected environment, conflicting values emerge in their upbringing. They were mainly taught at home, and their education sounds wildly erratic with a maid, at one point, “engaged in trying to teach six-year-old Jeanne to read.”  While in some aspects of their lives, the girls were shielded, yet they also regularly attended the theatre and were given  a great deal of freedom when it came to their creativity and their imagination. Beyond a doubt, for the eldest two girls, Angela and Daphne, Gerald, “the grand panjandrum of his universe” emerges as the most formative figure of their lives who “alternated between laxity and ridiculous strictness,” and was, according to Angela “an emotional bully” capable of moments of cruelty. Gerald “hated and feared homosexuality,” an attitude that seems significant when considering the adult lives of his daughters. Gerald’s relationships with his daughters was problematic–he was domineering and possessive, and “burst into tears and cried,it isn’t fair’ ” when he heard the news of Daphne’s upcoming marriage. He also somewhat bizarrely confided his amorous adventures to his daughters:

Unusual for his generation, Gerald enjoyed his daughters’ company and this intimacy meant his influence on their growing minds was all the more powerful and potentially malign. Unusually for any generation, Gerald, confided his romantic entanglements with young actresses to Angela and Daphne and made an entertainment of it, inviting them to scoff at the young women’s naivety and misplaced hopes, and compromising the sisters’ natural loyalty to their mother, who was not included in these confidences. These young actresses were nicknamed ‘the stable’ by his daughters, who were encouraged to think of them as fillies in a race for the prize of their father’s attention. His daughters ‘would jeer, “And what’s the form this week? I’m not going to back [Miss X] much longer”,’ and they laughed as their father brilliantly mimicked the voices and mannerisms of the poor deluded girls.  

What’s so fascinating is that even though these three girls had, arguably, the same childhood environment albeit tainted with “manipulative favouritism,” that could so easily have led to bitter rivalry, individual characteristics were quickly clearly apparent.

Already very unalike in character, both girls seemed to inhabit parallel universes, Angela’s emotional, connected to others and Daphne’s bounded only by her imagination and peopled with her own creations. With a macabre detachment she could dispassionately watch the gardener at Slyfield nail a live adder to a tree, declaring it would take all day to die, and return at intervals to watch it writhing in its desperate attempts to break free. Aunt Billy had given Daphne two doves in a cage and she found it tiresome to have to feed and care for them when she would rather be out doing interesting things. She was struck how Angela loved administering to her pair of canaries and sang while she cleared out their droppings and sprinkled fresh sand on the base of their cage. Daphne’s solution was to set her doves free and accept without complaint the scolding that would be forthcoming, for this was the price of her freedom from care.

These sorts of patterns of behaviour only became more reinforced as the girls grew older. Angela became a great lover of Pekinese, a careful, devoted owner while several of Daphne’s dogs seemed to meet a sticky end. All three sisters exhibited a tremendous emotional bond with the houses they lived in and which they imprinted in various ways. Jeanne settled in “an ancient house and remarkable symbolic garden in the heart of Dartmoor,” while both Daphne and Angela were deeply rooted in Cornwall, and of course, all Daphne fans know about Menabilly– –“the love of her life.” This love of the region naturally seeped through to Daphne du Maurier’s work, and the novels Jamaica Inn, the House on the Strand, Frenchman’s Creek, and The King’s General were inspired by places in Daphne’s beloved Cornwall.

The book charts the lives of the sisters through their relationships and creative careers. Angela was also a novelist, but unfortunately her novels were not as well-received as those of her sister, and now she’s almost completely forgotten.  There’s a great moment recounted from Angela’s memoir,  It’s Only the Sister in which Angela tells of an incident in which she was mistaken for Daphne and how a woman who seemed delighted to meet her, turned away, her disappointment blatant, with the utterance that became the book’s title. Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters gives the sense that the three sisters were all fascinating, unique individuals, but also fascinatingly different. I came to the book with a deep appreciation for Daphne du Maurier’s work, and I left with a feeling that I would rather have liked Angela, one of the two forgotten sisters and also that it is a great shame that Jeanne remains in the shadows.

Review copy

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The Vatard Sisters by J.-K. Huysmans

What a stroke of luck to come across another Huysmans novel. The Vatard Sisters is the second novel from Huysmans, and while it’s a great read, it’s also an interesting marker of this remarkable writer’s career.  Huysmans is best known for the novel, Against Naturea quintessential book of the Decadent period. Huysmans’ first novel, Martha places the author closer to Naturalism, and he’s still in the Naturalism phase with Les Soeurs Vatard (The Vatard Sisters), so it’s no surprise that the book comes with a dedication to Emile Zola from “his fervent admirer and devoted friend.” Huysmans is not yet at the height of his talent, and while The Vatard Sisters lacks the social power and observation of Zola’s  L’Assommoir, Zola’s influence in this marvellous novel is apparent.  Huysmans was initially attracted to the novels of Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers, but in 1875, Huysmans bought the early volumes of the Rougon-Macquart cycle and became a dedicated reader and defender of Zola.

The Vatard Sisters (1879) is a fairly simple story wrapped about the love affairs of two Parisian working-class sisters, Céline and Désirée Vatard. Céline, blonde, bold and vigorously healthy is very different from her dark, quiet, “rougishly attractive,” younger sister Désirée.

Désirée, an urchin of fiteen, a brunette with large, pale eyes that were somewhat crossed, plump without being fat, attractive and clean; and Céline, the carouser, a big girl with clear eyes and hair the colour of straw, a solid vigorous girl whose blood raced and danced in her veins, a great minx who had run after men ever since the first onset of puberty.

It’s the 1870s and the sisters work long, tedious hours as bookbinders. Huysmans brings the Débonnaire company to life with vivid, lively descriptions of the social interactions between the workers:

They all detested each one another and they all, men and women alike, understood one another like thieves at a fair when it came to deceiving the supervisors, but outside the shop, they scarcely ever got together except to exchange blows or scratches. Once the morning work began the sight of a late arrival barely able to drag herself to her place or still wearing heavy, black eyeshadow was cause for great hilarity, with everyone leaping about in rowdy abandon. If the owner, exasperated at seeing some great devil of a guy as drunk as a polack, bouncing from one pile to another, paid him off and fired him, that did not prevent the woman this drunk honoured with his caresses and blows from getting up and leaving, dragging with her the whole group that took her side. This always provoked some booing from the other workers, punctuated by a scattering of doleful remarks from the older, more worldly-wise women who complained “Isn’t she stupid to follow a man who beats her! I would get rid of him!” Ironically, the same older woman would arrive the next day with a black eye or with marks on their faces and then energetically defend their own man when the others called him a thief and coward! Gossip was a way of life in the workshop. So and so was running around like a bitch in heat after a man who did not care at all about her. She whined all day long at her work and ended up tearing out the hair of the other woman who was dishonest enough to have stolen away her lover and tease enough to have put it up to her face. With all these little disputes embittered by stupidity, with all this hatred enflamed by contact with the male population, it was a miracle that ten or twelve of the same women remained at the end of several days. The Débonnaire sieve was not stoppered, like a stream of dirty water all its personnel of men and women rolled in waves to gush out through the hole of its doors into the street.

Huysmans gives us some delicious glimpses into Parisian working class life–both at work and at play. In one scene the company owner is plagued  by a bill collector who’s owed money by an employee, and in another, a debt collector comes around with an account book in which he records payments for amounts owed by the workers.

The women worked just enough to allow them to stuff themselves with fried potatoes and buy cheap jewelry. The men worked simply because it allowed them to put away great quantities of white wine in the morning and spend their afternoons lapping up liters of cheap red wine.

Reminiscent, of course, of L’Assommoir, but Huysmans’ picture of working-class life as seen through the lives of the Vatard sisters isn’t as bleak as the life of Zola’s Gervaise. While the married women at the Débonnaire company complain about the drunkards they have for husbands and sport black eyes and bruises to prove it, Désirée and Céline are still unmarried. Marriage may seem to be inevitable, but neither sister is in a hurry to wed. Who can blame them? Not only are they surrounded at work by squabbling spouses, but the Vatard home life isn’t exactly perfect. Madame Vatard is an invalid who spends her days in a paralytic state “like a lump,” and that places the burden of the household onto the sisters. Vatard accepts that Céline is the flightier and more promiscuous of his two daughters and conveniently concludes that “if she wanted to live like a slut, he would rather have her cheerful and not nasty and mean like all those girls embittered by celibacy.” On the other hand, he encourages his favourite daughter, Désirée, who considers herself “a real lady” to remain celibate and set high expectations when contemplating a future husband. Incidentally, Vatard has a vested interest in keeping Désirée at home at night in order to help with household chores. Céline warns Désirée that she’s too picky, and she’ll “end up badly.” Désirée has learned much from Céline’s example, and she’s seen how Céline, quick to offer sex to lovers, has been quickly abused and abandoned by them. Consequently, Désirée is “guarding the flower of her maidenhood, very determined not to lose it except for good cause.” 

 When the novel begins, Céline’s latest lover in a series of disappointing men is a rather sly, opportunistic character named Anatole–a man who holds great appeal for most women. Céline has the habit of dragging fifteen-year-old Désirée out in the evening in order to make up a foursome with Anatole’s friend, Colombel, but he fails to capture Désirée’s attention. Unlike Céline, Désirée has no intention of having sex until she’s married, and she dreams of a bourgeois paradise complete with the sort of bric-a-brac she’s spied in shop windows:

She wanted a husband who did not have spots on his shirt, who washed his feet at least once a week, a man who did not drink and would permit her at last to realize her dream: to have a bedroom with flowered wallpaper, a walnut bed and table, white curtains on the windows, a pincushion made of shells, a cup with her initials in gold on the dresser, and a nice picture hanging on the wall, perhaps a print of a little cupid knocking on a door.  

Into Désirée’s life enters Auguste, a former soldier who takes a lowly, poor paying job at the Débonnaire company. He catches Désirée’s eye, and in turn, she has a definite appeal for him. As for Céline, she tires of Anatole and after listening to another girl bragging about her wealthy lover, she decides to catch a rich, older lover–someone who will buy her presents and new clothes. Céline enters the life of artist Cyprien. And it’s with this character we see a glimpse of Against Nature.

In fact, he was really quite debauched. His taste ran the gamut of all the nuances of vice, provided they were subtle and complex. He had been fortunate enough to have made love to third-rate actresses as well as to the dregs. Frail and excessively nervous, haunted by those unheard ardors that rise from exhausted organs, he had reached the point of no longer dreaming of anything other than sexual fantasies spiced with perverse faces and baroque trappings. Where art was concerned, he understood only the modern. Caring little about the vast-off clothing of old periods, he asserted that a painter ought to render only that which he was able to visit and see. Now since prostitutes made up the bulk of his acquaintances, they were the sole subjects of his paintings.

The Vatard Sisters takes a generous look at the foibles of  human nature and is a delight to read with its scenes of noisy cafe life, the Absinthe Hour, tawdry fairgrounds and shabby music halls.  Céline and  Désirée are on the brink of their lives, poised on the edge of making decisions regarding marriage and children, and they make different choices. Through the lives of these two women, Huysmans examines the development and decline of relationships, the roles of love and sex, the confusion between the two, and adds frank mention of sexual frustration and masturbation.  For this reader, the novel’s reaches its apex with Cyprien poignantly reminiscing in bed alone at night–and through this passage, Huysmans allows us to forgive this character who has had a sort of comeuppance.

Overwhelmed by the memory of all those broken liaisons, stirred by all these faces passing before his eyes with their bedroom smiles and the spit they had thrown in his face upon leaving him, he extinguished his lamp.

Translated by James C. Babcock

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Peerless Flats by Esther Freud

I arrived at Esther Freud’s novel, Peerless Flats after reading and throughly enjoying one of this author’s short stories. I am drawn to short story collections with multiple authors as a way of ‘trying’ out new names. A novel by Freud, Hideous Kinky, was made into a film. I wasn’t crazy about the film, but I was interested to try a novel. Peerless Flats should be, according to traditional literary conventions, a bildungsroman–a coming-of-age novel in which we see the moral, social and psychological maturation of the main character. But none of these things take place for sixteen-year-old Lisa in spite of the fact that she is faced with decisions about sex, drugs, loyalty & responsibility. As a result, the novel seems to say a great deal more about the shapeless void of modern society and the shameless lack of parenting than anything else.

Peerless Flats, and what a cruel name that really is, is the name given to a block of bleak, slum flats in London. It’s here our heroine, Lisa, homeless, lands with her somewhat feckless mother, Marguerite and younger half-brother, Max. They’ve been “dogsitting” for an acquaintance, but now that this person is returning from America, Lisa, Max and Marguerite have n0where to stay. The flat is supposed to be temporary, but it soon looks as though Lisa and her family will be stuck there for some time.

As the novel continues, it becomes clear that this state of affairs is just the latest episode of impermanence in sixteen-year-old Lisa’s life. Her mother could probably be described as a sort of feckless hippie. They’ve spent the last 7 years living with Swan Henderson, the man who fathered Max, but Swan has moved on to a younger woman, and is planning a “round-the-world sailing trip with a Dutch nursery school teacher named Trudi.” As a result of the break up of Lisa’s mother with Swan,  Lisa, Max and Marguerite have moved to London. The prospect of landing in London with nowhere to live and with two children to care for doesn’t particularly worry Marguerite. She tells Lisa, “Something is bound to turn up.”

The flat, and it’s a lifesaver when they get the key, is an abysmally depressing place with “rubbish thrown from the windows above by people too lazy to use a dustbin”:

The man stooped on the fourth floor and unlocked a door, and for a moment they all stood crowded together in the tiny hall of the flat. The council man showed them wordlessly around. he pushed a door open into the sitting-room. It was oblong and empty, with wooden floorboards and a window with small panes that cut the tower block opposite into squares. There was a bathroom  and a narrow kitchen with flowers in orange, brown and yellow in the wallpaper all linked together with hairy green stalks. Max covered his eyes when he saw them. At the end of the kitchen was a toilet in a little room that hung out over the edge of the building.

With no bedrooms and very little money, the mother and two children basically camp out in the flat.

Lisa has a sister, Ruby, a girl who possesses a sort of reckless glamour. She lives with a thug named Jimmy Bright, now sports an East Ender accent and is experimenting with heroin:

Ruby was meant to be in London on a History of Art course. By the end of the first term she had already dropped out and was working in a shop that sold bondage trousers and plastic shorts and shirts with one sleeve longer than the other. People were whispering that Ruby was on drugs. That she was having an affair with a Sex Pistol. That is was a sacrilege to cut off that beautiful waist-length hair. Lisa felt immeasurably proud.

Just as Max’s father Swan feels ok with taking a round-the-world boat trip and forgetting he has a son, similarly Lisa and Ruby’s mostly disinterested father floats somewhere off in the background. He’s not really part of their lives, but he’s happy enough to show up occasionally to buy the odd meal out. He’s a shady character whose exact employment remains vague. Ruby is clearly their father’s favourite, and there’s no attempt to pretend otherwise.

Peerless Flats is not a particularly shaped novel and it mirrors the drifting nature of Lisa’s life. While Lisa attends drama school, the novel takes an impressionistic approach by not examining Lisa’s day-to-day life. The story covers a period of time in Lisa’s troubled life as she drifts in and out of various situations and relationships. On one hand she becomes obsessed with the idea that someone will spike either her food or drink with drugs, and yet at the same time, she experiments with drugs. She strikes up unformed relationships with two young men–Tom, who really fancies the much more glamorous and self-destructive Ruby, and Quentin, a twenty-five-year-old “down-on-his-luck drug dealer” who pressures Lisa into giving him a windfall bag of pot. Lisa drifts into various situations that expose her vulnerability while she partially longs to be more like Ruby and secretly wishes for a more permanent home.

Peerless Flats is predominantly a very sad story. Here’s this sixteen-year-old girl who has no ‘adults’ in her life. She’s responsible for herself, and just one look at Ruby tells us what a disaster this can turn out to be. Every day Lisa walks a tightrope. Danger seems to surround her–from the nights she walks alone in the dark streets to the errand she’s sent on to acquire Heroin.

The characters are mostly well-drawn–although the adults are definitely blurry; I suspect this is a deliberate decision. I particularly loved the doom-ridden Ruby and her attempts at drug rehab, but at the same time Lisa is the more substantial sister. Here’s Lisa visiting Ruby in one of her several hospital stays:

She found Ruby sitting on a bench in the garden. She was as yellow as ever and seemed to have made some friends. She introduced Lias to two girls. Marlene, who was West Indian and not yellow but a greenish colour, and a girl called Trish, who was so thin and fragile Lisa wondered that she was able to sit up unaided.

‘It’s brilliant in here,’ Ruby beamed, ‘you can get all the gear you want.’

Lisa’s face fell. She had Ruby’s packet of heroin all ready to present to her.

‘You just place an order with Trish’s boyfriend and next visiting hour it arrives with the grapes.’

‘Oh,’ Lisa said

‘Yeah, Marlene winked, ‘we don’t half save a lot on syringes.’ And the three girls erupted into a fit of giggles. Lisa smiled weakly. She still had a stitch from the last sprint from the station. When they recovered, Trish and Marlene went off to raid the kitchens. ‘There’s a whole freezer full of raspberry ripple.’

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