Tag Archives: sociopath

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage

The thing about houses: they chose their owners, not the other way around. And this house had chosen them.”

Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel All Things Cease to Appear begins with a horrendous murder that takes place in the 70s. Catherine Clare, the wife of an art history professor, is found murdered in her Upper New York remote countryside family home. She’s been killed with an axe, and her husband, George, who soon becomes the main suspect, claims she was still alive when he left that morning. Did he murder his wife? If not, who committed this crime? What did the child, Franny, left alone with the corpse of her mother for the entire day, witness? In some ways the locals aren’t surprised that something awful happened in the remote farmhouse once owned by the ill-fated Hale family. The house, still full of the belongings of the previous owners, was neglected for years until George bought it at auction for a rock-bottom price. This is a house full of the echoes of tragedy, and according to Catherine, it’s haunted by the presence of Elly, a woman who died there.

There was something odd about the house. A chill flourished in some rooms and an odor seeped up from the cellar, the rotting carcasses of trapped mice. Even in gentle summer, when the world outside was singing its bright song, an oppressive gloom prevailed, as if the whole house had been covered, like a birdcage, with velvet cloth.

The book’s first chapter is simply amazing, and then the novel shifts focus from George and the crime back to the past as Brundage introduces various characters who all have some part to play in this cerebral tale of murder, adultery, lies and deceit. Each character is part of Brundage’s mosaic, so we see Justine, a woman who works with George, George’s boss,  a man who’s fascinated by the work of Swedenborg, Mary Lawton, the real estate agent who sold the farm to the Clares, her husband, the local sheriff who struggles to solve the murder, Willis, a young unstable woman whose presence triggers tragedy, and the three Hale boys who find excuses to hang around the Clare home.

all things cease to appear

Even though we know almost immediately that Catherine has been murdered, the step back in time moving forwards towards her death is fraught with tension and eerie suspense. There’s a poignancy as the days draw closer to the date of Catherine’s murder, accompanied by a sense of powerlessness that we cannot prevent the crime.

The day was overcast, the field thick with fog. She stepped outside and walked out into the field, and the humid air clung to her. She stood there alone in the middle of it. She could feel her outlines blurring, as if she could fade into the opaque landscape and disappear.

While this is the story of a murder, it’s also the story of how a community failed to help Catherine and the impact of the murder on various characters. This is an impoverished area, a farming community hit hard by economic realities.  The Clares are outsiders who don’t fit in with the locals, and this seals Catherine’s tragic isolation.

Elizabeth Brundage weaves a well-crafted and credible story around a murder while boldly defying genre expectations. Her interest here is the moral complexities of the situation, how violence impacts a community, a family, an individual, and in this tale we have two families damaged by violence: the Hales and the Clares. The novel’s length allows a satisfactory exploration of all the characters involved and the roles they play in Catherine’s murder, so we see the impact of the crime on the sheriff:

Over the years he’s seen just about everything–every twisted machination, most ill-conceived or plain stupid–but you get to the point, you get to the fucking point where you don’t want to see it any more.

And Willis trained to detect sociopaths, but who is nonetheless vulnerable to one. Her moral compass is scrambled thanks to her father’s career as a top defense attorney in New York:

In his boxy suit and shined shoes he meandered over to the stand like a man approaching a slutty woman in a bar, but he’s ask his questions with the voice of a priest. It didn’t matter what they were thinking now, because he knew the defendant and eventually the jury would too.

Her father could make you think he understood you, even if you’d done things that bordered on the surreal. Somehow, he justified it in his mind that, under certain circumstances, you could be driven to do anything.

If you take a look at Goodreads, you will see that readers are sharply divided. Some people loved the book and others found it meandering. Some of the reason for the diverse opinions may reside in readers’ expectations. This is not a past-paced crime book–rather this is literature that wraps itself around a murder. I’ve read Elizabeth Brundage’s other novels:  The Doctor’s Wife, Someone Else’s Child (I didn’t care for A Stranger Like You) so I knew that this wasn’t going to be just a crime novel. This is a complex novel centered on a crime, heavy on character, an exploration of the sociopathic mind and with hints of the supernatural. I have a few minor quibbles with some details of the ending, but overall, I really enjoyed this.

(there is one scene of animal cruelty but it is portrayed as such)

Review copy.

 

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A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

“The only difference between the sane and the insane is how many people you can get to agree with you.”

An unreliable narrator in a tightly developed, fascinating, claustrophobic tale of escalating madness … within a few lines, I knew I’d love this book. In A Pleasure and a Calling, author Phil Hogan creates a smoothly operating, high-functioning sociopath, the seemingly respectable owner of a prominent, successful small town real estate company who organises his lifelong programme of intense, obsessive voyeurism by collecting  & using keys of the properties he’s sold. Middle-aged Mr Heming is one of those anonymous men who easily fades into the background, and this just makes his activities that much easier to conduct as through his dream job, he uses easily accessible keys to enter into homes and spy on the residents, probing into their lives, their bank accounts, and their correspondence.

Mr. Heming narrates this tale rather as though he’s talking to an old friend, so the tone is light and leans towards camaraderie. After all, he seems to argue, his hobby really doesn’t hurt anyone, does it?

If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others?

That’s the novel’s very first sentence, and in just a few brief revealing words, sociopath Heming immediately appears to subordinate himself, with a hint of self-pity, to his victims when he calls himself a “slave” to the habits of others. In reality, Heming’s “habit” of breaking into people’s homes, spying on them and in a few cases, ruining their lives, is all about power.

a pleasure and a calllingHeming is the very worst type of sociopath–high functioning, seemingly normal, mingling with ease, able to nimbly mimic the socially required emotions, and, of course, completely lacking a conscience. Through the clever narrative, Heming presents himself initially as some sort of invisible protector of his beloved town, a do-gooder, a righter of wrongs wreaked upon the innocent by some of the nastier residents. At one point, for example, Heming observes a local man impatiently walking his dog and failing to pick up the dog’s poo. This incident outrages Heming’s sensibilities, and so he takes revenge in an incident that is to have powerful, long-range consequences.

A great deal of the novel’s success, and IMO, A Pleasure and A Calling is brilliantly conceived and perfect in its execution, comes from the well-realized creation of Heming. Author Phil Hogan slips into Heming’s skin seamlessly, and Heming’s voice and skewed vision never slips. But another large part of the novel’s success is also established through the novel’s black humour–Heming’s tone of reasonableness & logic.  This is particularly true when Heming is describing the foibles of his customers, and it’s here we see author Phil Hogan’s seductively, skillful technique as he takes us into Heming’s sick mind, and we find ourselves uncomfortably agreeing with Heming’s observations and opinions. Here he is complaining about the Cooksons–a particularly difficult married couple who’ve listed their property for sale:

I’d lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour–upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant’s cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple’s individual whims–hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef’s kitchen with wine cellar–rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as ‘that fucking creep, Heming,’ which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances–I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as them stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows–I suppose she was right.

In Heming, author Phil Hogan brilliantly creates an unforgettable character–a man who’s developed his childhood sneakiness and ‘invisibility’ in order to wreak havoc on those who offend him or who cross him in some way, and as the narrative continues, the mask of Heming as a do-gooder, the guardian angel of his town slips and the true monster underneath is revealed through key events in his childhood, his adolescence and his present. It’s clear that Heming’s life could have taken a rocky path to social failure but for the (un)fortunate circumstance of stumbling upon the very job that automatically grants him trust and allows him unfettered, unlimited access to people’s private lives.

I have to smile when newspapers–so predictable in their attempt to explain the behaviour of those transgressing social norms or the workings of the deviant mind–speak of the ‘double life’ led by this furtive criminal or that. In fact the reverse is true. It is normal people who have a ‘double life’. On the outside is your everyday life of going out to work, and going on holiday. Then there is the life you wish you had–the life that keeps you awake at night with hope, ambition, plans, frustration, resentment, envy, regret. This is a more seething life of wants, driven by thoughts of possibility and potential. It is the life you can never have. Always changing, it is always out of reach. Would you like more money? Here, have more! An attractive sexual partner? No problem. Higher status? More intelligence? Whiter teeth? You are obsessed with what is just out of your reach. It is the itch you cannot scratch. Tortured by the principle that the more you can’t have something the more you desire it, you are never happy.

The humour here is deeply and subtly embedded in the plot. At one point, for example, Heming, blithely enjoys a leisurely meal at one of his “favourite breakfast spots,” cooking for himself and reading the newspaper while the unsuspecting family members are away. Elsewhere in the book, he uses his keys to advance an obsession with a female home owner. Towards the end of the book, Heming has occasion to visit a significant figure from his past–another man whose life is ‘a pleasure and a calling.’ The introduction of this element to the book brings Heming’s addictive, compelling story full circle and forms the perfect, ironic conclusion. A Pleasure and a Calling should appeal to fans of Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here –a book that easily made my best of year list in 2011.

review copy/own a copy

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