Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

The Murder of My Aunt: Richard Hull (1934)

Murder has several sub-categories: there’s the Crime of Passion, murders for monetary gain, murders for revenge, and the list goes on. When the victim is known to the murderer, naturally, the possibility of motive (or motives) can help solve the case. So the dilemma arises, then– how to murder someone if it’s obvious that you are the most likely culprit?

The Murder of my aunt

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred just outside of the Welsh town of Llwll (which Edward pronounces ‘Filth.’) Edward prefers Surrey, but if he could choose to live anywhere, he would move abroad. The novel opens with snobbish, pretentious Edward launching into a long vitriolic attack on Wales.

There is a high street. It has a post office, from which the letters are occasionally deviled and occasionally not–some grocers, dealing almost entirely in tinned food of the most elementary and obvious kind at fifty per cent more than the proper price; and some butchers, selling mainly New Zealand lamb, Danish bacon and Argentine beef, which is ridiculous in a countryside which, whatever its defects, is full of sheep–peculiarly stupid sheep–and very inquisitive pigs.

There’s one cinema in town but Edward does “not consent to be seen” there as the locals smell. But then does Edward like anything? Yes he does, he loves leisure, loves his car which is named “La Joyeuse,” loves his Pekingese So-So, and loves his French novels

Edward and his Aunt Mildred are more like each other than they’d care to admit, and the two embark on a contest of wills concerning Edward’s smutty (according to his Aunt)  French novels. Edward wants the latest shipment delivered to his aunt’s house and she wants him to start hoofing it to town to pick up the package. A power struggle ensues over petrol with Edward planning to siphon petrol from his Aunt’s car, but she’s so intent on making him walk, that she actually siphons the petrol off herself.

With just a tiny amount of petrol salvaged from his Aunt’s sabotage attempts, Edward tries to drive to the town and then is forced, when the car runs out of petrol, to walk. He realises that he’s the laughing-stock of the townspeople and is so angry, he swears he will kill his Aunt. This is where Edward’s problems take a turn: how can he kill his Aunt, who is both the guardian and trustee of the family nestegg, when he is her heir, and her death will, naturally,  leave him as the only suspect? Edward reasons that her death must be an ‘accident,’ and so he proceeds to create one … or two …or three.

The story is mostly narrated, unreliably, by Edward, so we get his side of things: his victimhood, his loathing of all things Welsh, etc, and yet reading between the lines, Edward is a lazy, good-for-nothing, who sponges off his Aunt. She wants him to get a job, horror of horrors, which he feels is “degrading,” although he toys with the idea of being a poet. At one point in the book I thought that Edward’s sole redeeming feature was his love for his Pekingese So-So, but one of my favourite sayings is : “sometimes you don’t want to be the object of someone’s affection,” and this is certainly the case with poor So-So, so reader beware. I think the passages concerning So-So’s involvement with one of the fabricated accidents is meant to be ‘funny,’ but it really isn’t.

The book presents a ‘pressure cooker’ murder (a term I use to describe a murder that is created by enforced proximity–a situation so intense that murder of one of the parties seems to be the only solution–when it isn’t in fact. The real solution is that one of the parties involved should move away … asap.) For its structure the novel is sound, and its psychological aspects fascinating, but it is a mostly interior tale which involves Edward’s long complaints: Wales, his aunt, the locals, etc. They all get a sound whipping, and while these passages are witty and entertaining, the lack of action makes the novel drag at some points. Plus I can’t forgive the incident with So-So.

Review copy.

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The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy lingered on the shelf for some time, but the enthusiasm of the Gerts drove the book closer to the top of the pile. Good thing too, as this book is just the sort of read I crave. Why: the viewpoint of an unreliable protagonist, a summer holiday, and the nebulous morality of a handful of characters.

The story is told through the mind of main character Matthew, a British chef who moved to America and is between jobs after selling a restaurant. He’s a part, an outer part, of his wealthy cousin Charlie’s life. Charlie, an investment banker who was ‘let go’ is also between jobs, but whereas Charlie has a considerable family fortune to bolster his lifestyle, Matthew does not. The third main character here is Charlie’s second wife Chloe, and when Charlie invites Matthew to his second home near the town of Aurelia in New York State for the duration of the summer, Matthew jumps at the chance.

What should be an idyllic summer is actually a season of tension, unease and strange undercurrents which shift beneath the three main characters. Charlie spends most of the time alternating between his next career move and meditating, Chloe is supposedly attending yoga classes, and Matthew is a sort of go-fer, using Charlie’s card to buy high-end food items with which he prepares nightly meals. While the three people share an address, they don’t share space apart from meal times.

The summer thickened around them. Soon it reached that point of miraculous equilibrium where it felt at once as if it had been going on forever and as if it would never end. The heat merged with the constant sounds of insects and red-winged blackbirds, to form its own throbbing, hypnotic medium. It made you feel as if you were inside some green-lit womb, full of soft pulsations. 

The relationship between the three characters, on the surface, seems comfortable. Matthew admits (to himself) a “general feeling of enchantment” in Chloe’s company. Everyone says the right things, and yet… the relationship between Charlie and Matthew, under scrutiny, seems strained. Can this be explained by the gap in their social status? There’s something unhealthy and unspoken here: a toleration instead of a family bond. A gap in fortunes and social status can (and often does) create awkward moments. That’s definitely true here, and there’s the feeling that Matthew ‘pays’ for his board by running errands and cooking meals. Plus there’s an undercurrent of an alternate agenda from Matthew. He wants to “jumpstart his career,” and there’s a falseness, an element of hanger-on to this relationship.

Matthew, who is bewitched by Chloe, admits that “the woman who was so obviously the right woman for Charlie, was, so to speak, the right woman” for him. He’s content to admire her, and bask in her company, but the situation shifts when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, and it’s this discovery which shifts the unease into overdrive.

Meanwhile the sight of Charlie working or meditating, or driving off in his tennis gear, formed an image of increasingly irritating innocence. Even his pleasantly mindless activities were losing their charm, their soothing rhythms broken by gusts of crackling interference from a situation that had nothing to do with the problems he was trying to sort out. 

James Lasdun creates an odd love-quadrangle here with Matthew as the bit player and yet one who places himself in the power position in the affair. Matthew could tell his cousin Charlie, but should he? After all, if he tells Charlie, Charlie will be devastated and there goes Matthew’s relationship with Chloe (not to mention the cessation of his summer holiday). At first Matthew’s discovery is a moral dilemma but as the novel continues, Matthew’s role becomes much darker.

The Gerts describe the plot as Hitchcockian, and I agree. The Fall Guy plumbs the depths of dark human emotions while teasing the reader with the possibilities of the true, twisted nature of the relationships which exist between these characters.

Highly recommended. Mixed opinions on Goodreads, but I loved it.

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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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The Good House: Ann Leary

“I get so paranoid when I drink; that’s what AA and rehab will do for you.”

The funny, tart voice of a stubborn, alcoholic woman (in denial) as she careens though her life makes The Good House the most entertaining, funny and surprising book I’ve read in a long time.

Divorced 60-year-old real estate agent Hildy Good is one of Wendover’s most successful businesswomen. Wendover, located on Boston’s North shore, is a strange blend of legacy residents (Hildy can trace her family back to the Salem witch trials) and new money incomers who are looking for a better quality life for their children. Hildy capitalizes on local news (and gossip) to land listings and sales. So what if she drinks too much. That’s her business isn’t it? And her life was going great, wasn’t it, until her two adult daughters arranged an intervention, and Hildy went off to rehab.

The Good House

When we meet Hildy, she’s out of rehab, back at work, but listings and sales are dropping. A former employee, “with all sorts of liposuctioning and flesh tucking,” is her biggest competitor and Hildy’s stint in rehab may have allowed the competitor an edge that Hildy is now desperately chasing. With a mortgage she can’t really afford, and still paying for therapy (and more) for her two daughters, Hildy is squeezed to the max.

Hildy, our unreliable narrator, is in control of what we see, but even so through the denial, the cracks show. At rehab, she didn’t think she belonged, but she completed the programme in order to get her daughters off her back and so that she could see her grandson.

How could anyone, besides my ridiculous, ungrateful spoiled daughters, imagine that I had a problem with alcohol?

She used to drink with a friend, but now that she is supposedly dry, she drinks alone on the sly. She has ‘rules’ about drinking, and she keeps a secret stash in the cellar where no one will find it. She likes herself more when she’s drunk, and thinks alcohol enables her success. Over the course of the novel, her relationship with alcohol becomes more and more problematic. Whether she’s driving drunk, experiencing blackouts, or sneaking vodka at family holidays, Hildy’s life is out-of-control.

While the novel is ostensibly about Hildy’s alcoholism, other characters in Hildy’s life drag her into various problems. Rebecca, a beautiful, troubled, wealthy newcomer becomes friends with Hildy–drinking friends, and so we see how alcohol impairs Hildy’s judgement and how it impacts her emotional responses. Then there’s Hildy’s long-cold romance with Frank Getchell, a local bachelor with desirable legacy property, who makes a rather lucrative living collecting trash and doing various construction jobs. At yet another remove, we see how Hildy functions in a community where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, and the locals who used to own the big properties are now lucky if they can get a job working for the new owners.

Hildy is always an entertaining narrator whether she’s complaining about a fellow dinner guest using any excuse to talk about her “annoying writing,” or bitching about a rival grandmother:

Honestly, if she hadn’t had my grandchild in her arms, I would have clocked her on the head. Could she have been more obnoxious about Grady? I’ve never liked Nancy Watson. She’s a nitwit. When not watching Grady, she’s busy “scrapbooking,” which is her hobby, and Tess is always showing me the sickly-sweet scrapbooks featuring Grady that Nancy puts together, seemingly every week. I always smile as Tess flips the pages for me, and I say things like “Imagine having all that time to devote to something like this.”

The Good House is consistently funny from the first page until the end. Hildy always surprised me with just how far she was prepared to go. She’s dug down so deep in denial that there were numerous occasions when I was deceived, and either laughed out loud at the consequences or shock my head in concern. Unreliable narrator, psychiatry and real estate are all buttons for me.

I was sorry to finish this novel, and sorry to say goodbye to Hildy–a woman who’s extremely capable, someone who has an uncanny knack at ‘reading’ people but who is blind to herself. At one point she brags to local psychiatrist:

I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions.

According to Hildy:

I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives–you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before, the marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s more clearly hers--well you get the idea. 

Finally, beyond the entertainment factor there’s real quality here. Hildy’s youth is seen in shimmering, poignant flashbacks, and it’s really really well done.

TBR list

(There’s a film of this book in production. I would have preferred to have seen a miniseries–thinking Big Little Lies)

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Smile: Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s novel Smile explores the disappointments of middle age through its first person narrator, Victor. When we are first introduced to 54-year-old Victor, he’s in Donnelly’s, a pub he’s decided is his local. We know right away that Victor’s life is in transition. Gradually, through Victor’s reminiscences and a bizarre relationship he strikes up with another pub denizen, we discover that he was married to TV personality Rachel, the founder of Meals on Heels. They met years earlier when they were both on their way up. She was a one-woman catering business, and Victor wrote for magazines, planning to write a book in the future.

SMile

Victor was “happy pretending to be Dublin’s Lester Bangs,” but we know that Victor’s life hasn’t gone the way he planned.  He’s no longer with Rachel. Although the details are vague, there’s the implicit idea that as a highly successful woman, she’s moved on, while Victor admits he’s “between things.”

I was used to being alone. I don’t think I felt lonely. I missed being married but I’m not sure that I missed Rachel. The aloneness was cleaner now. I wasn’t surrounded by her world. I didn’t have to hide. 

Victor spends a lot of time in denial: he’s not lonely (hopes to be included in male friendship at the pub), doesn’t miss Rachel (stalks her Facebook page), and thinks it would be “sad, a man of my age going back to some wrinkled version of his childhood. Looking for the girls he’d fancied forty years ago.” And yet he obsesses on the sister of fellow drinker, Fitzpatrick wondering what she’s like, if she still fancies him.

It’s a sad situation: where did Victor’s life go wrong? Why did his career never take off? Rather pathetically, he lives just a couple of miles away from his old primary school. He’s lost Rachel, their life together, the home they shared abroad. This is a life in transition, and where it’s headed looks bleak.

Buried underneath the narrative, there’s a strain of something peculiar. Victor tries to avoid Fitzgerald, an unpleasant man who claims to know him from the school they both attended which was run by priests. Victor has no memory of Fitzgerald, and yet Fitzgerald remembers Victor all too well, frequently bringing up incidents that Victor would prefer to remain buried:

-What was the name of the Brother that used to fancy you? he said.

He patted the table.

-What was his fuckin’ name?

His shirt was pink and I could tell that it had cost a few quid. But there was something about it, or the way it sat on him; it hadn’t always been his.

-Murphy, he said.-Am I right?

-There were two Murphys, I said.

-Were there?

-History and French.

-Were they not the same cunt?

I shook my head.

-No.

-Jesus, he said.-I hate that. The memory. It’s like dropping bits of yourself as you go along, isn’t it?

The sad, lonely reminiscences of Victor as he spends nights at the pub are well done. Victor is accepted by a small circle of other men as long as he buys rounds, and these rejected middle-aged men perk up when the women in their 40s enter the pub. These wonderful scenes evoke the teenage equivalent–one side aware of the other but desperately appearing to be oblivious of the opposite sex. This time the game is minus impetuosity, minus energy–just imagine a deflated, wrinkled balloon.

So far so great, but the novel’s denouement was disappointing. The rug was pulled out and instead of a lonely middle-aged loser, we have something entirely different. I wouldn’t have minded the general idea, but in its entirety, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. Looking at other reviews, I seem to be in the minority opinion on this.

Review copy

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Hard Feelings: Jason Starr

“I ordered a Scotch and soda. I put the glass up to my lips and paused, asking myself, Do you really want to do this? Myself said, You bet.”

Hard Feelings follows its first person narrator, Richie Segal as his life slides out-of-control. Richie is a salesman, once a top salesman of computer networks, but when the book opens, he’s in a slump. Sales call after sales call lead to bleak days at work, and to Richie’s boss hinting about termination. Something’s off with Richie. Perhaps it’s the alcohol. Perhaps it’s the pressure. Or perhaps it’s because he catches a glimpse of Michael Rudnick, an old neighbour from Brooklyn. ….

Richie and his wife, Paula, are a childless New York couple who live paycheck to paycheck. Their short evenings after work are composed of selecting which takeout to order, watching TV and walking the dog. It’s a daily grind, with the possibility of children and life in the suburbs the rewards at the end of the rainbow. Tensions exist between Richie and Paula, and at first it isn’t quite clear why Paula doesn’t want children. Perhaps it’s because her career is on the rise and she makes more money than Richie, or perhaps she’s having an affair. Richie, as our unreliable narrator, never quite tells the entire story. ….

Hard feelings

Richie’s sighting of Rudnick coincides with his career and marriage slump. Soon, he can’t stop thinking about Rudnick and how Rudnick molested him years earlier. Rudnick is now a successful lawyer, but Richie, reeling from bad memories mixed with booze, wants to make Rudnick pay.  Obsessed with Rudnick, suspicious that Paula is cheating on him, Richie’s life spirals out of control.

Richie Segal is a typical Jason Starr protagonist, a working man who’s pressured to breaking point by bills, work and relationships. The author creates a believable character, an ordinary working stiff who suddenly finds he can’t cope with life and only violence seems to let off pressure. As an unreliable narrator, at first we just get slivers of problems between reality and life as Richie sees it, but these moments become more obvious as the narrative continues.

Finally, my new workstation was ready. I organized myself and got to work as quickly as possible. I was so embroiled in what I was doing I almost forgot that I was sitting in a cubicle, until Joe from Marketing came over to me and said, “This really sucks, man.” Joe was a nice guy and I knew he meant well, but I still felt patronized. To everyone in the office I was a big joke now. They were probably whispering about me in the bathroom and by the water cooler: “Did you hear what happened to Richie Segal? He got kicked out of his office today.” Jackie, a young secretary, passed by and said “Hi, Richard.” When I had an office, she used to say “hello, Richard.” But now that I was a fellow cubicle worker she obviously felt comfortable and informal enough around me to say “Hi.” 

With Richie as the narrator, the story, of course, is filtered through his perception. So at times Richie doesn’t understand what his wife, Paula’s problem is or why the dog, Otis, cowers when Richie comes through the door. It’s a very human tendency to tell a story from our own slant, but this sort of character is Jason Starr’s specialty. Starr is not a stylist but his strength lies in getting into the heads of his male protagonists and following their twisted thoughts to the bitter end.

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Fractured: Catherine McKenzie

“Rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic, I’d taken to calling what I was doing on a daily basis.”

Imagine that you are a wildly successful author whose first novel, The Murder Game, sold over a million copies (and counting). The royalties are pouring in, plus there’s a film version in the works. You’re young, attractive, and you have a wonderful, patient, supportive and dependable husband who shoulders a great deal of the care for your six-year-old twins. Who wouldn’t trade places with Linda Apple, lawyer turned best-selling author? Well hold, on. Before you get too envious of Linda’s life, there’s a lot of trouble simmering under the surface.

Linda Apple, her husband and twins move from Tacoma for a fresh start in Ohio. They move into an affluent neighbourhood hoping to put Linda’s problems with a stalker far behind them. This isn’t some random stalker, this is Heather Stanhope, a former law classmate of Linda’s who’s stoked the rumour that The Murder Game is based on the mysterious death of Linda’s friend and roommate, Kathryn. Given Heather’s computer skills and her ability to hide behind various internet identities, it was a miracle that Linda was finally able to prove that Heather was the stalker who caused so many of the bad things that happened. But still there’s just a shadow of a lingering doubt that perhaps Linda created some of the press herself….

fractured

The fresh start in the Eden Park neighbourhood turns sour quickly. There’s a neighbourhood association run by the perfect wife and mother, Cindy. It all started out with seemingly good intentions: neighbourhood watch and block parties, but with Cindy in charge and making all the rules, soon Linda finds herself unwelcome in the neighbourhood. And then bad things begin to happen again.

The novel is told in two voices: Linda and her neighbour, and running partner, John Dunbar, who lives across the street. The novel begins in the present, then shifts back to a year ago when Linda first moved into the neighbourhood. Through the chapters, the story then moves forward to the present.

Fractured is a page-turner. No arguing that one. We know that something bad happened in the neighbourhood, and exactly what that is, is gradually revealed through the unfolding story. Author Catherine McKenzie gives us someone to loathe: Cindy, the seemingly perfect wife and mother who single handedly runs the neighbourhood association. Some people see her as a little over-zealous, but she’s a truly horrible person, encouraging everyone to use an app to monitor the comings-and-goings of their neighbours, all in the name of safety.

But what of Linda? I found her a somewhat unreliable narrator (not sure if I was supposed to), but this gray area made the book more interesting for this reader. There are several times in the book where Linda’s actions are called into question by her neighbours: hint: when you take your dog for a walk, remember the poop bag. Linda has a German Shepherd trained to attack. (At one point she says that next year, it’s going to be her 6 year old twins job to walk the dog. Is she NUTS???) Controlled, directed aggression is one of the most difficult behaviours to inculcate in a dog (note the number of times police dogs go off the rails once their ‘killmode’ is switched on). Linda uses her dog in a morally reprehensible fashion, and then fails to acknowledge her own responsibility. But this is not a lone incident that highlights Linda’s moral flaws. There are several times throughout the novel when she does stuff and pretends (or acts like) it was all an accident. Unfortunately, these incidents were too frequent and establish a pattern of behaviour of failing to take responsibility, so instead of Linda being a heroine, she was a shady figure, and that worked well too.

The ending didn’t quite work for me, and I kept wondering why Linda, who was loaded, didn’t move to a gated community for security or leave Eden Park when things went South. With these sort of domestic-threat novels, readers know that characters will make mistakes. After all, that’s often how they get into trouble in the first place. The imperative, however, is that the mistakes still be plausible even if the decisions are stupid or ill-advised. There were a couple of places where Linda, who’d been terrorised by her stalker, doesn’t act sensibly at all, but the author plays with the theory that Linda may have helped create her own publicity and then there are those meds Linda is taking. Still, I found some of the aspects of the story stretched credibility. in Linda’s shoes, you’d have to be a complete moron not to have a secured network. But in spite of its flaws, this highly readable, well-paced novel explores the issue of maintaining privacy in today’s world, and exactly how an author who needs a public presence on social media can battle against stalkers.

I will be reading The Murder Game to get to the bottom of what really happened to Kathryn. Yes Linda, you can run but you can’t hide…..

review copy

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Crush: Frédéric Dard (1959)

“And you will never know how big that green car seemed, or how deliciously it smelt of America.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues its very impressive output of unusual crime books through another venture into Frédéric Dard territory with a third title: Crush, a tale of longing, obsession, and murder. The double meaning of the title becomes horribly clear around the book’s halfway point.

crush

Bird in a Cage and The Wicked Go To Hell earlier Dard releases from Pushkin Vertigo, were both told by a male narrator. In Crush, we have a seventeen year old female narrator, Louise, who lives in Northern France in a very unpleasant town named Léopoldville. The place is ugly, dominated by a large chemical factory, “chimney stacks spewing out great clouds of smoke that seem to stretch up into the sky for ever before falling back down on the town below,” and the air stinks of cabbage. Things aren’t much better at Louise’s home; she lives with a mother she’s ashamed of and her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, in a wreck of a rented home.

In common with most of the other people in the town, Louise works in a factory. In order to glam up her dull life, Louise, who longs for escape, begins walking through the moneyed areas of Léopoldville and is entranced by glimpses of the lives of an affluent American couple, Mr and Mrs Rooland. She begins dawdling outside of their home:

At first sight, it looked like the others: two storeys, an arrowshaped weathervane sitting on top of the gable roof, with little stained glass windows and some steps leading up to a front door flanked by light-blue earthenware pots… But what set it apart was a funny sort of feeling that floated in the air around the house. How can I explain it? It seemed like it was somewhere else. Yes, it was a Léopoldville house, but it existed on a sort of desert island all of its own. A tiny, mysterious island, and one where the natives seemed to live bloody well too.

Walking by this house becomes a habit for Louise. She sees the Roolands relaxing on a swing seat sipping whisky at dusk while jazz music plays as background noise.

I can’t tell you how enchanting the atmosphere of that garden was, with the beautiful, shining car, that music, those drinks that you could tell were wonderfully chilled, and that couple, gently swinging while the seat creaked. 

One day, after being slapped by Arthur, Louise gathers the courage to approach the Roolands and she asks them if they want a maid, a rare commodity in Léopoldville, as factory work pays better than domestic service. The Roolands employ Louise, but the dream life Louise saw from the outside doesn’t really exist. The house is a disorganized mess, and Mrs Rooland has a drinking problem. …

Louise, our somewhat unreliable narrator, tells the story in retrospect, in an intimate, near confessional style. As she digs into the Rooland household, managing to live-in and proving through her hard work that she’s indispensable, the spectre of the Roolands returning to America clouds any future fantasies.  Dard includes some foreshadowing, some intense, dramatic scenes of violent weather that match the narrative, and rather ironically, IMO, the American car (s) play a huge role in this tale of betrayal and revenge. To say more would spoil the tale for the next reader, but fans of the Pushkin Vertigo line should enjoy this. Of the three Dard novels released to date, The Wicked Go To Hell is my favourite.

Review copy

Translated by Daniel Seton

(original French title: Les Scélérats)

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The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb

“There are no exterminators for neighbors.”

Emile and Juliette Hazel have been married for 43 years, and when Emile retires from his job as a Greek and Latin high school teacher, the couple look forward to the perfect retirement. In their minds that means moving from the hustle and bustle of the city to the pristine peacefulness of a small isolated house in the country, “less out of a love of nature than out of a need for solitude.” They can’t believe their luck when they find the House:

When we saw the House, we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we’d been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house-the House-pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.

Yes, a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?

The Stranger next door

So Emile and Juliette, a loving couple who look forward to growing old together, buy the house and move in. They are four miles from the village of Mauves, but not to worry, they have a neighbor. A doctor, no less, and surely having a doctor nearby is a good thing, isn’t it?….

A week after moving in, at four in the afternoon, there’s a knock at the door. The gargantuan Dr Palamedes Bernardin, a morose man who resembles a “depressed Buddha,” stays exactly two hours. It’s a horrible visit for the Hazels as they try everything possible to engage the monosyllabic Bernardin in conversation. But what’s even worse is that the visit becomes a dreaded, oppressive, tedious daily event. Initially the Hazels employ a series of tactics: escape, frivolity, open-ended questions and even boredom–anything to put an end to Bernardin’s visits, but nothing works. And then they meet his wife.

The Stranger Next Door, from Belgium author Amélie Nothomb, with its twisted dark ironies and black humour should appeal to fans of Pascal Garnier. Garnier seems to take delight in throwing his characters into adverse circumstances–circumstances in which we have a good laugh at their discomfort as they struggle, and are captured, in the mighty fist of fate. That same sort of feeling is here, but the tale is told in the first person. We enter the mind of Emile–a man who feels trapped by politeness, and who, over time, driven to breaking point, feeling smaller in the eyes of his wife, takes a dark path from which there is no return.

And here’s one of my favourite quotes, ironic under the circumstances:

It’s true that someone will always say that good and evil don’t exist: that is a person who never had any dealings real evil. Good is far less convincing than evil, but it’s because their chemical structures are quite different.

Like gold, good is never found in a pure state in nature: it therefore doesn’t seem impressive. It has the unfortunate tendency not to act; it prefers, passively, to be seen.

Evil, on the other hand, is like a gas: it’s not easy to see, but it can be detected by its odor. It’s most often stagnant, disbursed in a suffocating sheet; initially this aspect makes it seem inoffensive, but then suddenly you see it at work and you realize the ground it has won, the tasks it has accomplished. And by then it’s all over; gas cannot be expelled.

Many of us have had to deal with obnoxious neighbours and/or pushy people in our lives, so the situation in the book feels very real and makes us question how we would react in the circumstances. Pushiness is a type of manipulation because it forces the target to move out of the comfort zone and engage in behaviours he, or she, would not normally employ.  The Stranger Next Door , a delightful, darkly funny, nimble surprise, will make my best-of-year list.

Translated by Carol Volk

Originally published as Les Catilinaires

 

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Asylum: Patrick Mc Grath

“None of them noticed that she drifted through her days in a state of detachment and abstraction, functioning as she was expected to but not ever, totally there. None of them noticed but me. I was watching her.”

In Asylum, Patrick McGrath blurs the lines between those who treat mental illness and those who suffer from it. Perhaps, McGrath seems to argue, it’s even a matter of proximity…

Asylum is set at an institution for the criminally insane. It’s 1959 when psychiatrist Max Raphael, a dull, dispassionate, “reserved, rather melancholy” man brings his beautiful wife Stella, the daughter of a disgraced diplomat and his 10-year old son, Charlie from London to a walled asylum. Max is the new deputy superintendent, and the Raphaels take up residence in a large stone house just inside the walls. Max has his job and his patients to attend to, Charlie has school, but Stella doesn’t fit in with the other wives … what sort of life does she have within the confines of this “desolate” place?…

asylum

Stella is perhaps a trophy wife for Max, but they’re fundamentally mismatched. She’s bored, lonely, unhappy, sexually frustrated, and drinks too much. While the staff see the inmates as an entirely separate group of people, Stella, already alienated from the other hospital wives, resentful of the absolute power of the medical staff, doesn’t seem to be aware of a clear demarcation. Then she meets inmate Edgar Stark, an enigmatic artist who is restoring an old Victorian conservatory at the end of the Raphaels’ vegetable garden. Stark “functioned at a high level of intelligence,” but he’s subject to paranoid delusions, and years earlier, during a fit of violent rage, he murdered his wife, decapitated her and mutilated her head.

And if you think you know where this story is going, well you’re right. Even though she’s warned about Stark’s past, Stella heads straight for disaster.

The story is narrated, unreliably, by Dr. Peter Cleave, and we know through Cleave’s quiet, controlled narrative voice that something went horribly wrong with Stella. Interestingly, Cleave’s voice is so quiet, so controlled, that there are times when we forget that he is telling the story, and more importantly, that perhaps, just perhaps, he played a role in the events that took place.

The catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now. Such relationships vary widely in duration and intensity but tend to pass through the same stages. Recognition. Identification. Assignation. Structure. Complication. And so on. Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know. A deeply frustrated woman, she suffered the predictable consequences of a long denial collapsing in the face of sudden overwhelming temptation. And she was a romantic. She translated her experience with Edgar Stark into the stuff of melodrama, she made of it a tale of outcast lovers braving the world’s contempt for the sake of a great passion.

The book isn’t simply the story of what takes place; it’s Dr. Peter Cleave’s narrative placed on top of past events. Here is a tale of illicit wild passion, of Stella growing increasingly out of control with the story told by Cleave’s  occasional, very occasional, clinical interpretation. It’s not that Cleave’s interpretation is incorrect, but it is inadequate, and just why his clinical interpretation of events is inadequate adds subtle psychological depths to the story. The way Cleave watches Stella and Stark echoes a behaviorist watching two rats in a laboratory–with one important difference; Cleave is not a disinterested observer, and hints of Cleave’s true feelings are buried deep in his narrative. He was opposed to Max’s employment at the asylum in the first place, and his decisions at vital points in the story bring his neutrality into question. It’s perfectly brilliant that Stella’s story should be told by an observer who is hardly disinterested. Edgar Stark, with his “restless, devious intelligence,” is Cleave’s pet patient, and Cleave, a sexually ambiguous character, is fascinated by Stella. There’s a section in the book when Stella and Stark have “urgent and primitive” sex on the ground. In the next paragraph, time has passed and Cleave questions Stella about her sex life with Stark. Interestingly, and hardly coincidentally, he says “I probed her gently,” a very telling, Freudian choice of words when he questions Stella to get the details. It’s a love triangle of sorts with all the physical passion between Stark and Stella, and Cleave a voyeuristic observer who holds limitless power at the asylum.

And that brings me to the book’s title: Asylum–a word that has more than one meaning–a place of refuge or an institution for the mentally ill. The ending packs a powerful punch with Cleave’s professional reasonableness teetering into creepy obsession.

Aslyum was made into a film. It’s well worth watching ( I just watched it for the second time), and although the plot is fundamentally the same in the book and the film, there are some differences. The book, as usual, is more complex and subtle. Peter Cleave is a much more invisible character in the book than in the film whereas Stella is much more off the rails.

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