Review of Lie with Me, by Sabine Durrant

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After I passed my personal self-denying ordinance to eschew reviewing unknown authors on NetGalley I swooped down for a chance to read Sabine Durrant’s Lie with Me for free now that an American publisher was finally marketing it this side the pond, only two years late. Having read & enjoyed Under Your Skin very much & Remember Me This Way not quite as much, I was ready for the main character of this book to be an unreliable narrator & a sleazy narcissistic arty type freeloader poseur & from the beginning I thoroughly despised him. But whilst there is no question that Paul is a villain, the good luck he encounters seems much too good to be true – an old uni acquaintance who invites him on a virtually all expenses paid holiday on a Greek island with Andrew’s sister Alice being a friend who provides all the benefits, i.e. all the pleasures of matrimony with zero responsibilities. What’s also strange is that ten years ago they’d all been on the same island, where Paul made a total spectacle of himself getting totally off his face whilst wearing a purple tee-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Let Zeus Blow Your Mind.” The former is forgivable as youthful folly, the latter inexcusable at any age: I was indeed hoping Paul would finally meet with a firing squad from the Fashion Police. That same previous time, a 13 y/o named Jasmine went missing, & Alice is running an organisation still searching for her after all these years. (I cannot begin to count how many variations on the Madeleine McCann disappearance I’ve read over so many years, but for me the plot still works.) Did Paul have something to do with that? Is Paul a villain? Or is he a victim? Sabine Durranrt tells a wicked story that will keep the reader in suspense. One thing I learned from this book (as I’ve also learnt from Helen Fitzgerald, who’s similar to Sabine Durrant though for me just a little cleverer & twistier) is that the best way to ensure yourself against plots by sleazy people is simply not to be a sleaze. So as a warning to the unwary, Lie with Me has an excellent moral: If you always tell the truth, you’ve little to fear.

As with the exploding car in Remember Me This Way, the author isn’t always technically believable. In this case, Paul could not possibly have started that truck which is supposed to have been sitting idle for ten years. The entire plot is rather too contrived as well & it was hard to believe that even such a total arse as Paul could persuade himself that Alice really fell for him or that Andrew, his wife, & daughter could ever desire five minutes in his presence. But the touristy cheap setting for a holiday in the sun with odious people who ought to stay home was as excellently depicted in the book as it is in the quietly understated & tasteful hostelry in the above illustration.

Review of The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley

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‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ Probably ranks with ‘All happy families . . .’ and ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged . . .’ amongst the most famous opening sentences in classical fiction. But in the case of The Go-Between, I found it a trifle off. Because when the book first appeared in America, in 1954, I was the same age as Leo the narrator, and I would have had much more common with him then, than either of us would have with the contemporaries of these characters today. Now, of course, they would have no need of a go-between; they’d be madly texting each other on their smart phones. Leo would scarcely have been puzzled about the mysteries of ‘spooning’ – he and his friend Marcus would have seen it all on internet porn.

At the centre I found a great moral ambiguity: did Marian genuinely like Leo, or was she simply using him to further something sleazy? Leo I found very easy to identify with my 13 y/o self – perhaps the most awkward of ages, neither a child nor quite an adolescent. I could easily share his embarrassment about having the wrong clothes or not knowing how to deport himself in unfamiliar social situations with the upper classes. His uneasiness with the psalter puzzled me till I recalled that the Sunday morning service probably would have been sung matins. (There are advantages to being Catholic – Roman or Anglo.) But the repeated joke (which wasn’t at alll funny) on Leo’s inability the aspirate the initial syllable in ‘Hugh’ (rather like a certain American political figure too much in the news) so that hearers thought he was saying ‘you’ was tedious and boring. Leo’s fixation on the temperature annoyed me as as well, though perhaps as an American I’m more accustomed to extreme weather, at least before English people mostly holidayed in Spain. His fascination with casting spells struck me as silly as well, though at his age his credulity was almost believable.

Although an excellent embodiment of the class hierarchy at the close of the Victorian age, The Go-Between does not quite achieve classical status (except for its opening sentence.) The plot could serve as a flat-out tragedy, but Leo’s role both as narrator and messenger lowers the status. (He’d be the confidante in a French neo-classical tragedy.) With Viscount Trimingham I sensed a truly beautiful gesture (I am still sufficiently old-fashioned to follow the rule that it is never the lady’s fault) but our take on Marian remains very fuzzy although a gentleman is required to give her the benefit of the doubt. Ted’s status as member of the NCO class (perfect for the period) would indeed have changed dramatically in the second decade of the century – he would not have remained an other rank for long. That war changed England very much into another country.

Review of The Relative Harmony of Julie O’Hagan, by Annette Sills

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There were two scenes that perfectly caught the cultural and spiritually maimed existence of the characters in this novel. Billy’s relatives from America visit the family in Ireland: “Ted gave Davy and me our first drink in the woods when we were thirteen, bottles of Budweiser stolen from his father’s stash under our sink. I fell in love with alcohol that day.” Who on earth would import American Budweiser – a feeble concoction Americans serve so cold as not to have to taste it – to Ireland? Rather like taking your Chevrolet to Stuttgart. And there’s Billy’s atheist father in law Tony, who is diagnosed with cancer: “He had a go at the hospital chaplain earlier. The poor man [sic] was chatting with one of the nurses in the middle of the ward, minding his own business, when Tony leant forward and yelled, ‘Well, hello, Reverend. You hovering round the sick and the vulnerable again? . . . It’s the only time your lot get any attention, when the grim reaper’s calling. That’s when you start the scaremongering and they all come running. Your bloody churches are empty the rest of time.’” As I happened to read that passage shortly after coming off call with the spouse of a patient who expired before our eyes at a Code Blue, I have to confess finding Tony somewhat less than endearing. (The above photo captures how I imagine him perfectly.)

Billy, age late 30s going on 18, lives in a Manchester suburb called Chorlton, with his wife Julie, dtr. Bridget and infant son William. Julie is terrified Bridget will end up at Priory Road Primary and would almost literally kill to get her into the more upscale Broadoak. There’s also the choice of St. Joseph’s (unlike in America, in England state schools can teach other faiths besides nihilism) but Billy’s not having any of that for his dtr, having been ‘educated’ by the ‘Christian Brothers’ in Ireland. As a teenager, Billy emigrated to England and devoted himself mostly to drugs, sex and alcohol, tho’ now he’s a father and approaching forty he is attempting to be sober and responsible. Julie suffers from what seems PTSD from being bullied at Priory Road, hence her aversion. Long before ‘the reveal’ any reader who knows anything about Roman Catholic religious orders will have a pretty good idea what happened to Billy. Altho’ he drives a lorry, Billy is supposed to be quite a sensitive and intelligent man who ought to have gone to university. We know this because he reads all the time (at least when he’s not drunk or committing adultery) and is especially fond of the short stories of Raymond Carver. (Carver was an American writer who specialised in stories in which nothing happens. If you used the fill-in-the-blank phrase “What we talk about when we talk about ______” in a a creative writing programme in the ‘80s, you were instantly hip.)

Which brings out the problem I had with this book. It deals with very serious issues of childhood formation, but the characters are far too shallow intellectually and spiritually to convey the tragic consequences of their abusive backstories or the experience the deep spiritual healing such wounds require. Instead they inhabit the world of popular psychology where we ‘get some help’ and the villains either repent (with the excuse that they were victims too) or go to jail. As sociology, the portrait of the Irish expat community in Manchester fascinated me, but Billy and Julie were simply too superficial to engage my feelings.

Review of Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

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Despite inept plotting & narration, as well as clichéd characters (Izzy struck me as a transgendered Holden Caulfield—Speaking Truth to Phonies—Little Fires Everywhere was unputdownable. I had to find out the outcome of the custody case, which was indeed the most perplexing since Solomon ordered the baby cut in half. (I’d not have wanted either contestant for a mother.) I recalled two much publicized such custody stories then in the news, one involving birth parents changing their minds on adoption and the other a surrogate who kept the baby, so by the middle of the novel the coins dropped for the plot. This is one of those books where the setting is a major character, but here it is the sheer blandness of Shaker Heights that overwhelms the reader. In Mrs. Richardson (the married title is essential to her nature) Celeste Ng presents both totally controlled banality & consummate evil. Fortunately neither Mrs. Richardson’s contrivances to get Mia’s backstory (which was absolutely no business of hers even though she’s Mia’s landlady) under false pretenses nor attempt to uncover the records of an abortion clinic are believable in real life. Actually, the notion of a reporter (who thinks she’s a “journalist”) for a suburban rag who specializes in town council and zoning commission meetings attempting a Woodstein to ruin her tenant who’s not even a party in her friend’s child-custody affair ought to be comic, but I found it clumsy. The narration also seemed very intrusive. We get snatches of dialogue, but then the omniscient narrator comes in and explains what they were really talking about, sometimes projecting what they would feel in a future that is otherwise totally opaque. (Are Izzy & Pearl being set up for a sequel?) The teen characters felt straight out of a YA where teens are always more sensitive than the grown-ups tho’ both the toothpick in the locks prank and the alcoholic (& racist) teacher’s bathroom accident struck me a puerile and silly. Maybe this is actually a work of “literary fiction” & what I thought ham-fisted narrative & plotting are supposed to be “postmodern self-referentiality” or the like. Yet the story of Mia’s discovery of her talent for photography & her art school career was told excellently; Celeste Ng has a true gift for making technical subjects accessible to lay readers (& I hope I can do the same with Latin grammar). So there are perhaps four different novels in this one book. (1) Mia’s backstory—a Portrait of the Photag as a Young Woman; (2) a YA with teen friendships, jealousy, sex, abortion, school pranks—sorta John Green on nasty pills; (3) a domestic saga (being of the male persuasion I don’t use the terms “chick-lit” or “women’s fiction” to characterize genres I enjoy) involving adoption, surrogacy & parent vs. child conflict, & (4) a satire on a suburban matron turned cat-fighter who thinks she’s an investigative reporter but is really just a nasty snoop. The 1st deserves 5 stars, the 4th gets 2 at most. Let’s round off at 4 then.

Review of Silent Child, by Sarah A. Denzil

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It’s hardly untempting to agree with the reader who objected she didn’t want stories about children being abused. I’d not want them either. Abuse of children & domestic violence are two of my triggers. But that is not what Silent Child is about, tho’ what happened to Aiden & who might have been responsible is never out of our minds. While child abuse is something no decent person could enjoy watching, as Aristotle explained long ago, we are pleased by artistic representations of actions we’d abhor in real life. Here the artistic representation is not of child abuse. The focus rather is on the boy’s mum Emma, who gave birth to Aiden when she was a teenager, was estranged from the boy’s father, & is now pregnant with a dtr by her current husband Jake. Ten years ago the 6 y/o Aiden vanished from his primary school & was believed drowned in the Ouse; now he’s found wandering in the woods, undersized, malnourished, & clearly a victim of sexual & other physical mistreatment, but incapable or unwilling to speak a word of his ordeal or anything else. The press descend on Emma, & when she doesn’t co-operate with them, portray her using old social media posts as a slapper & a drunk & a thoroughly unfit mum. Emma also faces a very tense relationship with the boy’s natural father – now an officer RN – as well as his mother who is eager to play the intrusive gran – & her current husband Jake, who seems both to overdo & to resent the role of step-father to Aiden as well as doting on his unborn dtr whom Emma is on the verge of delivering.

Why should we enjoy artistic portrayals of extreme situations? By vicariously sharing every parent’s nightmare, we are relieved of some of our worst fears. Aristotle called that feeling of relief ‘catharsis’. I found the denouement a little too complex with too many villains to be quite believable in real life. But whilst a bit overtopped, the author’s skill in making so many plot elements & characters combine was admirable. The pleasure in a good ‘reveal’ lies in seeing all the parts join together harmoniously & here they do.

I was also attracted to Silent Child from extraneous impulses. The book is apparently self-published, one of those Amazon two-quid specials that Kindle Unlimited members read for free. And as I’m frankly considering going the self-publishing route myself, I wanted to find out if the lack of support a trade publisher should provide detracts from Sarah Denzil’s artistry. I’m sure it doesn’t, except that Silent Child is nearly 100 pages longer than I expect most trade publishers regard as appropriate for “genre fiction.” Tho’ Silent Child sagged a bit in the middle, I’d not have wanted any cuts were I the editor. We need to experience Emma’s stress & grief fully, especially with the vampire tabloid press. Best portrayal of media feeding frenzy since Alex Marwood’s The Wicked Girls.  The pictures from old social media posts they printed were perfectly genuine – their stories were ‘sourced’ (including from a frenemy of Emma’s). But the tale they told of an alcoholic, uncaring & slaggish mum was totally false. Made me reflect.

Review of The Taste of Blue Light, by Lydia Ruffles

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I loved the first half of this book. It is set in the most extraordinary school – a pricey independent boarding school devoted to the arts, where Lux Langley, who will turn 18 on 23rd November, is suffering from amnesia as well as synaesthesia, which causes her to have headaches coloured red. That part worked for me; last night I read some before sleep and dreamt of fire. And as a lover of stories about eccentric schools, I found Richdeane a treasure. They really do art snobbery. The teachers are called “directors” – the headmistress is the “head-director” – and the students are called “Artists”! They are expected to dress entirely in black. Lux lives in a dorm called “Dylan” (the Nobel Laureate not the Welsh poet); there’s another called “Van Sant” (whom I’d never heard of – makes movies according to Google and I’d actually seen a couple.) “Art” is literally God at Richdeane. Each day at assembly the head-director leads them in their Act of Faith: “We pledge ourselves to the will of the muses, and to the words of the greats. We give it to art and we let go.” Indeed, sometimes Lux uses “By Art” as an expletive. So I was expecting a side-splittingly funny satire on aesthetic pretentiousness. Unfortunately we have to take Lux seriously. Generically the story is not a satire, but a Bell Jar. For Lux the entire school, especially one of the directors who is also her counselor and coach, Dr. Baystone (who is not quite “a real doctor” (i.e., not a physician) and her BFs Olivia and Mei, are actually involved in treating Lux’s condition, and trying to get her to remember what happened last summer when she was interning at a gallery, went to a leaving party and apparently overdid it, and found herself in hospital the next day with no memory of how and why she got there. From a therapeutic POV I find it ethically dodgy to subject a patient to a course of treatment under false pretenses, but when we find out what really happened, I was so incredulous that the treatment scarcely mattered. At exactly 2/3 Lux started remembering and I stopped believing. I’ll give nothing away, but simply reveal that it was something that Lux would have been constantly and publically aware of whether she could remember it or not. (Even tho’ her major source of news seems to be Hello!) Otherwise, despite the extremely artsy setting, The Taste of Blue Light was pretty typical of the Bell Jar genre, with a very self-centred main character and a manipulative somewhat devious therapist. We also have Lux having relationships with a couple of boys – a sexy but uncaring sculptor and a puppy-doggish painter. It is also amusing that Lux ends up working in a quite different kind of “gallery” than Richdeane would prepare her for. Or maybe not. After the big revelation at 2/3, the ending seemed pretty “meh” but I skimmed to find out where Lux was at 20 and it looks predictable. As for me, I think it’s time I read Jennifer Dawson’s The Ha-Ha (1962) once more. To me it represents the epitome of the genre.

Review of The Wife between Us, by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pakkanen

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I’m being a trifle severe about this one; the reader for whom “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming!” is the highest accolade, for whom the word “reveal” isn’t a verb or employed as a noun doesn’t connote yesterday’s warmed over roast of young calf (see illustration above for “a reveal”), might actually enjoy The Wife between Us. But readers with high artistic standards who expect surprising twists to integrate seemly disparate elements of plot and character into harmony will be annoyed by the authors’ using the backstory as a magical hat full of rabbits to produce whenever the story starts to lag. Even in the epilogue. Perhaps joint authorship is responsible. This book keeps changing its mind about what it wants to be & who the characters are. We start with some confusion over the identities of Nellie & Venessa, & get about four different versions of Emma before we finish running the range from ingenue innocent victim to cunning schemer. The main character offers a very unlikely backstory: I doubted she would have been unaware that the professor with whom she has a college affair was married, & I am certain that a sorority hazing incident involving ETOH that resulted in a pledge drowning would have led to an officer from the national arriving to revoke the chapter’s charter even before the college kicked them off campus. (The authors owe the Chi Omegas an apology. Fraternity brothers might exhibit such stupidity, but not sorority sisters.) I doubt the pledge’s family would be mollified by donations to an animal shelter. They would probably have sued the college & the sorority & the main character. Reader’s of “psychological thrillers” will be used to Richard, our standard garden variety sociopath, wealthy generous but an extremely controlling & jealous husband. The chronology is cloudy as well. In the story Vanessa has to be married to him for several years, & her backstory requires her to be 15 years out of college, tho’ immature for a woman in her mid-thirties. I am grateful to the publishers & to NetGalley for a gratis review copy, but this time I am going cold turkey with NetGalley, at least with authors I’ve not read & enjoyed before.