The first half of this story centres round two end of term parties: a high-school graduation party at a lake in Vermont and the next year at a May Ball in Oxford – surprisingly with three of the same characters present at both. You’ve read Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, so you know at least vicariously that a May Ball is about as close to being in a fairy tale as you can come and still be more or less in real life. Unlike in Gaudy Night tho’, in Our Little Secret the May Ball results not in a betrothal but a betrayal. Like the ball, this novel skirts just along the edge separating realistic fiction from dark fantasy. The principal character is Angela Petitjean aka Little John or LJ. Her high-school love is a swimmer known as HP (which kept me thinking of steak sauce and a rather sleazy British prime minister), standing for Hamish Parker tho’ he tries to keep his first name hidden. (Probably not a whole lot of people in Vermont who know it’s derived from the vocative case form of the Gaelic version of James.) LJ’s father supposedly has a friend who could pull the necessary strings to get her a place at Hertford College. I found that most unbelievable (unless he were senior tutor or something) and equally unlikely that LJ resided there but a year, especially after an Australian blonde named Saskia snatched HP off to Sydney. Instead, LJ takes an implausible job in the town library as an archivist. A few years later they’re all back in Vermont, with HP and Saskia married with a little girl named Olive for whom LJ babysits. But as the story opens, Saskia has disappeared and LJ is the prime suspect. She is being interviewed at the police station by Detective Novak, who keeps asking open-ended questions to which he gets even more expansive answers which provides the substance of the book. Even if we’re not already suspecting that LJ may be a burrito shy of the combination platter, under the circumstances anyone would likely become a somewhat unreliable narrator. Thanks to Oxford, there’s also an Englishman in the story named Freddy, who reminded me that Hertford was Evelyn Waugh’s college because Freddy talks like a minor character in Brideshead Revisited. (I have never heard anyone in real life say, ‘I’m feeling peckish’!) Both the moral guilt of the villain and the villain’s fate seemed ambiguous to me, but then I’m very broadminded about victims who need killing and very biased towards the defence in criminal cases. But especially in the earlier sections, LJ shone for me as bright as a new penny, the perfect high-school sweetheart and with HP composing the ideal couple. Like in a fairy tale (as LJ alludes later) a wicked witch enters to part the lovers, tho’ readers may differ as to which character plays which role and whether they change partners. It’s clear from her bio and Q&A that Roz Nay is an international sophisticate and the range of characters and settings pushed my limits of credulity a bit. But then we’ve had so many psychological thrillers about teenagers in small American towns, that it was a pleasure to spend a year at Oxford and have a character who ‘stalked strine’ in an unputdownable fast read.
I’d considered reading Wendy Walker’s All is not Forgotten but the premise seemed just a trifle too gimmicky, but took a chance on Emma in the Night and am delighted I did, reading it almost non-stop in two days. The story is based on one of my very favorite plots. A child or adolescent goes missing and after a lapse of years (here three) reappears, but leaving many mysterious and unanswered questions as to what really happened. Here the story is told from two points of view, Cassie the teenager in 1st person after her return and Abby the FBI forensic psycholgist in 3rd person limited. Cassie has a story about how she and her pregnant sister Emma were held by a strange couple on an island off the Maine coast, and how Emma gave birth but her child was taken away by their captors. Cassie has escaped but is desperate to convince her family and the authorities that they must locate Emma. It would be a total understatement to call Cassie’s family dysfunctional: a family dynamicist could create a chart with dotted lines intersecting all over the place with underperformers. Artistically the book is flawed because it is obvious that Cassie is a very unreliable narrator but though the author gives us access to her consciousness she is clearly withholding a lot from the reader. And as we gradually discover what really is suposed to have happened, it seemed rather too complex to take place in real life. But Cassie is such an attractive narrator and proves to be a wonderfully brave, insightful, perceptive, and resourceful character that it is easy to suspend disbelief. I don’t think I’ve been so in awe of a teen main character since Beth in Megan Abbott’s Dare Me. I foresaw one principal twist but did not quite get the other one though it proved perfect when revealed and made sense of everything but in an unexpected way. So for total engagement, unrelenting suspense, and superb characterization, Emma in the Night was a splendid read.
Every school is its own little world, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of composing a school story is creating your personal version of that world, with its traditions, customs, even a private language. (In such famous schools as Eaton and Winchester they’re extremely elaborate.) So it was a pleasure to pick up on Dana Mele’s practices at Bates Academy, which like the Halloween plunge into the lake and the Dear Valentine presents were very nicely integrated into the plot. Some seemed to me rather unlikely. The Dear Valentine anonymous presents – a surefire divisive popularity contest – seemed like a terrible idea in a school full of teenage girls. I was most attracted by the narrator, Kay, the captain of the soccer team and a seemingly queen bee mean girl, though we discover she is from a modest background, desperately needs to win a scholarship to college, dresses fashionably by borrowing or even stealing other girls’ clothes, and has some really dark secrets that haunt her, which gradually unfold in the story. I would love to be able to create such a character. Superficially she resembles Jessica Knoll’s Ani, but I found Kay much better developed and more sympathetic – not despite but because of her manifold character flaws.
Artistically, I had some problems. All the narration is Kay’s, which means that preserving the suspense requires hiding (though hinting) much of the dark past. For me this kind of narrator seems very artificial; we know she is teasing us. There are also too many minor characters – other schoolgirls who are in the story mostly to be victims, as well as a couple of boys from the town. But two other schoolgirls are fascinating characters: Brie and Nola. Brie is Kay’s BF and mostly the love of her life with whom she’s obsessed, though it seems like their relationship is constantly thrown off track, as Kay is also attracted to a townie boy named Spencer. I found the characters’ sexual fluidity one of the novel’s most enjoyable features, though Kay’s strongest attraction is clearly to Brie. Kay’s other principal confederate is Nola, a girl from an even wealthier family than Brie’s. I loved the episode when Kay goes to visit her extremely dysfunctional family in a mansion on the coast of Maine. But it was confusing to have so much of the story told through dialogue, much of which doesn’t advance the plot very much. The characters lack the sophistication and polish to be amusing (unlike some books set in major English Public Schools where the boys sound like minor characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray). I think the book might have been a third shorter as told entirely from Kay’s POV but in third person. But I can imagine it at the same length, but with chapters from Nola’s and Brie’s angle too. That would be my notion of a five-star.
Though I found People Like Us flawed and the story dragged, I enjoyed it thoroughly. Kay’s contradictory mix of outer hardness and inward extreme vulnerability made her someone you want to love and protect. At times I wanted to scream at her, but I always cared about her. Definitely one of the better school stories I’ve read recently.
Our institutions are preoccupied with promoting what they call “diversity” tho’ sometimes I suspect what they really want are for people to look different but all think the same way. Reading Stay with Me made me wonder how many of us would manage a culture that really was different. In our culture we may have trouble with in-laws who want to know, “When can we expect grandchildren?” But suppose your in-laws thought the sensible solution to an apparent problem of infertility was for your husband to marry a second wife? And your husband thought a fair compromise would be to provide wife-no.-2 with a separate apartment and spend but one weekend a month with her. Add that your own father was a polygamist, that your mother died giving birth to you, and that you have not one but several wicked stepmothers who despise you. Now that is diversity! That is also the situation of Yejide. Her story takes place over some twenty years, beginning with her courtship by Akin and ending with the funeral rites of her father.
Although I’ve never been to West Africa, I found it very easy to relate to Yejide, having recently been in Southern Africa as a guest of the Anglican Diocese of Swaziland. There are in fact more Anglicans in Nigeria than in England or America, and it seems likely that the future of Anglicanism is very bright, but its centre may well be in Cape Town rather than Canterbury. As I had understood it, if a man was an Anglican already, he wasn’t to have more than one wife. But if he converted he could keep the wives he already had, but shouldn’t marry any more. Here it’s more complicated. Akin is supposed to be an Anglican, tho’ anything but observant. He finds church boring. (From my experience in Swaziland – that’s hard to imagine. You could feel the Holy Ghost’s tail feathers tickling you all over.) Both he and Yejide are well-endowed with contemporary “Western” culture, very fluent in English and university graduates. Yejide is a capable businesswoman who manages her own chain of hair salons. Akin is a bank manager. Their Yoruba-speaking elders are attached to traditional culture and religion, and for them producing children is a woman’s principal role. But tho’ I found Yejide’s in-laws and step-mothers repelling, one marvel of the really different culture they represent is that we can take a fresh look at our own. Just what is the difference between a couple’s solving their fertility problem by finding an egg donor, as opposed to the husband’s taking a second wife? Or between choosing a sperm donor and getting a brother-in-law to be the father? It does make one reflect.
I found the more we learned about Akin the less I liked him, tho’ he seemed well-meaning but weak in confronting his own problems and relationships. Yejide is a wonderfully strong woman and a very sympathetic character. This book seemed long to me, but I was glad to spend so much time in her company. I had the good fortune to listen to the Audible version, and found the narration of Adjoa Andoh brilliant at giving the characters appropriate voices, especially the Yoruba speakers. But the sound of Yejide’s English-speaking voice was especially beautiful and attractive, and seemed to fit her perfectly. Both as a story of a courageous woman and as a cultural experience, Stay with Me will be one of my best reads of the year.
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.
‘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.