Review of Neverworld Wake, by Marisha Pessl

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Though generically a YA, Neverworld Wake should appeal to older readers; it certainly does to this one. It is the book that I’d waited for Marisha Pessl to write, a school-story version of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with teen-aged characters and set in New England. Pessl has delivered the whole shooting match. Five BFs, graduates of Darrow School in Rhode Island, have a reunion the summer after their first year in college: the wealthy Whitley and her boy friend Cannon, Martha a science geek, Kipling, a Louisiana gay who does Truman Capote imitations (that frankly irritated me), and the narrator Beatrice (alias Bee alias Bumble), whose family operate a tourist restaurant and is our narrator. As in Pessl’s earlier novels, there is a missing character who is a presumed suicide, Bee’s boyfriend Jim, who plunged into a quarry lake at the end of their senior year. The five friends go out in Whitley’s Jaguar convertible, get well lubricated and while returning seem to get into a car smash in the rain with the top down, but find themselves the next morning awaken all wet sitting in the car. As it turns out, they neither survived nor succumbed to the accident. Instead they find themselves caught in a strange limbo between life and death, the “Wake” which gives the book its title. Each morning they awaken in the car to relive the same day. A mysterious old man called the “the Keeper” explains to them that they will continue in that state till they finally vote unanimously for one of them to survive.

Knowing that this scenario of an intermediate state betwixt life and death is the setting of a recent piece of critically celebrated Postmodernist Flim-Flam I’d not touch with barge pole, I’d feared the worst. But received the best; spiritually and morally Pessl offers a most fulfillling exploration of friendship and love. There is also wonderfully wittly dialogue. Just as we fear a cliché, a phrase veers into a freshly minted mot–I loved the sailboats bobbing like feeding unicorns! We find that the limbo our characters inhabit turns out to be spacious in time and space, offering them the chance to explore their pasts at school and to investigate the mystery of what actually happened to Jim and for our narrator Bee to grow into the person she should aspire to be and to confront her own past. Instead of being trapped in purgatorial confinement, we move around a lot, socially, temporally, and geographically, including visits to Greece and Japan. But always under the constraint of the time limit of the Wake, that moves steadily shorter till we reach resolution. For some readers, time travel into the past will seem like science fiction (Martha is a devote of an obscure book called The Bend), but from a spiritual perspective it serves as a device to allow contemporary readers to experience the mystery that time is really illusory and simultaneous. Except for the corn-pone Kip (and I eventually got to tolerate him), I found all the characters very appealing, especially Bee our narrator. The conclusion, both what happened to Jim and to the friends caught in the Wake, was tragic, sad, serious, and yet perfectly satisfying. I love this book. It explores devotion, betrayal, sacrifice, and the journey inward of spiritual growth.

Review of GBH, by Ted Lewis

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A TLS reviewer was sceptical of the claim in the new biography of Ted Lewis that he was the British Albert Camus. But Jack Carter continues to haunt me nearly half a century since we first heard Michael Caine deliver the best line in his career: “A pint of bitter [pause] in a thin glass,” in a low-life Newcastle pub popularly referred to as “The Star and Vomit” with genuine locals providing the extras, including a man with six fingers holding a pint of Newcastle Brown. (Carter wanted a thin glass in case of a fight.) The screenplay for Get Carter was adapted from Lewis’s novel Jack’s Return Home. Its original location was Scunthorpe and much as I loved the scenes of the slum housing of Newcastle just before the clearers could remove it, I was glad to return to Linconshire in GBH. (Grievous Bodily Harm: I reckon the American equivalent might be Aggravated Assault.) Half the story is set in the decrepit beach holiday area of Mablethorpe (“The Sea”)

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and the other half a bit earlier in London (“The Smoke”). The novel first appeared in 1980—ten years after Get Carter. The narrator is George Fowler, a kingpin distributor of pornographic films (“Blues”), who for reasons we only gradually find out has gone to ground in a bungalow near this seedy seaside resort – compared to which Skegness or Great Yarmouth is the Albert Hall. (Indeed, my first choice for contemporary successor to Lewis as author of noir crime fiction is Cathi Unworth, whose book Weirdo is set in a town that is obviously Great Yarmouth and featuring the same sort of bent coppers and kinky sex.) In the portions set in London, George, assisted by his wife Jean and Mickey his principal enforcer and a supporting cast of rival gangsters (“minions”) and bent coppers (“the filth”) has discovered that someone in his organization is defalcating.

Mickey thought about it.
“Do you really think they’d try it on? I mean Hales, Wilson, Chapman, Warren. They make a lot of bread. Would they risk what they already get? And risked what they’d get if they were sussed out?”
“Money has a funny effect on people, Mickey,” I said to him. “Corrupting. Sometimes it makes them act very peculiar.”
Mickey thought some more. . . .
“And supposing all four are at it?”
“Then we’ll find out all four of them are at it, won’t we?”
Mickey lit a cigarette. “So what do you want me to do?”
“I want you to talk to them.”. . .
“So you’d like me to bring them along to Sammy’s?” [The safe house where they interrogate (i.e. torture) the suspects.]
“That’s right.”

 

Most of the dialogue is delivered in the same clipped understated tone, often as statements cast into the grammatical form of questions. As I read it, I could almost hear the voice of Michael Caine, which was both all wrong and perfect for Get Carter, who didn’t sound at all like a Geordie but absolutely like a gangster. He would have been perfect for George. (Unlike the reader in the audio of GBH, who from the sample sounded like an upscale version of estuary – like someone from the London suburbs who’d gone to uni.)

My recollection of reading Jack’s Return Home so long ago in an el-cheepo paperback knockoff for the movie (if I’d bought another one and sealed it in cling film, it would probably be worth a pile today) is that it was a big disappointment. Get Carter ranks at the top of my list of movies that are better than the original book. But with GBH I could almost imagine seeing the same bleak but totally arresting atmospheric shots we had in Get Carter. George is watching a young woman in an amusement arcade in Grimsby.

‘While I’m getting more change from the kiosk, I clock that this particular machine is already in use, being operated by a dark-haired girl in dark glasses. She’s wearing one of those Afghan coats and a deliberately patchy jeans and white plimsolls. A newspaper is sticking out of one of the pockets of her Afghan. I pick up my change and walk over and lean against the machine next to hers and watch her manipulating the flippers. She’s wearing a T-shirt which reads, I’D RATHER BE HANG-GLIDING. She’s clocking up quite a good score and she’s got a couple of ball-bearings to come. She takes no notice of my interest. When I notice that the paper sticking out of her pocket is a copy of The Stage, and also she’s beautiful in a way that goes with the clothes she’s wearing.’

You can almost see her. If there’s ever a movie I hope they offer the part of Emily Blunt! As the story unfolds, the girl whose name seems to be Lesley keeps morphing into different possible identities. At various points George (and we) suspect she may be a prostitute, a singer in the Carly Simon class, a car crash victim, a porn-film performer, a ghost, a spy from a rival gang, and an alcoholic delusion. (Both George and his creator were suffering from a stage-four case of the dingbats.) And George’s wife Jean in the Smoke sections is almost as enigmatic: porn-film performer, sadist, number-one henchwoman, sex partner, target for rival gangs. As with Glenda in Get Carter (who delivers that marvellous line “to the Demon King’s castle”), the women characters in GBH aren’t realistic, but they are fascinating, literally.

Even though the author and his protagonist were dissolving into an alcoholic abyss (Lewis would be dead two years later), I believe definitely that GBH is a lost classic due for revival that should re-read beautifully. Is Ted Lewis the Albert Camus of northern England? Not sure, but that picture of Michael Caine with that shotgun as Jack Carter has all the charisma of the famous picture of Bogie on the wall of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s bedroom in Breathless.

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And if that’s not an icon of an Existentialist saint, what is?

 

Review of Our Little Secret, by Roz Nay

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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.

Review of Emma in the Night, by Wendy Walker

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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.

Review of People Like Us, by Dana Mele

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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.

Review of Stay with Me, by Ayobami Adebayo

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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.