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.
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.
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.