Monthly Archives: November 2019

Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Regular readers may be aware of my fondness for Patricia Highsmith and her interest in the psychology of domestic noir. Her 1957 novel, Deep Water, remains one of my favourites, along with the Ripley series of course. The Blunderer (published in 1954) sees Highsmith in familiar territory, exploring themes of guilt, obsession and the possibility that an ordinary, everyday man might resort to murder if pushed far enough. It’s an intriguing novel, one that will suit lovers of dark, well-crafted fiction with a psychological edge.

The story opens with a swift yet brutal murder, on the face of it a seemingly perfect crime. The perpetrator is Melchior Kimmel, a cuckolded husband who murders his wife on the sly while the latter is on a bus ride from Newark to Albany. To establish a suitable alibi for the night in question, Kimmel buys a ticket at his local cinema, seeks out an acquaintance in the audience who will recall his presence, and then slips out of a side door unnoticed. All that remains is for Kimmel to drive in the direction of Albany to intercept the bus during a rest stop. Once there, he lures his wife, Helen, away from the other passengers and kills her, dumping her body by the highway before returning to Newark.

When the crime is reported in the newspapers, it catches the eye of Walter Stackhouse, a frazzled, thirty-year-old lawyer whose life is being made a misery by his wife, Clara, a successful yet neurotic real estate agent. Clara dislikes pretty much all of Walter’s friends whom she has systematically driven away with her lack or tolerance and unreasonable behaviour. In fact, the situation has got to the point where Walter is no longer invited or expected to be able to go out with the boys, such is Clara’s hold over him. While Walter still finds Clara physically attractive, he is becoming increasingly fed up with her behaviour, especially once she resorts to tantrums or flare-ups. So, when Walter meets Ellie, a generous and attractive young woman who is sympathetic to his situation, it’s not long before the two of them embark on an affair.

While Walter can only fantasise about killing his wife, Kimmel has committed the deed in reality – a point that Walter successfully guesses when he sees the article about Mrs Kimmel in the papers. Thus begins a chain of fateful events as our protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with Kimmel and his potential involvement in Helen’s murder. The more Walter thinks about it, the more convinced he is of Kimmel’s guilt – to the extent that he decides to take a trip to Kimmel’s bookstore in Newark to have a look at the man himself. In essence, Walter wonders whether he might be able to tell if Kimmel is a murderer just by observing him.

Having found the store, Walter orders a book from Kimmel as a ruse for his visit, but he also makes the mistake of mentioning Helen’s death, a point that immediately puts Kimmel on his guard…

Walter looked at the broad, plump back of Kimmel’s right hand. The light from over the desk fell on it, and Walter could see a spattering of freckles and no hair at all. Suddenly Walter felt sure that Kimmel knew he had come to the shop only to look at him, to assuage some sordid curiosity. Kimmel knew now that he lived in Long Island. Kimmel was standing very close to him. A sudden fear came over Walter that Kimmel might lift his thick slab of a hand and knock his head off his neck. (pp. 72–73)

Then, in a dramatic twist of fate, Walter’s wife, Clara, takes a night-time bus trip to Harrisburg to visit her dying mother. Still obsessed with the details of Helen Kimmel’s murder, Walter stupidly follows the bus in his car, just as he supposes Kimmel would have done on the night of his wife’s murder. However, when Walter tries to find his wife at the rest stop, Clara herself is nowhere to be seen, so he drives home and goes to see his lover, Ellie.

Events take a turn for the worse the next morning when Clara’s body is found at the bottom of a cliff near the rest stop in question. At first, the death is thought to be suicide, a conclusion that fits with Clara’s rather neurotic temperament and medical history. However, once the zealous detective Corby appears on the scene, things begin to look a lot more uncomfortable for Walter, especially once his interest in the Kimmel case comes to light.

In a complex game of cat-and-mouse, Corby begins to play Walter and Kimmel off against one another, primarily in the belief that at least one of them will crack under pressure. Kimmel in particular stands firm; nevertheless, he remains furious with Walter for his reckless behaviour. In effect, Walter’s blundering actions and insatiable curiosity about Helen’s murder have effectively led the police straight to Kimmel’s door. Without the titular ‘blunderer’, Kimmel might well have been home free.

As the suspicions surrounding Clara’s death increase, Walter becomes increasingly isolated as his behaviour, and ultimately his innocence, are called into question – not only by the police but by his closest friends too. Unsurprisingly, the situation intensifies, especially once Walter’s obsession with Kimmel is made public. Even though Walter didn’t actually kill Clara, there comes a point when he virtually imagines having done it, so exhausted is he by Corby’s relentless questioning.

Walter got into his car and headed for Lennert. He should have a brandy, he thought. He felt jumpy, on guard, against what he didn’t know. He felt guilty, as if he had killed her, and his tired mind traced back to the moments of waiting around the bus. He saw himself walking with Clara by some thick trees at the side of the road. Walter moved his head from side to side, involuntarily, as if he were dodging something. It hadn’t happened. He was positive. But just then the road began to wobble before his eyes, and he gripped the wheel hard. Lights skidded and blurred on the black road. Then he realized that it was raining. (p. 104)

The Blunderer is a very effective noir – intriguing, well-paced and compelling. Once again, Highsmith demonstrates her ability to explore the psychological motives and behaviours of a seemingly ordinary protagonist, an everyman trapped in toxic marriage. In this instance, she is particularly strong on exploring the point at which idle curiosity tips over into an unhealthy obsession, signalling the point of no return. There is an inherent dichotomy in the central protagonist’s personality, which is both fascinating and believable; even though Walter knows something is a truly dangerous idea, he goes ahead and does it anyway, irrespective of the consequences. In some respects, this mirrors the push-pull nature of Walter’s relationship with Clara, the dynamic between attraction and repulsion that has characterised their situation in life.

A strange sensation ran through him at the touch of her fingers, a start of pleasure, of hatred, of a kind of hopeless tenderness that Walter crushed as soon as his mind recognized it. He had a sudden desire to embrace her hard at this last minute, then to fling her away from him. (p. 96)

This is a great choice for fans of dark, psychological fiction, particularly Highsmith’s The Cry of the Owl or Strangers on a Train. Those of you familiar with the latter may find certain similarities between the two novels, especially in terms of the exploration of obsession, guilt and fate, not to mention the ongoing fascination with murder.

The Blunderer is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first experience of Iris Murdoch’s fiction but hopefully not my last. Under the Net – Murdoch’s debut novel, first published in 1954 – is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, all set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s.

The novel is narrated by Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. As the story opens, Jake arrives back in London following a trip to France only to discover that he is being thrown out of the flat where he has been living virtually rent-free for the past couple of years. The flat in question is owned by Jake’s friend, Magdalen, who is worried that her new fiancé – a wealthy bookmaker and businessman known as Sacred Sammy – might not like the idea of Jake being back on the scene.

As a consequence, Jake – accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – must find a new place to live, a quest that sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape his outlook on life in subtly different ways.

There are some wonderful characters in this novel from the talented Anna Quentin, a folk singer with a stake in an experimental theatre, to her sister, Sadie, a glamorous actress whose motives may not be quite as innocent as they initially seem. Perhaps the most notable of all is the kindly Mrs Tinckham, a rather eccentric lady who runs a newsagent’s shop near Charlotte Street – a dusty, higgledy-piggledy kind of place that is always full of cats.

In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats. (p. 12)

This novel is witty, engaging and fast-paced, much more so than I expected – the humour in particular comes as a complete surprise. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. (There is some glorious writing about London here, really atmospheric and evocative.) On one level it’s all tremendous fun.

Nevertheless, there is room for some debate and self-reflection too. Central to the novel is the exploration of one of Wittgenstein’s theories, the idea that our deepest emotions remain trapped ‘under the net’ of language, inaccessible to others in spite of our best efforts to express them through dialogue or the written word. Jake’s philosopher friend, Hugo, acts as a conduit for Murdoch’s exploration of philosophical themes – discussions that Jake has knowingly appropriated to write a book of his own, The Silencer, a past transgression which he now regrets.

The novel is also an exploration of the fickle nature of love – the kind of story where A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, and D loves A. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person; if only Anna could feel differently about Jake, perhaps everything would be okay.

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of coexistence; and this too is one of the guises of love. (p.277)

As the novel draws to a close, we find Jake in a better place, more at ease with himself than at the outset. In short, he is optimistic, eager to find regular work and open to the experiences of life, complete with its various ups and downs.

All in all, this feels like an excellent, lively introduction to Iris Murdoch’s work. I haven’t even had time to mention the Marvellous Mister Mars, a performing Alsatian who manages to get Jake out of the trickiest of situations in the nick of time…he’s almost certainly worth the entry price alone.

Under the Net is published by Vintage Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the community she lives in. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)