Monthly Archives: July 2020

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s a brilliant book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. I can definitely envisage it being one of my highlights of the year.

The novel revolves around Timothy Gedge, an ungainly fifteen-year-old boy who spends much of his time hanging around the town of Dynmouth, pestering people with his unfunny jokes and unwelcome small talk.

Timothy has grown up as a latch-key child, left to his own devices with very little in the way of family support. The boy’s mother and older sister are as thick as thieves, locked in their own private clique, largely at the exclusion of Timothy himself. Moreover, there is no male role model for Timothy to look up to, his father having upped and left the family home not long after he was born. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Timothy has turned out to be a very strange boy indeed – a point that Quentin Featherston, the local vicar, frequently considers.

He was a strange boy, always at a loose end. His mother was a good-looking woman with brassy hair who sold women’s clothes in a shop called Cha-Cha Fashions, his sister was six or seven years older than Timothy, good-looking also, employed as a petrol-pump attendant on the forecourt of the Smiling Service Filling Station: Quentin knew them both by sight. In adolescence, unfortunately, the boy was increasingly becoming a nuisance to people, endlessly friendly and smiling, keen for conversation. He was what Lavinia called a latch-key child, returning to the empty flat in Cornerways from the Comprehensive school, on his own in it all day during the school holidays. Being on his own seemed somehow to have become part of him. (p. 9)

At first, Timothy comes across as being a bit slow, a child with learning difficulties or behavioural issues. However, as the narrative unfolds, a more sinister facet of his personality soon begins to emerge. There is a malevolent side to the boy, a deliberately vicious streak that manifests itself in several ways. Timothy loiters around the town, watching people’s movements, peering through their windows, and listening in to private conversations – all with the intention of using any information gained to its full advantage. More specifically, Timothy knows why Commander Abigail likes to hang around the beach on the pretence of going for a swim; he knows that Miss Lavant loves Dr Greenslade from afar, setting an imaginary place for him at her dining-room table; and he knows that Mr Plant is having an affair with Mrs Gedge, one of several women the local publican appears to have on the go at once. Funerals are another source of fascination for Timothy, to the extent that he hangs around at the graveside, even when the deceased is unknown to him.

Things take a particularly unsettling turn when Timothy hatches a plan to enter the ‘Spot the Talent’ competition at the forthcoming Easter Fête. The performance will centre on a re-enactment of a macabre historical event involving the murder of three women in a bath – an incident Timothy learned of during a school trip to Madame Tussauds  He is convinced it will be a huge hit at the church-sponsored Fête, bringing the house down in the process. The boy’s fantasies even extend to the possibility that Hughie Green might be in the audience, scouting for contestants for Opportunity Knocks, a staple of the TV schedules back in the ‘70s.  

With a view to obtaining the props he needs for his act, Timothy proceeds to blackmail some of the residents he has had under observation. A pair of curtains from Mr Dass; a tin bath with the help of Mr Plant; and a dog-tooth suit from Commander Abigail, the latter being particularly vulnerable to potential exposure. Somewhat conveniently, Timothy is in the habit of popping over to the Abigails’ house every Wednesday evening, notionally under the pretence of doing a few odd jobs for the elderly couple; however, in reality, the boy is there for a free dinner and a chance to pilfer some money. It is during one of these evenings that a drunken Timothy begins to turn the screws on the Commander, while poor Mrs Abigail is left to watch the proceedings unfold with a mixture of distress and bewilderment.

‘You’ve no right to spy on people,’ the Commander began to say. ‘You’ve no right to go poking –’

‘I’ve witnessed you down on the beach, sir. Running about in your bathing togs. I’ve witnessed you up to your tricks, Commander, when she’s out on her Meals on Wheels.’

He smiled at her, but she didn’t want to look at him. ‘I wouldn’t ever tell a soul,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t, Commander.’

She waited, her eyes fixed on the flowered tea-pot, frowning at it. Whatever he was referring to, she didn’t want to hear about it. She wanted him to stop speaking. She felt herself infected by her husband’s panic, not knowing why she felt like that. They would keep the secret, the boy said. The secret would be safe. (p. 64)

The way that Timothy preys on the more vulnerable residents of Dynmouth is particularly cruel. In an attempt to procure a wedding dress for his act, Timothy targets two twelve-year-olds, Stephen and Kate, who are now half-brother and sister following a marriage between Stephen’s widowed father and Kate’s divorced mother. A gap of three years can seem vast at this age, and Timothy – a boy on the cusp of adulthood – uses this differential to his full advantage. He maliciously embellishes the events surrounding the death of Stephen’s mother, sowing the seeds of doubt in the youngsters’ minds. It’s a terribly cruel trick, skilfully played.

What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society – perhaps most notably, the men who interfere with young boys under the pretence of an innocent game. There is much sadness to be uncovered too – the desperate loneliness of Miss Lavant’s solitary life; the abandonment of the Dasses by the son they indulged in his youth; and the real reason for the emotional distance that characterises the Abigails’ marriage. There are harsh, uncomfortable truths lying dormant here; things the Dynmouth residents would prefer not to know about or tackle.

The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of Ring’s Amusements for the summer season. Dynmouth is the type of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, complete with all the petty squabbles this environment can breed. The following passage could have come straight out of a Barbara Pym novel, such is its wonderful combination of dry comedy and keen insight.

‘I think I’m going to try and cut the grass,’ Quentin Featherston said as he and Lavinia washed up the dishes after the Mothers’ Union tea-party, which had been even more trying than usual. When Miss Poraway had mentioned a Tupperware party Mrs Stead-Carter had gone much further than she’d ever gone before. She’d pointed out that it was stupid to talk about Tupperware parties as a means of raising funds since funds raised at Tupperware parties naturally went to the manufacturers of Tupperware. Miss Poraway said there were other parties of a similar nature, at which suede jackets and coats were modelled, and sometimes underclothes. In greater exasperation Mrs Stead-Carter said she’d never heard anything as silly in her life: the Mothers’ Union in Dynmouth had neither Tupperware nor suede clothes nor underclothes at its disposal, Miss Poraway’s whole line of conversation was a waste of time. (p. 101)

In the end though, the reader is left wondering about Timothy Gedge (a boy who could be a younger incarnation of Muriel Spark’s Dougal Douglas). Is Timothy as much of a victim of circumstance as he is a perpetrator of evil? How much of his character has been shaped by nature vs nurture? Is there the possibility of redemption in his future? These are just some of the questions for the reader to ponder…

The Children of Dynmouth is published by Penguin Books: personal copy.

Sing Me Who You Are by Elizabeth Berridge

There’s been a little flurry of interest in Elizabeth Berridge recently, partly prompted by a series of tweets from Simon (@stuck_inabook) and Frances (@nonsuchbook) on the Abacus editions of three of this author’s novels. Like Frances, I was intrigued by the sound of Berridge’s distinctly English style and promptly sent off for secondhand copies of two of the books, Across the Common (1964) and Sing Me Who You Are (1967). Now that I’ve read Sing, I can say that the cover matches the book to a T, perfectly capturing the rather idiosyncratic nature of the novel’s protagonist, Harriet Cooper.

Harriet – an unmarried librarian in her late thirties – has just inherited a rather ramshackle bus from her late Aunt Esther, which she plans to make her home. As the novel opens, Harriet is arriving at Uplands – a 250-acre Cambridgeshire estate where the bus happens to be located – complete with all her belongings and a pair of Siamese cats. While Harriet has been given the bus, she does not have any claim to Uplands, which is owned by her older cousin, Magda. These two women are very different from one another, both in looks and in stature. While Harriet is dowdy and mannish-looking, Magda is wealthy and attractive, very much the moneyed countrywoman with links to the local council.    

Harriet’s arrival at Uplands is a thorn in Magda’s side, the presence of the bus proving to be something of an irritation – a blot on the pastoral landscape, so to speak.

Earlier on she [Magda] had stood at the highest point of her estate, above the spinney that protected Harriet’s old converted bus, looking down over the woods and field that drifted gently to the little town below. At this time of year she could see a long way, beyond the town and over at least six counties. But all she had noticed this morning was the smoke from that absurd chimney of Harriet’s bus. The smoke rose unhurriedly from beyond the trees, for the wind which had chased the rain away had itself gone, leaving a still, damp autumn day. Harriet’s smoke irritated her, as if her cousin was deliberately writing sky signals asserting her presence on this land. And Harriet was someone whom you couldn’t very well order off, like gipsies or tramps. However much you wanted to, you couldn’t do that to poor old Harry. (p. 21)

There is a sense that Harriet had been feeling somewhat suffocated in her former role as a librarian; perhaps as a consequence of this, she views the bus as something of a fresh start, ushering in a degree of freedom from past constraints. Magda, on the other hand, is convinced that Harriet will hotfoot it back to London once the weather turns colder, underestimating the latter’s determination to stick it out.

At heart, the novel is a character study, an exploration of the tensions that arise between family members whose relationships reach back into the past. There is a spikiness to Harriet’s personality, a prickliness that can annoy others. Childhood rivalries resurface; former crushes re-emerge, particularly those involving Scrubbs, a womaniser with previous links to both Harriet and Magda. While Scrubbs is no longer alive, his shadow still hangs over the family in various and surprising ways. As the narrative unravels, longstanding secrets are revealed, and Harriet must come to terms with an altered view of her Aunt Esther.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Magda’s husband, Gregg, a man who finds Harriet’s directness rather attractive. With his marriage to Magda on the wane, Gregg is pleased that Harriet has come to Uplands, and a tender entanglement between the two swiftly follows.  

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as I had expected to – Berridge isn’t quite up there with the likes of Beryl Bainbridge, Barbara Pym or some of my other favourite women writers from this period – I still liked it a lot, particularly the author’s use of dry humour.

Harriet’s mother had died in the middle of Hymn No. 270 (Ancient and Modern). Her high, tuneless soprano had stopped abruptly and she had dropped forward over the back of the pew in front, hymnbook still open in her hand. Her peppermints, gloves and collection money (two sixpenny pieces, to make a modest jingle) had dropped off the shelf and rolled out into the aisle. Her chin had hit the wood, and her shiny straw hat, a new one, was jerked forward violently over her reading-glasses. All around the singing had grown ragged, heads turned.

It had been horrible. All the more so as this sort of behaviour would have horrified Mrs Cooper herself. (If the woman didn’t feel well, why hadn’t she stayed at home? Such a commotion, so unfeeling.) She must have died at once, Harriet saw, as she picked her up, for there was no realization of any outrage on her face. There was no expression at all. (pp. 27–28)

So, an interesting and intriguing read – there’s certainly enough going on here to make me want to read more. If you’ve read anything by Berridge, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts…

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

First published in French in 1995, Total Chaos is the first book in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles Trilogy, a modern classic of Mediterranean Noir. It’s a crime novel with a socio-political edge, set in a city where violence, racism, social deprivation and corruption all come together to form the perfect storm, as reflected in the book’s title. 

The novel opens with a quest for revenge. Ugo has just returned to Marseilles, the city of his youth, to avenge the murder of his childhood friend, Manu – a hit that had been ordered by Zucca, a key player in the local underworld. Unfortunately for Ugo, the organised crime unit are on his tail; and when he makes a move on Zucca, a standoff with the cops swiftly follows.

Enter Fabio Montale, a neighbourhood cop who knew Ugo and Manu back in the days of their youth when all three were busting gas stations and drug stores for easy money. It was only when one of their holds-ups went horribly wrong that Fabio decided to get out, eschewing a life of crime for a spell in the army, and subsequently the police. Now Fabio finds himself standing over the body of Ugo, shot dead by Captain Auch’s unit in their crackdown on organised crime.

From this point onwards, the novel is narrated by Fabio, a wounded soul with a strong social conscience.

Ugo’s death was weighing on my mind. I felt suffocated. And alone. More alone than ever. Every year, I ostentatiously crossed out of my address book any friend who’d made a racist remark, neglected those whose only ambition was a new car and a Club Med vacation, and forgot all those who played the Lottery. I loved fishing and silence. Walking in the hills. Drinking cold Cassis, Lagavulin or Oban late into the night. I didn’t talk much. Had opinions about everything. Life and death. Good and evil. I was a film buff. Loved music. I’d stopped reading contemporary novels. More than anything, I loathed half-hearted, spineless people. (pp. 48–49)

Although Fabio isn’t officially on the case, he makes it his business to try to work out what happened to Manu, and ultimately to Ugo, the pull of their old childhood friendships proving hard to resist. There are many loose ends to be followed up, leads to be chased down. For instance, how did Ugo find out that Zucca had ordered the hit on Manu? Who told him? How did Auch’s team know that Ugo was back in Marseilles? When did they start tailing him? And did the police knowingly allow Ugo’s hit on Zucca to play out, thinking it would be to their advantage? These are just some of the key questions that remain to be answered.

As Fabio sets out on his mission, we follow his progress through the streets of Marseilles, complete with the sights, smells and tastes of this multicultural city. Racial tensions are rife, even amongst the different groups of immigrants. “Too many Arabs. That’s the problem,” reflects an Armenian shop owner following a run-in with some street kids.    

“Before, you bumped into an Arab on the street, he’d say sorry. Now he wants you to say sorry. They’re arrogant, that’s what they are! Shit, they think this is their home!”

I didn’t want to listen anymore, or even argue. It’s sickened me. I’d heard it all before. (p. 58)

The picture is further complicated when another individual goes missing. Leila, a languages student and close friend of Fabio’s, is found dead a few miles outside Aix-en-Provence, much to our protagonist’s distress. Like many others in the city, Leila was from a migrant family – an Arab whose father and younger brother now live in Marseilles. At first, the two sets of crimes appear to be quite separate from one another; but as Fabio digs deeper, the storylines begin to intertwine.

Two things in particular mark this novel out, elevating it to something over and above the norm. Firstly, there is Izzo’s portrayal of Marseilles, a visceral, earthy place – a cultural melting pot with a character all of its own. Honour plays a central role in the city, frequently proving itself to be a matter of life and death.

Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared. It’s a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see. And you realize, too late, that you’re in the middle of a tragedy. An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight. (p. 39)

The novel is infused with the pungent aromas of the city, particularly the local dishes and other regional specialities. There are frequent references to herbs and spices (mint, basil, thyme, cumin and coriander), seafood (bream, bass and cod cheeks) and local wines/spirits (rosé, pastis and cassis). 

Secondly, but no less importantly, there is the characterisation. In Fabio, Izzo has created a compelling individual, a fully fleshed-out character for the reader to invest in. Like Izzo himself, Fabio is the son of immigrant parents, a representative of the interethnic mix that characterises Marseilles.

With his strong principles and firm belief in social justice, Fabio is considered to be something of an anomaly within the Marseilles police – more akin to a youth counsellor or social worker than a hard-nosed cop. Much of his time is spent in the projects, operating within a society that is becoming increasingly intolerant. It is here that the youths of the neighbourhood hang out, typically sons of immigrants with little in the way of jobs, hopes or futures to look forward to. Instead, they ride the trains, listening to rap music, using the walls and windows of the carriages as tom-toms, beating in time with the pulsating rhythms.

The kids were a bit confused. I guessed they didn’t have a leader. They were just fooling around. Trying to annoy people, to provoke them. For the hell of it. But it might cost them their lives. A bullet could so easily go astray. I opened the paper again. The one with the ghetto blaster started up again. Another started knocking on the window, but not so loudly this time. Testing the water. The others were watching, winking, smiling knowingly, nudging each other with their elbows. Just kids. (pp. 73–75)

At heart, Fabio is something of a loner, a man who tends to retreat into his own territory – perhaps more comfortable with his own rules and codes than those of a shared partnership. Nevertheless, there are various significant women in Fabio’s life: from the sex-worker, Marie-Lou, to the freelance journalist, Babette, to an old flame, Lole, a woman whose relationship history also encompasses Manu and Ugo. Moreover, there is the sense of guilt Fabio feels over Leila, the Arab girl who clearly wanted to take things further when the pair were together a year or so earlier. Despite being attracted to Leila, Fabio was mindful of holding back, fearful of getting involved with someone so young and emotionally vulnerable. Now Fabio is left wondering what would have happened if their relationship had gone further at the time. Maybe Leila would still be alive with a promising life ahead of her? It’s impossible to tell…

In summary, then, Total Chaos is a terrific noir, a compelling opening to a trilogy with a visceral sense of place. Highly recommended to loves of crime fiction with a sociological edge.

Total Chaos is published by Europa Editions; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

#WITMonth is coming – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers which has grown from strength to strength – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my relatively recent favourites.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of an ill-fated love affair between and young girl and an older married man – a novella in which feelings are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, the novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of Berlin. Keun’s protagonist, Doris, is a striking young woman with a highly distinctive narrative voice – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. It’s a wonderfully evocative book; think Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin crossed with the early novellas of Jean Rhys. Recently reissued by Penguin in a beautiful new edition.

Winter in Sokcho By Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Anessa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

Childhood, Youth and Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman)

Viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a remarkable work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist. Probably the best books in translation I read last year.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Recently translated into English by Ogawa’s regular translator, this thoughtful, meditative novel explores themes of memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear. The story is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are just some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders. A very poignant read, especially in the current time when so many of the things we used to take for granted still seem somewhat fragile or inaccessible.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

A beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style. Morante’s portrayal of young Arturo’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. Highly recommended for book groups and individual readers alike.

You can find some of my other favourites in a previous WIT Month recommendations post from 2017, including books by Teffi, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Vicki Baum and Anna Seghers.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

Actress by Anne Enright

Actress, the latest novel by the esteemed Irish writer Anne Enright, is a beautiful, meandering meditation on a mother-daughter relationship defined by fame. The story is narrated by Norah, a middle-aged writer with five novels under her belt. And yet, she has never tackled the one story that really needs to be written – that of her mother, the once-famous actress, Katherine O’Dell.

Prompted by a request from a rather pretentious researcher looking to define Katherine’s sexual style, Norah embarks upon a winding exploration of her mother’s life, visiting key places, recalling memories and examining old anecdotes, all to better understand the woman behind the myth.

Katherine O’Dell was forty-five years old. She wasn’t forty-five the way people do forty-five these days. She smoked thirty a day and she drank from 6 till whenever. My mother never ate a vegetable unless she was on a diet; she did not, I think, possess a pair of shoes without heels. She talked all day, and got bitter in the evening, when the wine made her face swell and her eyes very green. (p. 11)

Katherine died in 1986 at the age of fifty-eight, pretty much the age that Norah is now as she reflects on her mother’s tumultuous life. We learn of Katherine’s youth, the years spent travelling the country towns of Ireland, her parents performing in McMaster’s theatrical ensemble during the 1940s. It is as part of this rep company that Katherine gets her first taste of the stage, stepping into a role at short notice when one of the young actresses is taken ill with scarlet fever.

At the age of eighteen, Katherine moves to London with a girlfriend where they share lodgings in Notting Hill. Through her job as receptionist for a theatrical impresario, Katherine is the beneficiary of another lucky break when a director casts her as the lead in a play opening at The Criterion. The production is a tremendous success, ultimately transferring to Broadway, where Katherine soon finds herself being styled as an Irish heroine, complete with her dyed red hair and clothes spanning every colour as long as it’s a shade of green.

By the age of twenty, Katherine is effectively the property of her movie studio – her private life scrutinised by their publicity department, her lifestyle monitored and marketed to the press. The studio even insists she get married to boost her image, and a sham wedding to a sculptor, Philip Greenwood, follows suit. The career-defining role comes when Katherine is cast as a field nurse in a New York production, A Prayer Before Morning. The play is romantic, dramatic and tragic, a performance that brings Katherine to Hollywood and ultimately worldwide fame.

Katherine O’Dell thought she was offering something to the crowd, of joy or of pain. In later years, she considered herself some sort of sacrifice – set aflame, perhaps, by the glare of their attention. But, you know, maybe she was just standing up there, emoting in the light. (p. 66)

Through Norah’s sifting of various memories, insights and reflections, a complex portrait of Katherine emerges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong element of performance to several aspects of Katherine’s behaviour. We see a glamorous woman enjoying the attention of her admirers, flirting with the men who hang around her house by day and night. There are many lovers, of course, not least Norah’s father, whose identity remains an elusive mystery never to be revealed.

While Norah is aware of her mother as an object of adoration and fantasy, she also sees another aspect Katherine’s personality, a more vulnerable, insecure side – a single mother eager for the respect and admiration of the daughter who watches quietly from the wings. There are moments of real tenderness in some of Norah’s memories, especially from their time back in Ireland during the 1950s. (By this time, Katherine is living as a single mother in Dublin, her once-glamorous career now beginning to wane.)

I much preferred our winter quarters in the basement kitchen, where we were more private. There was a big old range cooker down there, with a big easy chair beside it and a shelf above of old newspapers and forgotten ornaments, which included a china dog and a snow globe of New York, fogged over with cooking grease. The floor was chequered with black and red tiles, of which the red were a little more porous and worn so the bentwood chairs always had a wobble in them. I liked wriggling about on these chairs; getting up, re-setting, making good. (p. 31)

By the age of forty-seven, Katherine can no longer get away with playing women in their twenties, irrespective of the intensive beauty regime she maintains. There is a slide into obscurity as Katherine’s star continues to fade. Loneliness sets in; a reliance on alcohol becomes more intense; and the onset of mental health issues is clearly apparent. Norah’s days at the Dublin home are punctuated by the sound of Katherine hammering away on the typewriter – frenetic bursts of activity interspersed with deathly silences in the quest to write a screenplay worthy of production. It is during this period that Katherine becomes increasingly desperate and unhinged; and yet, she is forever the performer.

Everything went missing – the right blouse, the right shoes, lipstick, Pan-stik, curling tongs. She blundered from room to room and wailed. I had learned, from a very young age, to go very still while my mother got herself ready for the world. I always knew where to find her keys. Out of her bedroom, back into the bedroom for some forgotten thing, patting herself down as she clattered down the stairs. Finally, at the hall door, she turned to the mirror to put herself together and this was a wonderful thing to witness – the way she locked eyes with her own reflection and fixed, by some imperceptible shift, into her public self. A tiny realignment of the shoulders, neck, chin; each element lifted and balanced, as though on hidden weights and wires, around the taut line of her gaze. (pp. 177–178)

Woven into these explorations of Katherine, both as a human being and as an icon, are Norah’s reflections on her own life – in particular her relationships with men, including her husband with whom she clearly has a deep yet complex relationship. There is a ‘you’ who appears now and again in the narrative – ostensibly Norah’s husband, although there is the possibility of a wider audience too.

By inserting these meditations into the narrative, we see how Katherine’s presence has shaped Norah as an individual, how the sexual freedom Norah enjoys threatens her mother, making Katherine feel old and no longer attractive. They also provide Enright with the opportunity to highlight various aspects of Irish culture, particularly the idea that saying ‘no’ really can mean ‘no’ and not ‘yes’. These insights reveal the passive side of Irish society, a culture that often shifts the balance of blame towards the victim – Dublin being a place where you might get yourself shot, ‘robbed or, especially, raped’, with individuals frequently finding themselves in dire straits. While I found Norah’s reflections on her own life somewhat less engaging (more self-absorbed, even?) than those on Katherine, I could see how they added an extra dimension to the narrative, another layer to consider.

In short, Actress is a beautiful, reflective meditation on a complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s an exploration of the individual behind the myth, one that also raises questions about the ownership of personal image, sexual power and the nature of Irish culture over the years. The writing is top-notch, with Enright bringing a wonderful sense of irony and wit to many of her observations. I particularly loved the evocation of the theatrical world with its mix of glamour and unexpected sights, the hum of the audience detectable in the background. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this magical atmosphere at its best.

It was a place of secret corridors and blind ends. There was a sudden or hidden door, which revealed, when you opened it, your own reflection in the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. This room had a bicycle in the corner, a double sink, bunches of flowers stuffed into jars, a long counter, where a woman sat fixing a fan of green feathers into her hair. […] Backstage was the best place, where everyone was mixed up and undone. (p. 120)

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape; personal copy. 

American Midnight – short stories by Edith Wharton, Shirley Jackson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and many more

American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released by Pushkin Press in 2019 (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. One of the best things about it is the diversity of styles across the range. From the gothic folk horror to the classic ghost story, there’s something for virtually everyone here.

As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to cover each piece in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily, there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price of the collection as a whole.

I’ll start with The Eyes, a brilliantly unsettling story by the marvellous Edith Wharton. It’s a classic ghost story, one of those atmospheric tales by the fireside on a dark, chilly night. One evening, a group of friends are gathered together for a dinner hosted by Culwin, a somewhat reserved older man. At the end of the meal, the guests start to recount their own ghost stories, brushes with the spectral and the supernatural and suchlike. Finally, it is time for Culwin to reveal his tale, one that harks back to a time in his youth when his nights were haunted by the appearance of a terrifying pair of eyes.

I sat up and strained my eyes into the darkness. The room was pitch black, and at first I saw nothing; but gradually a vague glimmer at the foot of the bed turned into two eyes staring back at me. I couldn’t see the face attached to them – on account of the darkness, I imagined – but as I looked the eyes grew more and more distinct: they gave out a light of their own. (p. 63)

They were the very worst eyes Culwin had ever seen, and the cumulative effect of being observed by them soon became intolerable. The story reveals much about Culwin as a character, particularly as these visions occurred at significant times in his life – instances when he had been wrestling with his conscious over matters relating to others.

It’s an unnerving, multilayered tale, one that explores themes of guilt, conscience and complicity in a highly compelling way.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a superb story, noted for its arresting portrayal of societal attitudes towards women’s mental health in the late 19th century.

The story is related through a series of journal entries by an unnamed woman; her husband, John – a rather controlling physician – has rented a large mansion for the family to occupy over the summer. As the narrative unfolds, it soon becomes clear that the woman is suffering from severe depression, probably postpartum following the birth of her baby. She is confined to an upstairs ‘nursery’, a truly oppressive room with bars on the windows, rings on the wall and noticeable gouges on the floor. Many passages in the story are devoted to descriptions of the wallpaper in the room; its colour a dirty, repellent yellow, its appearance torn and ragged.

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions. (p. 165)

The degree to which John is controlling his wife is also steadily revealed. The woman is not allowed to pursue her work as a writer; nor must she indulge in any form of mental stimulation. Instead, she will rest, eat well and get plenty of fresh air, all with the aim of aiding her recovery from ‘temporary nervous depression’ or tendencies towards ‘hysteria’.

I always fancy I see people walking in these numerous paths and arbors, but John has cautioned me not to give way to fancy in the least. He says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try. (p. 168)

The longer the woman remains trapped in the room, the more she begins to see patterns in the wallpaper, ultimately convincing herself that a woman is trapped behind the bars of the design – someone who really ought to be released and set free.

This utterly terrifying story, charting a woman’s descent into insanity, reflects something of the author’s own personal experience. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, one that has much to say about the oppression of woman and the shattering impact of their mistreatment by society and the medical profession at the time. A truly chilling piece that taps into some of our deepest anxieties and fears.  

Shirley Jackson’s story, Home is another favourite, very much in the style of her Dark Tales collection which I wrote about earlier this year.

Ethel Sloane and her husband, Jim, have just moved into their new house (previously occupied by the Sandersons) which they are now doing up. As Ethel goes about the local town, buying groceries and materials for the home, she wants everyone to take note of her. By nature, she is a rather boastful, self-important individual, qualities that Jackson highlights from the start.

Ethel Sloane liked having bought the old Sanderson place, and she liked walking the single street of the village, and most of all she liked knowing that people knew who she was. (p. 120)

One day, when the weather is atrocious, the locals warn Ethel not to take her usual road to the house; but being stubborn and self-reliant, she promptly ignores them and goes ahead as planned. On the way home, Ethel sees an old woman and child by the roadside getting soaked in the pouring rain, so she stops and offers them a lift home. The barefoot boy is wearing pyjamas and wrapped in a blanket – discoveries that make Ethel furious with the woman for neglecting the child’s welfare in this way. Once they are all in the car, the woman tells Ethel that she wants to go to the Sanderson place – the house that Ethel and Jim now own.

It would be unfair of me to reveal what happens next, save to say that it is truly creepy. An excellent story that exposes some of our fears and failings to excellent effect.

I also really loved The Mask by Robert W. Chambers, a writer I hadn’t come across before. This is a deeply affecting story of loss, sadness and unrequited love, set amongst the artistic world of 19th century Paris. The writing is beautiful, really elegant and graceful; and while the story itself is a melancholic one, it ends on a note of renewal and optimism.

Other stories include Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an exploration of the forces that drive susceptible people towards sin and evil (fans of folk horror will likely enjoy this one); Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston, a tale of passion and revenge that combines realist and occult elements; and The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe, a chilling little story about the stealthy advance of a deadly plague (suitably timely).

In short, American Midnight is a wide-ranging selection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease. A fascinating collection that explores some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past.

The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann

The English writer Rosamond Lehmann seems to fall somewhere in the intersection between Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf, her modernist style and piercing insight into character marking her out as a writer of great skill and distinction. The Weather in the Streets (1936) is a sequel to Lehmann’s earlier novel, Invitation to the Waltz, in which seventeen-year-old Olivia Curtis is captivated at her first society ball by the dashing Rollo Spencer. Nothing much comes of their meeting on the terrace at the time. Rollo belongs to a higher social class than Olivia and remains somewhat out of her reach, and yet she is mesmerised by him all the same.

In Weather – which is set ten years later – a chance encounter brings Olivia into contact with Rollo once again, and an illicit relationship soon follows, forming the focus of the narrative. While Invitation is a very good novel – encapsulating the blend of excitement and apprehension we feel when we’re young – Weather is on an entirely different level altogether. It’s a remarkable book, one that expertly captures the cruelty, frustration and devastation of a doomed love affair in the most glittering prose.

As the novel opens, Olivia is working as a photographer’s assistant in London, where she lives with her cousin, Etty. Having separated from her husband, Ivor, two years earlier, Olivia now has a dull, unfulfilling marriage behind her; the couple, however, are not legally divorced.

While travelling home to see her father who is seriously ill with pneumonia, Olivia has the misfortune of being seated opposite Rollo on the train – a chance encounter that rekindles longstanding emotions within Olivia as she recalls their previous meeting at the ball. Rollo is wealthy, privileged and attractive. He is also married, but the marriage is not a particularly happy one – his wife, Nicola, is delicate, fragile and highly strung, an earlier miscarriage having precipitated something of an emotional withdrawal on her part.

Lehmann excels at conveying the rush of conflicting emotions Olivia experiences on seeing Rollo again, the desire to open up vs the tendency towards self-protection. The author holds the reader close to Olivia, giving us near-direct access to her thoughts alongside the couple’s conversation.

[Rollo] “…You going home, too?”

[Olivia] “Yes…Yes, I’m going home. Just for a few days.”

“D’you often come down?”

“No–-not very often really. No, I don’t.” She stopped, feeling stubborn, choked by the usual struggle of conflicting impulses: to explain, to say nothing; to trust, to be suspicious; lightly to satisfy natural curiosity; to defy it with furious scorn and silence; to let nobody come too near me… (p. 18)

When Rollo contacts Olivia again, the inevitable affair swiftly follows. While there are a few halcyon days in the country, the liaison is largely a frustrating one. It’s a clandestine relationship played out in fragments of time snatched here and there; of secret meetings in dark, secluded restaurants and stuffy, sordid hotel rooms. Once again, Lehmann’s portrayal of this world is brilliant, the dampness of the London winter providing the perfect backdrop to the dispiriting, claustrophobic tone of the affair. 

Beyond the glass casing I was in, was the weather, were the winter streets in rain, wind, fog, in the fine frosty days and nights, the mild, damp grey ones. Pictures of London winter the other side of the glass–-not reaching the body; no wet ankles, muddy stockings, blown hair, cold-aching cheeks, fog-smarting eyes, throat, nose…not my usual bus-taking London winter. It was always indoors or in taxis or in his warm car; it was mostly in the safe dark, or in half-light in the deepest corner of the restaurant, as out of sight as possible. Drawn curtains, shaded lamp, or only the fire… (p. 145)

On the surface, Rollo seems to be attracted to Olivia, calling her ‘darling’ and buying her expensive jewellery now and again; and yet for the reader, the warning signs are plain to see. Alongside his admiration for other women, Rollo clearly dislikes any unseemly displays of emotion on Olivia’s part. Moreover, when Olivia finally expresses her frustration with a relationship in which she comes second to Nicola every time, Rollo is shocked and surprised. In short, he seems blind to the idea that Olivia might not be happy with the existing arrangements, their occasional meetings by secrecy and stealth. 

We were silent. What was plain was what hadn’t been said. Never once, not even in the joyful, grateful, amazing beginning days, had he…no, not once…put her second–-broken a plan made for, by, with her to stay with me…Not once. Nothing explicit ever said. Nothing crude or marital to hurt my feelings, but–-well, there it is…I should have thought of it all before, I should have gone on being content with a half-share. I shouldn’t have gone to that house… (p. 194)

While Olivia lives a relatively independent, bohemian life, spending her days with artists and photographers, she is at heart a very vulnerable, sensitive woman – someone who craves reassurance and approval from others. Her love for Rollo is absolute and unshakable, blinding her to the damaging consequences of this ill-fated affair.

As the affair plays out, Lehmann perfectly captures the agony Olivia experiences as she waits for Rollo to contact her; the desperation of being caught in limbo, awaiting a letter or phone call, is keenly felt.

Third time of ringing up Rollo’s house: third time unlucky. These voices speaking for him made him mythical, removed him far out of reach, guarding him like a public personage in an artificially important world. This time it was a different voice again: the muted voice, benevolent, of an old retainer…Familiar somehow, surely…Who could it be?

There was nothing to do but wait for a letter. Surely he must write. Why hasn’t he?…He’ll write the moment he gets my letter, or, anyway, my wire…Who forwarded that? Uncomfortable thought…signed Liv.

It doesn’t matter. (p. 262)

The story of an extramarital affair may seem like a numbingly familiar one, but what sets this novel apart from others in the genre is Lehmann’s understanding of character, her ability to convey the rush of conflicting emotions on the page. In Lehmann’s hands, this becomes a devastating portrait of a woman who loves someone desperately but is unable to express her feelings openly due to the constraints of society. There is a terrific appreciation of the cruel nuances of the class structure here, particularly in the exchanges between Olivia and Lady Spencer, Rollo’s openly warm but inherently class-conscious mother. Nothing must be seen to taint the respectability of Rollo and Nicola’s marriage; reputation and social standing are everything in this world, not unlike the kind of society Edith Wharton portrays in her New York novels, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.

This a story that will resonate with anyone who has found themselves being swept up by the passions and disappointments of an illicit affair. The modernity of Lehmann’s prose, with its passages of stream-of-consciousness and fluid style, makes the novel feel fresh and alive, certainly well ahead of its time for the mid-1930s. And yet, Lehmann doesn’t shy away from tackling the harsh realities and unpleasant consequences of a liaison in this era. There are scenes here that would have seemed shocking in 1936, elements that Lehmann insisted should remain in the book despite the impassioned concerns of her transatlantic publishers.

In short, this is a beautiful, devastating, deeply affecting novel that captures the cruelty and desolation of Olivia’s situation to perfection. One of the very best novels I’ve read so far this year.

The Weather in the Streets is published by Virago Press; personal copy

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (1953, tr. Nick Caistor, 2019)

My contribution to this year’s Spanish Lit Month is Who Among Us?, an intriguing, elusive novella from the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, who uses a variety of different forms to examine this timeless story of love and misunderstandings.

Miguel and Alicia have been married for eleven years, but over time their relationship has drifted and soured, partly due to another element in the frame – that of their childhood friend, Lucas, whose shadow hangs over the couple like a ghostly presence. Many years earlier, it seemed as if Alicia might marry Lucas, the pair arguing passionately together, with Miguel observing quietly from the sidelines. However, it wasn’t to be; in time, Alicia became convinced that Miguel was the better of the two men, prompting her to choose him over Lucas when deciding on her future.

Miguel’s side of the story is presented as a series of undated diary or journal entries – possibly a notebook that Alicia may well get to read at some point. Through these reflections, Miguel comes across as a passive, unambitious man – neither jealous nor envious of Lucas and his position in their relationship. Rather, Miguel views himself as somewhat subordinate or second-rate; a spectator as opposed to a participator. Possibly as a consequence of this, he now sees his marriage to Alicia as something of a mistake.

The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas. I don’t think she was guilty of any kind of manipulation when she apparently chose me. She was terribly confused, that’s all. She couldn’t see clearly. I am the one who was responsible from the start. Even then I knew it wasn’t right; and yet I closed my eyes and pretended to believe in the unbelievable; it was a form of self-harm. (p. 53)

The turning point comes when an opportunity arises for Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires on a family matter. Miguel takes full advantage of this event, encouraging his wife to meet with Lucas while she is in the city – Lucas having moved there following Miguel and Alicia’s wedding several years before. 

In the book’s second, relatively brief section, we see another side of the story through a letter Alicia has written to Miguel. By contrast with the reflective nature of Miguel’s journal, Alicia’s missive is somewhat barbed and emotional, laying much of the blame for the breakdown at Miguel’s door.

You and I have made lots of mistakes, but I sense now that our greatest single, our most unpardonable, error has been never to talk about them. We missed out on that chance for openness, the one most couples seize as they daily insult and curse each other, finding equal pleasure in these moments of hatred as they do in those of appeasement. (p. 63)

My dearest, our marriage has not been a failure, but something far more terrible; a misspent success. All our happiness, which was more subtle than the usual kind, all our love, which was more honest than our fear, proved unable to prevail over all your pent-up rancour, all those compromises of pride and apathy, all that rigid, silent shame. (p. 66)

The triangle is completed with Lucas’s perspective, presented as a fictional version of his meeting with Alicia. It is, in effect, a short story, complete with footnotes which explain certain aspects of the text and their relationship to actual events.

What I really liked about this book was how each of the two subsequent sections – those from Alicia and Lucas – cast a different light on the reflections from Miguel, reframing his perception of events, thereby questioning our understanding of them too. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail. We’re never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists – who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others?

It’s also an interesting way of presenting what some might consider a rather familiar narrative – a love triangle involving three closely-connected individuals, where the relationships between them change and develop over the years. While Benedetti flexes his style from one section to the next, certain aspects of the book – Miguel’s account in particular – reminded me of some of Javier Marias’s work with its focus on self-examination and self-reflection.

In writing this thoughtful, jewel-like novella, Benedetti has given us a multifaceted story of love, missed opportunities and mismatched emotions. Recommended for those who enjoy character-driven fiction, particularly in a variety of different styles.  

Grant (at 1streading) has also written about this book – you can read his review here.

Who Among Us? is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.