Monthly Archives: October 2021

Blaming by Elizabeth Taylor  

As some of you may know, this week is all about the #1976Club, Karen and Simon’s celebration of books first published in 1976. For my first read, I’ve chosen Blaming, Elizabeth Taylor’s final novel, written when the author knew she was dying of cancer. There is a particular poignancy to it, a consequence perhaps of Taylor’s impending mortality. It is, nevertheless, an excellent novel, a characteristically perceptive story of blame, guilt and selfishness – more specifically, what we do when our selfishness catches up with us and how we sometimes try to shift the blame for our failings onto others.

The novel revolves around Amy Henderson, whom we first encounter in the middle of a holiday with her husband, Nick. The Hendersons are typical Taylor protagonists, drawn from the middle-class world that she knew so intimately. Well into middle age, the couple have a comfortable lifestyle, a married son, James, and two granddaughters, Dora and Isobel.

To aid his recovery from an operation, Nick has embarked on a Mediterranean cruise with Amy – a trip that is proving rather trying for various reasons. While Nick is determined to make the most of various sightseeing opportunities, Amy would much rather stay on the ship, passing the time by reading and relaxing. As a result, there is an unmistakable note of tension in the air as Amy tries to control her frustration with Nick and a packed timetable of outings to various Turkish mosques.

And so it had been in some ways a trying holiday – she fussing over him with the patience of a saint, but inwardly quick to be bored, or irritated by such prolonged sight-seeing; and he determined to miss nothing, as if it were his last chance. (p. 10)

Things take a turn for the worse when Nick passes away in his sleep while onboard the ship, leaving Amy in shock and with no family nearby for support. The one person to hand is Martha, a young American novelist who has already attached herself to the Hendersons as the only other English-speaking passengers on board. (In truth, Amy has already spent a little time with Martha, before Nick’s death, albeit out of politeness rather than any desire to be friends.)

Martha gallantly steps in, abandoning her plans for the remainder of the cruise to accompany Amy back to London, where both women happen to live. On their arrival in London, Martha delivers Amy into the hands of James, who together with a family friend, the gentle widower, Gareth Lloyd, will take care of Amy and the funeral arrangements for Nick.

Back in London, Amy is reluctant to maintain any kind of friendship with Martha, despite the latter’s kindness in supporting her on the journey home. James, in particular, sees the selfishness in his mother’s behaviour, irrespective of her grief.

[James:] “I will write to thank her [Martha]. It was a great act of friendship to cut short her holiday like that – and all the extra expense.”

“I paid that, and she really only missed Ephesus,” Amy said ungraciously. “But, oh yes, she was very kind.”

Mourning seemed to give the go-ahead to every sort of rudeness and selfishness, he thought, fearing more of the same thing to come. (p. 36)

At first, Amy neglects to return Martha’s calls, pretending she has mislaid the number, fully aware of her shameful behaviour in the face of this woman’s kindness. Finally, however, Martha writes to Amy, virtually inviting herself to come and visit – a trip that eventually takes place. Once inside Amy’s house, Martha is careful to observe everything, mentally noting specific phrases that Amy uses in conversation, together with all the attendant details of English life. We quickly get the sense that Martha is using Amy to a certain extent, possibly gathering information that might prove useful for a novel.

As the story plays out, an unlikely friendship develops between the two women, although we’re never quite sure of either character’s true feelings towards the other. There comes a point when the tables are turned, when Martha finds herself in need of help from Amy, offering the latter an opportunity to return the favour. Amy, to her shame, puts her own feelings first at this point, virtually abandoning Martha in her hour of need. It’s a failing that will come to haunt Amy in the months that follow, compounding the sense of guilt she feels while also trying to absolve herself of blame.

When viewed overall, Blaming is rather poignant in tone. Nevertheless, there are some wonderfully amusing moments for readers to enjoy, especially those involving Amy’s male housekeeper, the brilliantly named Ernie Pounce. A bit of an old woman at heart, Ernie persists in measuring himself against Gareth Lloyd’s housekeeper, who is clearly not averse to cutting corners in the kitchen, much to Ernie’s horror. In this scene, Amy and her son’s family are just about to be served their Christmas dinner, which Ernie has lovingly prepared.  

It was the meal of the year at which Ernie was always present as part of the family, wearing the black corduroy jazz-club jacket and a pink bow tie. Having brought in the turkey and set it before James, he whipped off a fancy apron and stood by to pass plates and vegetables. The sausages were in one long string and draped about the bird like a coronet. James, whose father had always done the carving, was annoyed by all this cluttering up of his job. He tried to lift the sausages away, but with a knife blade-side up, so that they lay scattered all over the carpet. Dora laughed quietly, with her eyes shut, her lips pressed together. Isobel was furious. (pp. 120-121)

James’ daughters, Dora and Isobel, are terrific value too, perfectly capturing the kinds of behaviours one might observe from a mature, intelligent seven-year-old (Dora) and her insufferable younger sister (Isobel). Children often ask the funniest or most awkward questions in challenging situations, and Taylor captures this brilliantly when the girls are told that their grandfather, Nick, has died. All too soon, the children are musing on who (or what) has the right to go to heaven. After all, people must go somewhere when they die, otherwise we’d run out of room for everyone on earth!

Ultimately though, this is Amy’s story, a thoughtful exploration of selfishness, blame and guilt. Once again, Taylor shows her innate ability to catch her characters off guard, observing them in their most private of moments, laying bare their inherent flaws and failings for the reader to see.

Mycopy of Blaming was published by Chatto & Windus, but it’s currently in print with Virago Press.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)  

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This sharply observed novella is darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which may sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also the sort of book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations.

The story revolves around thirty-six-year-old Keiko, who has worked at the same convenience store – the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart – for the past eighteen years. She is a reliable, diligent worker who takes pride in her work, keenly anticipating customers’ needs and rearranging the store’s displays to maximise sales. Her current manager – Keiko’s eighth since starting at the store – knows he can rely on her to deliver, maybe even taking advantage of her commitment now and again to pick up additional shifts.

Keiko, we soon learn, is somewhat ‘different’ to most other people. Although never explicitly stated, Keiko is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, struggling to conform to society’s expectations of either marriage and motherhood or a successful, responsible career. Despite her degree-level education, Keiko is perfectly happy with her part-time job at the convenience store as it provides a structure and routine she can understand. The familiarity of the store makes it a comfortable environment for Keiko, and while she still feels somewhat at odds with her colleagues, the role is manageable and satisfying for her.

Early in the novel, Keiko recalls how as a young child she first became aware of the difficulties surrounding her responses to certain situations – more specifically, how interpreting things literally often landed her in trouble. For example, when she breaks up a fight between two boys at her primary school by hitting one of them over the head with a spade, Keiko struggles to understand why others are shocked by her actions. As far as Keiko is concerned, she is simply obeying the other children’s cries of “stop them”, so why are the teachers upset with her for breaking up the fight? This, together with other similar examples, leaves Keiko feeling confused about how to behave towards others – it’s a situation she ultimately tries to manage by remaining silent as much as possible, hopefully as a way of minimising confrontation.

My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.

I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions. (p. 10)

As an adult, Keiko has learned to mimic the behaviours and expressions of other people, absorbing social cues from her colleagues at the store. It’s her way of fitting into some kind of societal structure – a state she achieves by mirroring the other workers, often dressing in similar clothes and using the same expressions.

Given her age and single status, Keiko often comes under pressure from her friends and family to find a partner – or at least a better job – as a way of progressing in society. For Keiko, however, these things are neither important nor desirable. Instead, she lives for her job at the convenience store and is mindful of the need to keep herself in good shape, both physically and mentally, to perform well in her role. As a consequence of all this, there are times when Keiko has to deal with intrusive questions from her peers, especially the men in her limited social circle – insensitive individuals who clearly consider her to be some kind of freak.

It was the first time I’d ever met him, and here he was leaning forward and frowning at me as if questioning my very existence.

“Um, well, I don’t have any experience of other jobs, and the store is comfortable for me both physically and mentally”.

He stared at me as though I were some kind of alien. “What, you never…? I mean, if finding a job is so hard, then at least you should get married. Look, these days there are always things like online marriage sites, you know,” he sputtered. […]

“That’s right, why don’t you just find someone? It doesn’t really matter who it is, after all. Women have it easy in that sense. It’d be disastrous if you were a man, though.” (pp. 77–78)

Everything changes for Keiko when Shiraha starts at the store. At heart, Shiraha is lazy, arrogant and dismissive – pretty much the exact opposite to Keiko in his attitude to work and authority figures in general. Like Keiko, Shiraha has also failed to live up to his family’s expectations; however, his failure to confirm has left him angry and rebellious.

When Keiko tries to help Shiraha with a place to live, the situation gets complicated, threatening to destabilise her happiness and security. I’d rather not say too much about how Murata does this, but it’s very clever – mostly because it highlights the absurdity of conforming to society’s expectations at the expense of valuing difference and independence.

Convenience Store Woman is an excellent novella – sharp, comical and gloriously quirky. Tonally, it combines the deadpan comedy of an Aki Kaurismäki film with the poignancy of classic Japanese fiction – some of Yuko Tsushima’s work springs to mind, especially given its focus on unconventional female protagonists on the fringes of mainstream society.

Murata’s use of language is particularly effective, highlighting Japanese society’s lack of tolerance towards diversity. It’s an environment where little or no attempt is made to understand the needs of someone like Keiko; instead, these ‘foreign’ bodies must be quietly ‘eliminated’ or ‘cured’, just like the aggressive customer who is removed from Keiko’s store.

The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.

So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.

Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me. (pp. 80–81)

In addition to the central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the book also touches on a number of related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. It makes for interesting reading in light of the recent pandemic – a time that has highlighted just how much we rely on key workers to keep our essential services running.

In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A refreshingly different read for individuals and book groups alike.

Convenience Store Woman is published by Granta; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

Two very good books by Laurie Colwin: Home Cooking + Passion and Affect

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (1988)

I have Dorian (at Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau) to thank for introducing me to Laurie Colwin. (You can read more about the background to that intro in my review of Colwin’s 1982 excellent novel, Family Happiness, by clicking on the link.) Alongside fiction, Colwin also wrote about food – specifically, home-cooked food, the kinds of simple yet flavoursome dishes that any good cook needs to have in his or her repertoire.

First published in 1988, and reissued by Fig Tree in this lovely 2012 edition, Home Cooking weaves together Colwin’s recipes, anecdotes and sage words of advice on the joys of cooking and sharing food with friends. In short, it is a delight to read – warm, generous, and completely down-to-earth, just like Colwin herself, I would imagine. In some respects, reading this book feels like having your warmest, smartest, funniest friend over for dinner – someone with a willingness to share their culinary tricks and treats alongside their unmitigated disasters.

There are chapters here on Friday Night Supper, How to Disguise Vegetables and Easy Cooking for Exhausted People. All the recipes seem eminently achievable – tried and trusted versions of Colwin’s family favourites, including Warm Potato Salad with Fried Red Peppers, Orange Ambrosia and Extremely Easy Old-Fashioned Beef Stew (which can be pimped up accordingly once the basics have been mastered). Pot roasts and baked chicken feature heavily, as do eggplants (aubergines) and broccoli, two of Colwin’s favourite vegetables. I will definitely be trying some of her ways with orzo as there’s a packet languishing in my cupboard as we speak.

Orzo with butter and grated cheese is very nice. Orzo with a little ricotta, some chopped parsley and scallion, butter and cheese, is even better. Orzo with chopped broccoli and broccoli di rape is heaven, and it is also a snap. While you cook the orzo, steam the two broccolis—the amounts depend entirely on how many people you are feeding—until tender. Chop and set aside.

Drain the orzo throw in a lump of butter. Stir it in, add the broccoli, some fresh black pepper and some grated cheese, and you have a side dish fit for a visiting dignitary from a country whose politics you admire. (pp. 85-86).

She’s not above sharing some of her kitchen nightmares, either – the culinary disasters that have lingered in her mind. After all, as Colwin generously admits herself, having just served crunchy pasta to her husband’s friends, ‘if all else fails, eat out’.

There’s also a particularly amusing chapter on ‘Repulsive Dinners’ recounting the horrors that Colwin has experienced elsewhere. In this passage, she recalls an invitation to supper in Connecticut where the ‘local markets were full of beautiful produce of all kinds.’ Unfortunately, none of these tempting ingredients found their way into the host’s meal. Instead, ‘an old-fashioned fish bake’ was produced – even those words themselves sounded ominous, as Colwin conveys.

The old-fashioned fish bake was a terrifying production. Someone in the family had gone fishing and had pulled up a number of smallish fish—no one was sure what kind. These were partially cleaned and not thoroughly scaled and then flung into a roasting pan. Perhaps to muffle their last screams, they were smothered in a thick blanket of sour cream and then pelted with raw chopped onion.

As the coup de grâce, they were stuck in a hot oven for a brief period of time until their few juices run out and the sour cream had a chance to become grainy. With this we were served boiled frozen peas and a salad with iceberg lettuce. (p. 153)

What I love most about this book is the way Colwin writes – hopefully you’ll get a flavour of her style from the passage I’ve quoted above.

In summary then, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen is a wonderful collection of essays, recipes and reflections on the joys of simple yet delicious dishes. An ideal present for any food lover, especially the unpretentious ones!

Passion and Affect (1974)

I’ve also been reading some of Colwin’s short stories over the past few weeks, dipping in and out of her bittersweet collection Passion and Affect. Colwin writes beautifully about quiet, unshowy people, many of whom are drifting through life, searching for happiness or fulfilment, even if they can’t quite recognise it when they find it. While not necessarily outsiders, many of Colwin’s characters are somewhat odd or idiosyncratic, written with a kind of humanity that makes them seem entirely recognisable despite their inherent strangeness. Here we have stories of people falling in and out of love, not quite connecting through mismatched expectations, failing to compensate for their respective flaws and imperfections.

As one might expect with any collection of short stories, some pieces will resonate more strongly than others, so I’ll focus on a few of my favourites from the fourteen included here.

In The Water Rats (probably my favourite story), we meet Max Waltzer, a thoughtful, successful man who adores his wife and four children so much that his happiness threatens to overwhelm him. For Max, the fear of potential tragedy manifests itself in the form of water rats, recently sighted on the nearby shoreline.

In the beginning of the spring, geese flew in V formation. Max watched them from the bay window. He looked out over the water and saw the first of the small craft battling its way to an old mooring. On the weekends he liked to sit by the bay window and watch his part of the Sound. It soothed him, and it gave him a sense of propriety to see the latticework gazebo, firm on its slope. A family of barn swallows was building a nest in its thatched roof. (p. 49)

This is a beautifully written story in which a man must come to terms with his fear of loss – a worry that poses a more significant threat to his wellbeing than any hypothetical catastrophe.

In Children, Dogs and Desperate Men, a woman slips into a dalliance with a married man – a cartographer she meets at her cousin’s engagement party – even though she knows it’s unlikely to lead to anything lasting. As with many of Colwin’s characters, Elizabeth is somewhat fragile, viewing herself as ‘shaken and out of place’, still recovering from an earlier unhappy love affair. This touching, wryly humorous story ends on an unresolved note, leaving the reader to wonder what might happen in the future.

This dry (and frequently direct) style of humour runs through several of Colwin’s stories, perhaps most noticeably in The Big Plum, one of the best pieces in the collection. Harry, a supermarket manager, studying for a degree in art history, becomes fixated on Binnie Chester, a checkout girl who reminds him of Vermeer’s famous painting, The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Harry studies Binnie closely, fantasising about her home life in ‘an old house of ruined elegance’ with her vaguely tragic relatives – perhaps a rakish father and a faded, abstracted grandmother. Somewhat inevitably, Harry’s dreams are punctured when he finally plucks up the courage to talk to Binnie out of hours, an exchange laced with humour and poignancy as the normality of her life is ultimately revealed.

I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a hint of Colwin’s skills in conveying character. Her descriptions are often memorable and distinctive, just like the individuals themselves.

Holly was impeccable: she had not opted for neatness, it had been thrust upon her by nature. She had simple, unadorned features, and thick straight hair that fell unalterably to her shoulders. Clothes on her looked somehow cleaner and more starched than they did on other people. (p. 89)

Passion and Affect is published by Harper Perennial; personal copy.