Category Archives: Backlisted Writers

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

Back in October, I spent a week or so gadding about the London Film Festival, trying to make the most of the chance to catch previews of various forthcoming releases and a few curios that may never find a distributor here in the UK. One of the most eagerly anticipated films (for me at least) was Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk, a story of love, injustice and the fight for freedom.

While I wasn’t quite as bowled over by Jenkins’ previous film, the Oscar-winning Moonlight, as everyone else seemed to be, I loved the look of the Beale Street trailer. So, with this in mind, I decided to take a chance on it – luckily for me, it turned out to be one of my highlights of the fest, definitely up there in my final top five. (If you’re interested, you can read my thread of Film Festival tweets here.)

With just under a week to go to the Beale Street screening, I picked up a copy of the novel on the spur of the moment to read on the train journeys in and out of the city (just about manageable given the book’s length). It’s a really remarkable piece of writing, so powerful, passionate and lyrical, that it’s going to be hard to do it any kind of justice in a review.

The novel is narrated by Tish, a nineteen-year-old black girl who lives with her parents and sister in Harlem in the early 1970s. Tish is deeply in love with Fonny, just a regular young black guy except for the fact that he happens to be in jail, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. As the story opens, Tish is visiting Fonny in prison to tell him she is having his baby, a development she believes will offer them a glimmer of hope, for Fonny loves Tish just as much as she loves him.

You see: I know him. He’s very proud, and he worries a lot, and, when I think about it, I know – he doesn’t – that that’s the biggest reason he’s in jail. He worries too much already, I don’t want him to worry about me. In fact, I didn’t want to say what I had to say. But I knew I had to say it. He had to know.

And I thought, too, that when he got over being worried, when he was lying by himself at night, when he was all by himself, in the very deepest part of himself, maybe, when he thought about it, he’d be glad. And that might help him. (p. 12)

In creating this story, Baldwin has seamlessly woven together two closely-related strands: firstly, the families’ efforts to discredit the case against Fonny in an attempt to secure his release; and secondly, a series of flashbacks from the young lovers’ courtship before Fonny’s imprisonment. Here’s an excerpt from a scene where Fonny is declaring his love for Tish, essentially asking her to be his life partner, for better or for worse.

‘So, all I’m trying to tell you, Tish, is I ain’t offering you much, I ain’t got no money and I work at odd jobs – just for bread, because I ain’t about to go for none of their jive-ass okey-doke – and that means that you going to have to work, too, and when you come home most likely I’ll just grunt and keep on with my chisels and shit and maybe sometime you’ll think I don’t even know you’re there. But don’t ever think that, ever. You’re with me all the time, all the time, without you I don’t know if I could make it at all, baby, and when I put down the chisel, I’ll always come to you. I’ll always come to you. I need you. I love you.’ He smiled. Is that all right, Tish?’

‘Of course it’s all right with me,’ I said. I had more to say, but my throat wouldn’t open. (pp. 94-95)

Alongside the story of Tish and Fonny’s relationship, the novel also conveys the power of familial love and familial tensions in fairly equal measure. Fonny’s mother, in particular, is dead set against her son’s involvement with Tish (as are his rather stuck-up sisters), while his father, Frank, is much more supportive of the couple.

Somewhat sadly, Fonny’s fight for justice is one that remains all too relevant today, over forty years since the novel’s original publication. As might be expected, Baldwin is very adept at highlighting the injustice meted out to people of colour in a society that harbours blatant misconceptions and prejudices against certain individuals; nevertheless, these elements never feel preachy or heavy-handed, just clear-sighted, well-judged and impactful. In this flashback scene, Fonny meets up with an old friend, Daniel, who has just been released from jail – another miscarriage or distortion of justice for the sake of convenience. (Daniel is the character who is speaking here.)

‘They said – they still say – I stole a car. Man, I can’t even drive a car, and I tried to make my lawyer – but he was really their lawyer, dig, he worked for the city – prove that, but he didn’t. And, anyway, I wasn’t in no car when they picked me up. But I had a little grass on me. I was on my stoop. And so they come and picked me up, like that, you know, it was about midnight, and they locked me up and then the next morning they put me in the line-up and somebody said it was me stole the car – that car I ain’t seen yet. And so – you know – since I had that weed on me, they had me anyhow and so they said if I would plead guilty they’d give me a lighter sentence. If I didn’t plead guilty, they’d throw me the book. Well’ – he sips his beer again – ‘I was alone, baby, wasn’t nobody, and so I entered the guilty plea. Two years!’ He leans forward, staring at Fonny. ‘But, then, it sounded a whole lot better than the marijuana charge.’ He leans back and laughs and sips his beer and looks up at Fonny. ‘It wasn’t. I let them fuck over me because I was scared and dumb and I’m sorry now.’ (pp. 122-123)

If Beale Street Could Talk is a book shot through with a powerful sense of loss, of missed chances and opportunities, of lost time and happiness for Tish and Fonny, maybe even other losses for those trying to support the young lovers in their quest for a better future. It’s also a beautiful portrayal of two people who are clearly devoted to one another, united by the kind of bond that seems strong enough to endure the greatest of hardships.

And what of the film? Well, as I alluded to earlier, it’s terrific. Barry Jenkins has done a superb job of capturing the lyricism and beauty of Baldwin’s prose, transferring these qualities to the screen. From a visual perspective, the film looks gorgeous, invested as it is with a sense of emotional warmth and sensitivity that really shines through. I think it’s one of those rare examples where seeing the movie actually enhances the experience of reading of the book.

As far as I can tell, the film is due to open in the US on 30th November and in the UK on 18th January. If you like the sound of the story, please do consider going to see it when it comes out. I very much doubt you’ll regret it.

If Beale Street Could Talk is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Something slightly different from me today, a little look at one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The High Window (1942), his third featuring the legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe. As I’ve written about Chandler before – there are links to my previous posts here: Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-bye – I’ll try to keep this review fairly brief, certainly as far as the plot is concerned.

The novel opens in traditional hard-boiled fashion with Marlowe visiting a new client at her home, an elaborate but soulless mansion in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The woman in question is Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, cantankerous old widow whose main pleasures in life appear to involve the consumption of large quantities of port and the systematic bullying of her repressed secretary, a rather neurotic young lady by the name of Merle Davis.

Mrs Murdock is in need of ‘a nice clean private detective,’ someone to investigate the theft of a rare gold coin, the Brasher Doubloon, the pride of her late husband’s private collection, normally kept under lock and key in a secure room in the house. As far as Mrs Murdock is concerned, the coin has been taken by her wayward daughter-in-law, the former nightclub singer, Linda Murdock (nee Conquest), a woman she has never liked – both the coin and the girl disappeared at the same time, hence the suspicion surrounding her involvement in the case.

I love this first passage – it’s taken from a scene where Marlowe is sizing up Linda Conquest, just from a photograph given to him by Mrs Murdock. It’s textbook Chandler.

A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus. (p. 18)

As the Doubloon’s disappearance is a private family matter, the police are not to be involved. Instead, Mrs Murdock wants the coin back in her possession, along with an uncontested divorce for her rather ineffectual son, Leslie, of whom she is very fond – this in spite of his foolish marriage to Linda. Marlowe, for his part, smells a rat from the start; and when he tries to probe Mrs Murdock for further information about Leslie, the shutters come down. Along with the police, Leslie must also be kept firmly out of the investigation…

“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”

“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”

She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”

“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”

She turned the colour of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.

“You’ll do,” she said dryly. (pp. 16-17)

Somewhat reluctantly, Marlowe takes the case – after all, there are bills to be paid and bottles of liquor to be purchased. So, he sets off to find Linda’s former flatmate from before her marriage, a nightclub entertainer named Lois Magic.

As is often the case in these stories, the opening premise is simply the first thread in a complex web of deep-rooted corruption, an entanglement of messy crimes and grubby misdemeanours. The underlying situation is much more involved and intricate than it appears at first sight. Turns out that Leslie Murdock is in hock to Alex Morny – the nightclub manager and husband of Lois Magic – to the tune of $12,000. And that’s merely the start of it; there are many more twists and developments to come.

Marlowe’s quest for the coin takes him into seedy offices and apartments, glamorous nightclubs and bars, a veritable myriad of sleazy locations in the city. Along the way, he discovers evidence of murder, infidelity, blackmail, counterfeiting and sexual harassment, some of which have been kept under wraps for several years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a time when Marlowe finds himself caught between the police and his client in the quest for some kind of moral justice. While never losing sight of the need to stay on the right side of the law to maintain his status as a private eye, he is also aware that there is the confidentiality of his client to protect. Either way, our protagonist is trapped between a rock and a hard place, grappling with a situation he can barely begin to understand.

Twelve hours to tie up a situation I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator, Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come. (p. 129)

Once again, I am struck by just how many of these hard-boiled stories coalesce around dysfunctional families, often headed up by a poisonous matriarch as is the case here. Mrs Murdock is a prime example, a cold, bitter, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own position. She really is quite a character.

While The High Window isn’t quite up there with the best of Chandler’s novels (for me, that would be The Big Sleep or The Long Good-bye), it still makes for a terrific read. Once again, I find myself admiring this author more for his writing than his plotlines. It’s all about the exhilarating prose style, peppered as it is with sharp dialogue and quotable one-liners. Here’s one of my favourites from the book, a wonderful description of the Idle Valley Club, the joint where Linda and Lois used to work.

The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail. (p. 135)

Then there’s the irresistible combination of atmosphere, mood and indisputable sense of place. No one writes about Los Angeles quite like Chandler, from the plush estates of Bel Air to the rundown areas like Bunker Hill. I’ll wrap things up with a final quote, one that captures something of the dark underbelly of the city.

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles. (pp. 70-71)

The High Window is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Back in September last year, I read an early Anita Brookner, Providence (1982), a novel I loved for its central characterisation and sensitive portrayal of life’s disappointments both large and small. By rights, I should have begun with her debut novel, A Start in Life (1981), but it wasn’t available at the time – hence the decision to go with Providence instead. Having just finished A Start in Life, I would have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to Brookner’s style and themes. In some ways, it is a richer novel than Providence, more rounded and fleshed out. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

brookner-start

As A Start in Life opens, Ruth Weiss, a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels, is looking back on her life, the striking opening lines setting the tone for the story that follows.

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. (p. 7)

Interestingly, the balance between the relative merits of pursuing a path of virtue vs. one of vice is a central theme in the novel – more on this point a little later in the review.

Winding back to Ruth’s childhood at the family home in West London, the picture is somewhat unconventional and chaotic. Ruth’s mother, Helen, a relatively successful actress (at least at first) is beautiful, spoilt, lazy and self-centred, a high-spirited woman who spares little thought for the future. By contrast, Ruth’s father, George, a dealer in rare books, devotes much of his time and energy to keeping his wife happy, enacting his role as Helen’s charming and attentive husband. Neither of them seems to have much time for Ruth whose care is largely entrusted to George’s mother, the elderly Mrs Weiss, who also shares the family home. Mrs Weiss is under no illusions about the rather feckless nature of her son’s wife. Moreover, she is concerned that Helen and George’s childlike behaviour and ‘facile love-play’ will damage Ruth in some way. As such, she does her best to maintain the household, looking out for the young girl wherever possible.

Unfortunately for Ruth, the situation deteriorates when Mrs Weiss dies, a development that prompts Helen to ‘get a woman in’ to look after the house. The housekeeper in question is Mrs Cutler, ‘a wry, spry widow, quick to take offence’. Mrs Cutler is a wonderful gossipy creation, and there are some priceless scenes as she begins to insert herself into the lives of Helen and George, always mindful of how to play the situation to her full advantage. Ruth, for her part, is pretty much left to her own devices as the household rapidly goes to pot.

As the years slip by, Helen starts to go downhill fairly dramatically. No longer in work, her looks begin to fade along with her previous zest for life, points that become abundantly clear to George when he catches Helen in one of her private moments.

The bones of her shoulders were sharply outlined. Her wedding ring was loose and sometimes she took it off. Her red hair was now a secret between herself and her hairdresser, and on the days when she was due to have it done she found the atmosphere in the streets threatening. Eventually, Mrs Cutler, the Hoover abandoned in the middle of the floor, would take her, leaving George to finish whatever work she had or had not been doing. On their return, both women would pronounce themselves exhausted, and Helen would retire to bed, where she knew she looked her best. George, harassed, would join her for a drink. Helen’s blue eyes, more prominent now in their pronounced sockets, would gaze out of the window with a wistful and ardent expression, her thoughts winging to past triumphs, part travels, past love affairs. George, looking at her in these unguarded moments, would be shocked to see how quickly she had aged. (p. 36)

George, for his part, finds solace in the company of Sally Jacobs, the widow who buys his book business, as a growing dependency develops between the two.

Meanwhile, Ruth begins to carve out a daily routine for herself. By now she is studying literature at one of the London Universities, living at home again after a brief and somewhat disastrous attempt to break away on her own in a room near the King’s Road – her dedicated attempt to woo an attractive fellow student, Richard, with a romantic dinner for two having ended in crushing disappointment. There are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, library work in the evenings. In some ways, the relative safety/security of the University environment feels like more of a home to Ruth than her family residence in Oakwood Court. It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse. Nevertheless, as Ruth reflects on her studies of Balzac, she begins to question whether there is more to life. Is the pursuit of a life of goodness and virtue the best path to the discovery of true love? Surely a little Balzacian opportunism wouldn’t go amiss for Ruth too?

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her dissertation on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can more easily be appraised when they are dead and gone. (p. 136)

Once again, Ruth attempts to add a little freedom, romance and excitement to her days. She secures a scholarship for a year in Paris to further her studies in Balzac, with the ultimate intention of visiting some of the places depicted in his novels. During her time in the capital, Ruth begins to live a little, albeit relatively briefly. She meets a bohemian English couple who take her under their wing, encouraging her to improve her image with a smart new haircut and fashionable clothes. Before long, Ruth falls for a literature professor, a married man who treats her kindly, even though their time together is somewhat limited. She longs for an opportunity to be alone with him in a private place, almost a hope against hope given her previous attempt at romance as a student in London. (I love this next quote; it feels like vintage Brooker.)

If only she could sit with him in a room, quietly, talking. If only she could wait for him in some place of her own, hear his footsteps approaching. If she could cook for him, make him comfortable, make him laugh. More than that, she knew, she could not expect. Can anyone? She still measured her efforts and her experience against her disastrous failure with Richard, remembering her expectations and the reality that had destroyed them. That reality had made her wary. Disappointment was now built into any hope she might have had left. But so far Duplessis had not disappointed her. (p. 130)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Ruth never quite manages to break free from the demands of her parents as a mercy call from home cuts short her time in Paris.

A Start in Life is a really terrific debut, beautifully written and brilliantly observed. The characterisation is superb – not just in the creation of Ruth, but the other leading players too. In many ways, the novel explores the classic Anita Brookner territory of fading hopes and dashed dreams as happiness and fulfilment remain somewhat out of reach. I strongly suspect there is a lot of Brookner herself in the character of Ruth Weiss, a rather fragile woman who seems destined to experience significant loneliness and disappointment in her life. In many respects, Ruth is constrained by the demands of those around her, frequently bending to the will of others to the detriment of her own desires. There appear to be some parallels between Ruth’s situation and that of Balzac’s heroine, Eugénie Grandet, so much so that I am sure a familiarity with Balzac’s work (and this book in particular) would bring another dimension to the experience of reading of A Start in Life.

Before I finish, a few words on the novel’s tone. While Ruth’s story is shot through with a delicate sense of sadness, this is beautifully balanced by Brookner’s dry wit and keen eye for a humorous situation. (In this respect, I was reminded of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly The Soul of Kindness which I reviewed back in January.) There are some marvellous scenes involving Helen, George and their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, a woman who always seems to have a cigarette on the go. I’ll finish with a quote which I hope captures something of this tone. Mrs Cutler is imagining her future life running a care home with Leslie Dunlop, a man she has met through a dating agency.

She saw herself in the Lurex two-piece she had bought in the sales, being absolutely charming to some old dear while her husband hovered cheerily in the background. ‘My husband will take care of it,’ she would say. ‘You will have to speak to my husband about that.’ They would make an ideal pair. After all, if she could look after Helen, she could look after a few more. And they had nurses, didn’t they? She sent Leslie back to Folkestone with instructions to make enquiries at all likely establishments along the coast. Then she nipped back to the Black Lion and had two gins to steady her nerves after her momentous afternoon. (p. 114)

A Start in Life is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.

img_3095

I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

My Ántonia by Willa Cather

First published in 1918, My Ántonia is a story of the American Midwest, of the pioneers and European immigrants who settled in the prairies in the late 19th century. The novel is narrated by Jim Burden, a New York-based lawyer who has documented his memories of Ántonia Shimerda, a Bohemian girl whose family moved to Nebraska when Jim was a young boy. More than any other person Jim could remember from his childhood, Ántonia seemed to represent the prairies, both the tough conditions of the land and the essence of the people who lived there. In other words, she embodied the resilience of the pioneers’ spirit.

IMG_2852

The novel itself is divided into five books, each one dealing with a different period in Jim’s life. As the story opens, the recently orphaned Jim is travelling by train from Virginia to Nebraska to begin a new phase of his life with his grandparents. He is ten years old. Also travelling to Nebraska are Mr and Mrs Shimerda and their four children having just arrived in America from their homeland of Bohemia. During the journey, Jim befriends fourteen-year-old Ántonia (the Shimerdas’ second child) and is intrigued to discover that the Shimerda family are moving to a neighbouring property, the one closest to his grandparents’ farm. Before long the two youngsters are firm friends, spending time together whenever possible. As Ántonia is bright and eager to learn, Jim teaches her to speak English while they explore the countryside, noting the way it changes from one month to the next.

The first snowfall came early in December. I remember how the world looked from our sitting-room window as I dressed behind the stove that morning: the low sky was like a sheet of metal; the blond cornfields had faded out into ghostliness at last; the little pond was frozen under its stiff willow bushes. Big white flakes were whirling over everything and disappearing into the red grass. (pg 39)

The sky was brilliantly blue, and the sunlight on the glittering white stretches of prairie was almost blinding. […] The tree tops that had been gold all the autumn were dwarfed and twisted, as if they would never have any life in them again. […] The cornfields got back a little of their colour under the dazzling light, and stood the palest possible gold in the sun and snow. All about us the snow was crushed in shallow terraces, with tracings like ripple-marks at the edges, curly waves that were the actual impression of the stinging lash in the wind. (pg. 40)

Nebraska is a land of blistering summers and biting winters, and the first year takes its toll on the Shimerda family, Ántonia’s father in particular. A quiet and dignified man by nature, Mr Shimerda has no experience of farming or manual work (back in Bohemia he was a musician). As a consequence, he is desperately lonely and homesick for his homeland. Moreover, the Shimerdas’ new home is terribly run down – it is frequently described as a ‘cave’ or ‘hole’ – and in spite of some help from their neighbours, the new arrivals struggle to get by. After paying over the odds for their land, they have little money to spare for food. If the Shimerdas can make it through to the spring, then they can plant a garden and buy some chickens, maybe even a cow. After a truly devastating winter for the family, the responsibility falls on Ántonia and her older brother Ambrosch to work the land as they attempt to make a go of their new life in Nebraska. While Jim looks forward to the prospect of an education at school, Ántonia must work the fields; she is as strong as any young man.

A couple of years later, Jim and his grandparents move to the local town of Black Hawk where Jim can attend school. On her arrival in town, Jim’s grandmother persuades her neighbours, the Harlings, to employ young Ántonia as a housekeeper. Once again, the two youngsters are living next door to one another and able to spend time together in the evenings. This section of the novel is bright and optimistic; for the most part, Ántonia is a conscientious worker, and she fits in well with the Harling family, playing with the young children and keeping them amused as far as possible.

One of the most interesting aspects of this section of the narrative is Cather’s focus on ‘the hired girls’, the Bohemian and Scandinavian teenagers who were sent to the town to work in some form of service. Jim reflects on the curious social system at play, whereby at first these country girls had to find jobs to help their families to pay off their debts or to make it possible for their younger siblings to attend school. In many ways, their experiences – both on the prairies and in service – made these girls more rounded than their younger brothers and sisters.

Those girls had grown up in the first bitter-hard times, and had got little schooling themselves. But the younger brothers and sisters, for whom they made such sacrifices and who have had ‘advantages,’ never seem to me, when I meet them now, half as interesting or as well educated. The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Ántonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new. (pg. 109)

In time, this decision to send their daughters out to work in service helped the foreign farmers to become prosperous more quickly than several of their native-born peers. Many American farmers were just as hard-pressed for money as their immigrant neighbours but were too proud to allow their daughters to go into service. If the girls couldn’t get positions teaching at one of the local schools, they simply sat at home in poverty instead.

In the next book, we follow Jim as he continues his education in Lincoln where he meets up with Lena Lingard, one of the Scandinavian hired girls who was friendly with Ántonia back in the town. Having trained as a dressmaker in Black Hawk, Lena now runs a successful business of her own in Lincoln. Once again, Cather touches on the developments within society at the time as Lena is a portrayed as young, independent, self-made woman with no desire or need for a husband to support her. It’s one of several contrasts in the novel: the experiences of the immigrant settlers vs those of the native-born farmers; life in the country compared to life in the town; opportunities for the educated vs those for the uneducated; a family’s expectations of their daughters vs those of their sons. There are many more.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel. Cather’s descriptions of the landscape and the natural world are simply stunning; she perfectly captures that blend of beauty and brutality, the blossoming of nature within a fickle environment. My one niggle relates to the somewhat episodic nature of the narrative. For me, the story feels most alive when Ántonia is in the frame (either directly or through another character’s observations). As we follow Jim, there are times when he is apart from Ántonia, and while certain elements of these sections of the novel are interesting (the social observations, for example), I have to admit to missing the luminosity of Ántonia’s presence when she is absent. Nevertheless, this is a fairly small criticism, one that certainly wouldn’t stop me from reading another of Cather’s books. (I’m already thinking about O Pioneers!). Also, there are some fascinating stories-within-stories in My Ántonia, particularly the various backstories and tales from the past. (Along with several other characters in the novel, Ántonia is a great storyteller.)

By the time we reach the final section of the book, a good thirty years have passed since Jim first met Ántonia, and he returns to Nebraska to see her again. Life has been hard on Ántonia, and yet the qualities that shine through are her optimism and determination, her unquenchable spirit and ability to survive. I’ll finish with a quote that captures a glimpse of this.

She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.

[…] She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races. (pg. 186)

For other perspectives on this book, here are links to reviews by Emma and Ali.

My Ántonia is published by Oxford World’s Classics; personal copy

The Long Good-bye by Raymond Chandler (book review)

‘…Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ (pg. 416) 

First published in 1953, The Long Good-bye is the sixth novel in Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series. I read most of them when I was a teenager, so they’re rereads now (my review of Farewell, My Lovely is here). I’d always considered The Big Sleep my favourite Chandler – after all, it was my first encounter with Marlowe and the hard-boiled crime novel in general.  The Long Good-bye , however, is giving Sleep a serious run for its money, certainly on the evidence of this reread.

As the novel opens, Marlowe stumbles upon and befriends a drunk by the name of Terry Lennox. Lennox has been abandoned by his ex-wife, Sylvia, who dumps him in the parking lot of a club. Over the course of the next few months, Marlowe runs into Lennox again, and the two men share the occasional drink together – gimlets at Victor’s bar. Lennox has remarried Sylvia, but their relationship remains rocky to say the least.

IMG_2013

Late one night, Lennox turns up at Marlowe’s home and asks if his friend will drive him to Tijuana where he plans to hop on a plane to Mexico. Marlowe agrees even though he suspects Lennox is fleeing the country because the cops are after him. Marlowe doesn’t want any details – he can tell it’s something serious, that’s enough.

On his return from Tijuana, Marlowe receives a visit from the cops who haul him in for questioning on suspicion of accessory after the fact. Sylvia has been found dead, apparently beaten to death with a bronze statue, and Lennox is the prime suspect. When Lennox’s body is found in Mexico along with a suicide note and confession to Sylvia’s murder, Marlowe is released without charge. But Marlowe doesn’t buy the confession – Lennox didn’t seem the type to murder his wife, certainly not in such a brutal manner. Marlowe continues to harbour suspicions about the case, a situation only exacerbated when he receives a warning from Harlan Potter’s lawyer, Sewell Endicott. Potter, a powerful media mogul and father to Sylvia Lennox, wants Marlowe to keep away from the case. Why stir up any unpleasant publicity now that the murderer has taken his own life?

As the novel progresses, Marlowe gets drawn into a web of corruption and conspiracy, a network that covers the District Attorney’s office, the coroner, various members of the police force and Harlan Potter’s media empire:

‘Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition – hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid. The lid, my friend, is down on the Lennox case…’ (pg.78)

The novel contains a second plot strand, one involving an alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, and his wife, Eileen. Marlowe is approached by Wade’s publisher, Howard Spencer, who asks him if he will keep an eye on Wade until he finishes writing his latest novel. Wade has a habit of getting drunk and disappearing for a few days here and there. Marlowe doesn’t want to take the job but gets involved when Eileen Wade appeals to him personally.

Eileen Wade is a classic Chandler creation, a femme-fatale right up there with the best of them. No one writes a blonde walking into a bar quite like Chandler. Here’s Marlowe as he see Eileen for the first time:

She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailor-made with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare colour, and the lashes were long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter will ever pull a table out for me. She sat down and slipped the gloves under the strap of her bag and thanked him with a smile so gentle, so exquisitely pure, that he was damn near paralysed by it. She said something to him in a very low voice. He hurried away, bending forward. There was a guy who really had a mission in life. (pgs. 103-104)

I make no apologies for the length of that quote. I love Chandler’s style – it’s all about attitude and mood. Speaking of which, here’s a scene from the Lennox plotline – the cops are waiting for Marlowe as he arrives home from his trip to Tijuana. (I could have quoted it earlier, but it seems to fit better here):

It was two o’clock when I got back and they were waiting for me in a dark sedan with no police tags, no red light, only the double antenna, and not only police cars have those. I was half-way up the steps before they came out of it and yelled at me, the usual couple in the usual suits, with the usual stony leisure of movement, as if the world was waiting hushed and silent for them to tell it what to do.

‘Your name Marlowe? We want to talk to you.’

He let me see the glint of a badge. For all I caught of it he might have been Pest Control. (pgs. 41-42)

At first, the two plot strands seem separate from one another, but as the story develops it becomes clear that they are connected. Good-bye contains a plenty of twists and turns, but the storyline feels very satisfying.

The Long Good-bye, is reported to be Chandler’s most personal book. I can’t comment on that, but it certainly feels like his most ambitious work. This is a first-class hardboiled novel, but there’s more to it than that. Chandler uses The Long Good-bye as a means of raising questions about the society of the time – the rich and powerful are his key targets.

This novel, like the others, is set in Los Angeles. At times it feels like a lament for the loss of decency and justice in the city (if these things ever existed in the first place). Towards the end of the story we can sense that Marlowe is growing more than a little tired of this town.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this feeling. Marlowe mixes himself a stiff drink, stands by the open window and looks out over the city:

Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy car tyres. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs. A city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.

It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn’t have one. I didn’t care.

I finished the drink and went to bed. (pg. 322)

Jose at The Game’s Afoot has reviewed this novel. I haven’t reviewed The Big Sleep, but there’s a great selection of quotes from the novel in this post by Tomcat in the red room.

The Long Good-bye is published by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 16/20 in my #TBR20.

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler (book review)

The hunch I had was as vague as the heat waves that danced above the sidewalk (pg. 19, Penguin Books)

Ah, how I love Raymond Chandler and his hard-boiled private investigator, Philip Marlowe. In my other life, I would be Vivian from The Big Sleep, but that’s another book…

IMG_1673

In Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler’s second novel, the action opens with Marlowe investigating a run-of-the-mill missing-person’s case. During his pursuit, Marlowe stumbles upon something far more interesting altogether. He encounters Moose Molloy, a big bruiser just out of jail and on the lookout for his former love, Velma. The scene is Florian’s, a ‘dine and dice emporium’, a place where Velma worked as a singer at the time of Moose’s conviction some eight years ago. Before he knows it, Marlowe is right in the thick of it; Moose, who doesn’t seem to know his own strength, ends up breaking the bar manager’s neck and heads off with a gun leaving Marlowe to get drawn into the investigation.

One of the things I love about Chandler is his brilliant knack for describing scenes in such a way that we, as readers, feel we’re right there with the characters themselves. Here’s Marlowe as he meets the cop in charge of this case:

A man named Nulty got the case, a lean-jawed sourpuss with long yellow hands which he kept folded over his kneecaps most of the time he talked to me. He was a detective-lieutenant attached to the 77th Street Division and we talked in a bare room with two small desks against opposite walls and room to move between them, if two people didn’t try it at once. Dirty brown linoleum covered the floor and the smell of old cigar butts hung in the air. Nulty’s shirt was frayed and his coat sleeves had been turned in at the cuffs. He looked poor enough to be honest, but he didn’t look like a man who could deal with Moose Molloy.

He lit half of a cigar and threw the match on the floor, where a lot of company was waiting for it. (pg. 15)

Marlowe quickly discovers that Florian’s used to be owned by a guy named Mike Florian, now deceased but survived by his widow, Jesse. And when Marlowe pays Mrs Florian a visit, she appears to have something to hide…

‘Well, what do I do – date her up?’ Nulty asked.

‘I did it for you. I took in a pint of bourbon with me. She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she had washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.’

‘Skip the wisecracks,’ Nulty said.

‘I asked Mrs Florian about Velma. You remember, Mr Nulty, the redhead named Velma that Moose Molloy was looking for? I’m not tiring you, am I, Mr Nulty?’

‘What you sore about?’

‘You wouldn’t understand. Mrs Florian said she didn’t remember Velma. Her home is very shabby except for a new radio worth seventy or eighty dollars.’

‘You ain’t told me why that’s something I should start screaming about.’

‘Mrs Florian – Jesse to me – said her husband left her nothing but his old clothes and a bunch of stills of the gang who worked at his joint from time to time. I plied her with liquor and she is a girl who will take a drink if she had to knock you down to get to the bottle. After the third or fourth she went into her modest bedroom and threw things around and dug the bunch of stills out of the bottom of an old trunk. But I was watching her without her knowing it and she slipped one out of the packet and hid it. So after a while I snuck in there and grabbed it.’

I reached into my pocket and laid the Pierrot girl on his desk. He lifted it and stared at it and his lips quirked at the corners. (pg 37-38)

Having read a few of Chandler’s books, I’m starting to admire this author more for his writing than his storylines. Farewell, My Lovely is all about sharp dialogue, attitude and mood. The plot itself is important of course, and this one has twists and turns aplenty, but the storyline almost seems secondary to those other aspects. The narrative is peppered with Marlowe’s wisecracking quips and one-liners (which just cry out to be quoted) and Chandler’s use of metaphor and simile is quite something:

A bogus heartiness, as weak as a Chinaman’s tea, moved into her face and voice. (pg. 26)

Her eyes stayed on the bottle. Suspicion fought with thirst, and thirst was winning. It always does. (pg.28)

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. (pg. 97)

Alongside the search for Moose and Velma, Chandler introduces another stand to narrative as Marlowe picks up a job accompanying a man aiming to buy back a stolen necklace. At first the two cases appear unconnected, but Marlowe sniffs out a link, and our down-at-heel detective gets sucked into a web of corruption and power that has infected the affluent classes. Marlowe works on hunches, gets into all manner of scrapes, but we seem to know he’ll make it through somehow.

Farewell, My Lovely is a great noir – perhaps not quite up there with The Big Sleep, but it’s a downright enjoyable read all the same. Highly recommended.

Farewell, My Lovely is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Source: personal copy.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (review)

In Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter presents us with the story of Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’, the most famous aerialiste of her day, and what a dazzling, sprawling tale it is. The novel opens at the tail end of the nineteenth century, and the scene is Fevvers’ dressing room at the Alhambra Music Hall, London. Here, in a setting littered with her dirty underwear, Fevvers entertains American journalist, Jack Walser, with the tale of her biography to date. There is an aura of mystery surrounding the mercurial Fevvers – here we have a creature who claims to be part woman, part bird, and her slogan adds to the mystique: ‘Is she fact or is she fiction?’ Walser is all set to gain the inside track on the aerialiste’s story, and if at all possible, to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Fevvers claims she was ‘hatched out of bloody great egg’ to the sound of Bow Bells, and the aerialiste paints a vivid picture of her backstory. We hear of Fevvers’ early years raised in a brothel, and how, aged thirteen, her wings burst through and she learns to fly. We follow the young Fevvers as poverty forces her to join Madame Schreck’s Museum of Women Monsters, where she is sold to the rather sinister Mr Rosencreutz.

IMG_1639

As Fevvers recounts her tale to Walser, she is aided by foster mother, Lizzie, and Carter whips up a quick pen-portrait of the aerialiste’s guardian in just a few lines:

Lizzie was a tiny, wizened, gnome-like apparition who might have been any age between thirty and fifty; snapping, black eyes, sallow skin, an incipient moustache on the upper lip and a close-cropped frizzle of tri-coloured hair – bright grey at the roots, stark grey in between, burnt with henna at the tips. (pg. 10, Vintage Books)

This first section of the novel (London) is a glorious piece of writing, full of incident and intrigue, and the artist recounts her story with considerable brio. Fevvers is a wonderfully earthy, bawdy individual – she swigs champagne, belches away and flirts with Walser as the hours of the night slip by:

She pulled a coil of hair out of her chignon and wrapped it round her finger, twisting it and biting it thoughtfully; then, suddenly, she whirled away from the mirror on her revolving stool and leaned confidentially towards Walser.

‘Now, sir, I shall let you into a great secret, for your eyes alone and not for publication, because I’ve taken a liking to your face, sir.’ At that, she batted her eyelids like a flirt, She lowered her voice to a whisper, so that Walser needs must lean forward in turn to hear her; her breath, flavoured with champagne, warmed his cheek,

‘I dye, sir!’

‘What?’

‘My feathers, sir! I dye them! Don’t think I bore such gaudy colours from puberty! I commenced to dye my feathers at the start of my public career on the trapeze, in order to simulate more perfectly the tropic bird. In my white girlhood and earliest years, I kept my natural colour. Which is a kind of blonde, only a little darker than the hair on my head, more the colour of that on my private ahem parts.

‘Now that’s my dreadful secret, Mr Walser, and to tell the whole truth and nothing but, the only deception which I practice on the public!’

To emphasise the point, she brought her empty glass down with such a bang on the dressing-table that the jars of fards and lotions jumped and rattled, expelling sharp gusts of cheap scent, and a cloud of powder rose up into the air from a jogged box, catching painfully in Walser’s throat so that he broke out coughing. Lizzie thumped his back. Fevvers disregarded these proceedings. (pg 24-5)

Towards the end of the novel’s London section, Fevvers joins Colonel Kearney’s circus, signing a six-figure deal to tour Russia and beyond. And Walser, who still senses something feral, almost dangerous about Fevvers (especially when he’s alone with this formidable creature) decides to go undercover and tag along as a clown.

As the action moves to St Petersburg (in part two), Carter introduces us to a variety of remarkable characters and anecdotes. We meet the inhabitants of Clown Alley, chimps, tigers and all manner of circus performers. As one might expect, there are thrills and spills aplenty, and Carter treats us to more of her lush, rich prose. In this scene, the Strong Man is caught in flagrante delicto with the Ape Man’s partner as a tiger escapes and pursues, Sybil, Colonel Kearney’s pet pig:

The tiger ran into the ring, hot on the scent of Sybil.

It came out of the corridor like orange quicksilver, or a rarer liquid metal, a quickgold. It did not so much run as flow, a questing sluice of brown and yellow, a hot molten death. It prowled and growled around the remains of the chimps’ classroom, snuffing up its immense, flaring nostrils the delicious air of freedom fragrant with the scent of meat on the hoof. How yellow its teeth were; the festering teeth of carnivores.

The Strong Man tore off the woman’s clinging arms, clutched his loincloth round his privates and made for the auditorium door. He was a fine specimen, in prime condition; he swung from tier to tier, past Walser struck like a pillar of salt, up and away. The exit banged to behind him. Walser heard the sound of the shooting of the bolts.

Now the only way out of the ring was that by which the tiger had entered it.

I am in a perfect death trap, thought Walser. (pg.129)

At the end of their stay in St Petersburg, an eventful final evening leaves the circus somewhat depleted as they depart for Japan – a journey that takes the troupe across Siberia by rail (forming part three of the story).

I love the first two sections of this energetic and humorous novel. Carter blurs the margins between reality and the imaginary, and even though the story becomes increasingly surreal, I was fully engaged right up to the end of events in St Petersburg. But then, just as I was anticipating a grand finale, partway through the final section the story veers off course deep into the realms of fantasy. During the troupe’s travels across the Siberian hinterland, Carter really lets rip with her imagination, but for me, this is where the narrative gets lost in the wilderness.

Despite my reservations about the Siberian section – Carter does pull it back, just – I would recommend Nights at the Circus for its sheer verve and imaginative scope. There are several references to gender and feminism threaded through the novel, too. The women in this novel tend to form the strongest, most supportive relationships with other females, whereas their encounters with men are often characterised by violence and/or abuse of some kind. As the story draws to a close and we approach the dawn of the 20th century, Fevvers foresees a future when ‘all the women will have wings the same as I’. Lizzie, however, believes the new era will be more complicated and predicts struggles on the horizon:

‘This old witch sees storms ahead, my girl. When I look to the future, I see through a glass, darkly.’ (pg. 339)

Reading Nights at the Circus is an intoxicating, heady and entertaining experience, and I’m sure it won’t be long before I return to Angela Carter.

Nights at the Circus is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy