Tag Archives: John Petrie

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Back in April 2015 I read Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, a fictionalised account of the author’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. Even though Three Bedrooms was somewhat atypical of Simenon’s work, it gave me a taste for his romans durs (or ‘hard’ psychological novels). With that in mind, I’ve been looking forward to trying another ever since.

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First published in 1942, The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of its narrative. The woman in question is Tati Couderc, a forty-five-year-old widowed peasant who runs a farm close to St. Amand in the Bourbonnais region of France. Having outlived her husband, she now shares the farmhouse with her father-in-law and owner of the farm, old Couderc. Tati is unattractive, unkempt and somewhat rough around the edges, but she is also sharp and as tough as old boots.

As the novel opens, Tati is taking the bus home from market when a young drifter, Jean, boards the vehicle. Unlike the other passengers on the bus, Tati sees something different in Jean, something the others simply do not notice. She sees that he has nothing on him, no ties and no obvious direction either. It’s as if she figures him out in an instant.

…but all the same she did not take her eyes off him, and she took note of everything—his stubbly cheeks, his pale unseeing eyes, his gray suit, worn yet having a touch of ease about it, his thin shoes. A man who could walk noiselessly and spring like a cat. And who, after the seven francs fifty he had given to the driver in exchange for a blue ticket, probably had no money left in his pockets. […]

Widow Couderc too hugged a secret smile. The man blinked slightly. It was rather as if, in the midst of all these old women with their nodding heads, the two had recognized each other. (pgs. 6-7, NYRB Classics)

When Tati gets off the bus laden with packages, Jean follows shortly afterwards and gives her a hand carrying everything back to the farm. Keen to take possession of this young man, Tati offers him some work on the farm – in any case she needs a hand running the place as her father-in-law is old, deaf and a little senile. When Jean reveals that he has just been released from prison for the murder of a man, Tati does not seem in the least surprised – ‘It was as if she had guessed it already.’  With nothing else on the horizon, Jean falls in with the plan and promptly beds down in the loft.

Her eyes were eating him up. She was taking possession of him. She wasn’t afraid. She wanted him to understand that she wasn’t afraid of him. (pgs. 14-15)

And always that little glance in which he could read satisfaction, even a kind of promise, but a slight reservation as well. She was not distrustful. Only, she still needed to watch him for a time. (pg. 23)

A few days later Jean and Tati end up in bed together. Even so, there is no real passion or romance here – it’s all much more functional than that. And while Tati is happy to have sex with Jean, she must also service old Couderc’s sexual needs every now and again just to keep him sweet.

As the story progresses, two developments come together to create a sense of tension and conflict in the narrative. The first of these stems from the introduction of old Couderc’s daughters into the mix. Daughter number one, Françoise, lives next door to the farm; as such she is perfectly positioned to keep watch on developments when Jean arrives on the scene. However, the real brains of the outfit is daughter number two, Amélie, who, on hearing about Jean’s past, descends on the farmhouse with her husband and young son in tow. Both daughters are deeply resentful of Tati’s position on the farm—they have never liked her ever since she arrived as a young servant at the age of fourteen. With a murderer now living in their midst, the daughters are worried that Tati might be plotting to do away with old Couderc. If truth be told, they would like nothing more than to find a means of evicting the widow; after all, their inheritance might be at stake. Here’s Amélie as she confronts Tati.

“You see, I know what you’re up to. It’s no accident that this man’s here. One fine morning you’ll get Father—God knows how—to sign a paper. Then he’ll have to be disposed of before he can change his mind. Go on, admit it! Admit that from the first day you stepped in here, when we were still only kids, you decided you would take over. Our poor brother was properly fooled. You were already as perverted as could be. […]” (pg. 48)

The second development involves Françoise’s daughter, Félicie, an alluring sixteen-year-old who lives with her parents in the house next door. Jean is clearly attracted to Félicie as he watches her playing with her baby in the grass. (There is no sign of a husband or a father of the child on the scene.) At first, Félicie keeps her distance from Jean (teasing him, perhaps), but as the narrative progresses her attitude softens, and she moves a little closer.

As she had bidden him good night, she would bid him good morning. She was not altogether tamed yet, but she was beginning to trace ever-narrowing circles around him. (pg 107)

From the very first chapter, it is plainly obvious that Tati has taken a deep dislike to Félicie, whom she considers ‘a little slut’ – in all honesty, she is jealous of the young girl. Concerned that something might be brewing between Jean and Félicie, Tati insists on keeping a close eye on developments. She watches Jean like a hawk, questioning him on his movements and interactions as he goes about his work on the farm. Jean, on the other hand, can think of little else but the prospect of Félicie. He carries her image in his mind: the fullness of her lip, the curve of her body as she carries the baby on her arm…

That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, save to say that circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters. Memories of Jean’s trial for murder some five years earlier echo and reverberate through the novella, and we learn a little more about the young man’s backstory along the way.

In his excellent introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Paul Theroux compares and contrasts The Widow with another novella published in France in 1942, Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider/The Stranger). Interestingly, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Gide considered The Widow to be the superior book. Each of these novellas features a remorseless young man cast adrift from society. In Simenon’s work there is a sense that Jean operates in a bit of a vacuum—none of his actions seem to hold any real weight or significance. There are other similarities too including the focus on bright sunlight, a motif that runs through The Widow. I’ll finish with a couple of quotes to illustrate this point. The second of these also gives a brief feel for Simenon’s descriptions of the Bourbonnais countryside, the tranquil environment that forms the backdrop to this powerful story of greed, resentment, jealousy and desire.

Sunrays as sharp as the beams from a searchlight slanted in through the window with its small panes. (pg. 31)

The grass was a dark green, the water almost black. In contrast, the newborn foliage of the chestnuts was tender and the sunshine splashed it with large daubs of gold. (pg. 29)

For other perspectives on this book, click here for reviews by Guy and Jose.

The Widow is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.