Tag Archives: Novella

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Back at the end of February (before the current guidance on social distancing came into place), I was lucky enough to attend an evening hosted by Faber & Faber, a showcase for recently published and forthcoming books. Eimear McBride was there, and she read a passage from her latest novel, Strange Hotel, a book I’d already been thinking of picking up before the reading. McBride introduced it by saying – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here – ‘if you want to know about hotels, this is not the book for you’. A very apt statement as it turns out…

Strange Hotel is not a typical ‘hotel novel’, the type of story peppered with interactions between various characters (frequently odd or idiosyncratic), thrown together for the duration of their trips. Instead, it’s a somewhat abstract or enigmatic work, the type of book where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

As the novel opens, the central character – an unnamed female protagonist in her mid-thirties – is checking into a hotel in Avignon, the first of five anonymous rooms we see during the novel, each in a different city. While the specific reason for these visits is never made explicit, there does seem to be a guiding principle or ‘plan’ underpinning the woman’s actions. She drinks wine, toys with the idea of a one-night-stand with a fellow guest, even goes as far as the act of sex itself – just as long as there are no requirements for either party to linger around afterwards.

For the protagonist, there is a degree of enjoyment in the dance, a sense of pleasure from reading the signals correctly – sometimes taking things to their natural conclusion should she feel so inclined. Nevertheless, in certain instances there is frustration too, especially if the man she decides to go to bed with doesn’t seem to understand the unwritten rules of the game.

She thinks she was as explicit as she could’ve been from the earliest on so she cannot attribute it to a lack of communication. He’d seemed bright enough not to arrive with any inexplicable assumptions and, initially, gave no indication he had. As far as she’s concerned, the first stage was fine. Both bodies performed exactly as planned. In fact, in every way as well as she’d hoped. He had also seemed happy enough. It was only afterwards things took a turn for the worse. She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure if she has. Well, obvious interpretations of knitted brows and the snatching-up of discarded clothing aside, how could she be? She is also without inclination to press. She has absolutely no interest in violating what is private, his feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. (pp. 53–54, Faber & Faber)

As the woman travels from city to city – alighting in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin – little hints of her backstory gradually begin to emerge. There are glimpses of an earlier relationship, once happy and contented, but now very much in the past. She envies other people’s optimism, their faith in a future that seems reasonable and alive, emotions she recalls experiencing herself some years earlier, only for this existence to shatter and disappear. The old life must remain where it belongs; otherwise it may well prove fatal, breaking her will and desire for self-protection.

No.

Stop.

Turn.

She should and should not think of this. If the past comes in it will wring her neck. So, she prevails upon her memory to recollect it as though from far away. And it is far away. Now, very far away. (p. 71)

There is an unsentimental directness to the protagonist’s encounters with men, a refreshing lack of expectations or underlying emotions in these transient pairings. It is only during the final vignette in the book – a one-night-stand with a man in Austin – that any deeper feelings threaten to break through. As memories from the past are stirred and resurrected, the woman tries to distance herself from them, attempting to re-establish the barrier designed to prevent emotional involvement. There is no room in her life for impulse or attachment now. These notions are part of her earlier life, elements that should remain hidden or suppressed.

She is certain of the rightness of all of this. So, she ushers herself back towards the listlessness that has, for all these years, kept her in the manner which she wishes she preferred. Collected. Other side of the glass. But she liked his face. She liked his laugh and the weird way their bodies kept insisting on contact. This, however, does not alter the fact that the only place for impulse is in her past. She knows this. She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again. A kind of repeat. Nothing new. Pathetic really, when she thinks of it. If she allowed herself to, she might admit she’s grown tired of her own loneliness, which she really doesn’t want to have yet. Because it has come to be all I know. (pp. 124–125)

Running through the book is a strong sense of self-reflection, mostly stemming from the explorations of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, her hypotheses and rationalisations. It’s a style I found very compelling despite the degree of ambiguity in the narrative – for instance, the significance of the cities and the reasons for the individual visits are never explicitly revealed. Plus, the protagonist herself remains somewhat mysterious, almost tantalisingly out of reach. (By the end of the book, she is in her late forties, prompting questions about what may have happened in the intervening years.) This adds to the elusive feel of the novel, making it an intriguing, hypnotic read – one where the subject matter and literary style seem to be working together in perfect harmony.  

McBride also excels at capturing the abstract nature of hotel rooms, liminal spaces that seem to be located between the boundaries of existence, enabling us to exist in a kind of alternate reality. They are places where we can adopt different personalities, act out our fantasies or simply step away from the pressures of life – for a day or two at least.

In summary, Strange Hotel is an immersive, enigmatic novel, one that explores themes of identity, self-reflection and some of our strategies for distancing ourselves from the past. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an intriguing, somewhat abstract read.

Strange Hotel is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

While Diana Athill was perhaps best known for her work as a literary editor and memoirist, she also produced a small number of works of fiction, particularly towards the beginning of her career. One of these books – a 1967 novel entitled Don’t Look at Me Like That – has just been reissued by Granta in a stylish new edition (very 1960s in terms of artwork). It is, in some respects, a coming-of-age story, imbued with the pleasure and pain of illicit love, all set within the bohemian milieu of Oxford and London in the 1950s.

The novel focuses on Meg Bailey, a socially awkward young woman with a talent for art. Home life for Meg has been frugal and conservative, the daughter of Church of England parson and a buttoned-up mother, reflective of the traditional attitudes of the era.

At school, Meg has only one friend, Roxane Weaver, whom she stays with from time to time during the holidays. Roxane’s family are the opposites of Meg’s: relaxed, sophisticated and socially adventurous at heart. It is during one of these visits that Meg meets Dick, a charming young man who encourages her to come out of her shell and dance. Dick also indulges Roxane’s mother, Mrs Weaver, playing up to her as a precocious nephew might do to a favourite aunt. Before long, Meg is holding Dick’s hand in the back of a car, Roxane and her companion in front oblivious to the developments going on behind them. For Meg it is a big moment, her first real experience of boys and everything this represents.

I wanted to rush on into unknown territory forever, safe in the warm intimacy of the car, the blanket rough against my chin, the men singing and joking, Roxane reaching into the back from time to time to feed me a chocolate, and neither of the two in front knowing that my hand was fast in Dick’s. I was eighteen and no one had ever held my hand before. Wilfred had always been too shy to attempt physical contact beyond bumping into me occasionally. This was a new move in the game, and a big one. (p. 45)

In her desire to escape the restrictions at home, Meg enrols in art school in Oxford where she stays with Roxane’s family, enjoying the buzz and activity of the Weavers’ household. By now, Meg is able to see Mrs Weaver for what she really is – a somewhat comic figure holding court over her gatherings or ‘salons’. It is during this period that Meg realises Mrs Weaver’s intentions towards Dick, as a future husband for Roxane – a match that seems natural and socially acceptable. Nevertheless, Meg has allowed herself to get emotionally involved with Dick, fantasising a little about his charm and easy-going manner.

A year or two later, Meg lands a job based in London, working as an illustrator of children’s books by an up-and-coming author, while Roxane and Dick begin their married life back at home. In the course of his work, Dick must travel to London on a fortnightly basis, bringing him into contact with Meg for various dinners and trips to the cinema. It is at this point that the situation between the two friends becomes more complex, rapidly developing into a passionate affair that extends over a number of years.

I don’t want to say too much about how the relationship between Meg and Dick plays out. That’s something for you to discover yourself should you decide to read the book. Instead, I’d like to mention something about the settings which are beautifully evoked. Athill captures the transient nature of a young woman’s life in London to great effect – from the poky, down-at-heel bedsits presided over by fearsome landladies to the friendly yet disorganised atmosphere of a house share, everything is conveyed in vivid detail.

It was one thing to make resolutions about my sex life and another to carry them out. I didn’t know how to escape from Miss Shaw’s bed-sitter. London never seemed to me hostile, but its size and complexity daunted me so that every day my morning decision to start looking for another room would give way by lunchtime to the argument that any place cheap enough for me would be as depressing as this one. Once again I would group my reproductions and Roxane’s mug full of flowers where they caught the light and made a little island of colour and ownership, and would get into bed and hide in a book. (p 71)

It’s a testament to Athill’s skills as a writer that she encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Meg in spite of the latter’s recklessness with the affair and her apparent lack of concern for Roxane. The accompanying notes on the inside cover suggest Athill drew on her own experiences of London in the 1950s as inspiration for the novel, a point that seems entirely believable given the tone and ‘feel’ of the book.

My only reservation relates to a minor thread depicting Meg’s relationship with Jamil, a fellow lodger in the bohemian house share that becomes her home. Ultimately, this element feels a little superfluous and tagged on, to the point where I’m left wondering whether Athill wrestled somewhat with the novel’s ending, unsure of how best to draw Meg’s story to a close. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble in the scheme of things, especially as there is much to admire in this unsentimental portrait of a young girl’s life. This is a book I would definitely recommend to lovers of British fiction, particularly from the mid-20th-century.

Don’t Look at Me Like That is published by Granta Books, my thanks to the publishers / Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads Lie With Me by Philippe Besson and The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs

Another round-up post with some brief thoughts on a couple of recent(ish) reads, both recommended.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (2017, tr. Molly Ringwald, 2019)

Just the kind of short, beautifully-written novella I tend to love, especially in translation.

In brief, the book starts with a prologue in which the narrator – Philippe, a successful yet sensitive writer – catches sight of a young man who reminds him strongly of his first love, an attractive, charismatic young boy named Thomas. This chance encounter prompts Philippe to reflect on his adolescence and the passionate, fleeting relationship he experienced with his more popular classmate, Thomas.

This covert, mind-expanding liaison between the two boys sparks an awakening in Philippe, both sexually and emotionally. A quiet, apprehensive boy at heart, Philippe relaxes into his skin, becoming more at ease with himself and his relationships with others. However, alongside the intimacy and feverish pleasure of first love comes the loneliness and anguish of the virtually inevitable separation.

I discover that absence has a consistency, like the dark water of a river, like oil, some kind of sticky dirty liquid that you can struggle and perhaps drown in. It has a thickness like night, an indefinite space with no landmarks, nothing to bang against, where you search for a light, some small glimmer, something to hang on to and guide you. But absence is, first and foremost, silence. A vast, enveloping silence that weighs you down and puts you in a state where any unforeseeable, unidentifiable sound can make you jump. (p. 37)

Lie With Me is a tender, deeply moving book about the pain and passion of illicit love, the heartbreak that accompanies absence, and the difficulties of coming to terms with who we are. It is imbued with a strong sense of yearning for halcyon times; Besson’s prose is sublime.

The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs (2019)

A smart, playful novel which explores a number of interesting themes with the lightest of touches.

As the novel opens, Jenny Thursley, a troubled linguistics lecturer in her early forties, is returning to Europe for a conference in Amsterdam, an event dedicated to the life and work of her former mentor, Leonard Peters. During the trip, Jenny must revisit and come to terms with certain events from her past, most notably how best to honour Leonard given their previous history – Leonard once made a clumsy pass at Jenny, an incident that was brushed under the carpet at the time and never spoken of again. Jenny’s task is made all the more challenging by the news that Leonard is dying from cancer – a revelation that everyone else seems to have known about long before Jenny.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Jenny’s former lover, Frankie, at the conference. If truth be told, Jenny still holds a candle for Frankie, now fifty-three and a successful, sophisticated academic herself.

Frankie Gerrity was her dearest friend, still; her lover and partner for three-and-a-half crucial, bitter years – years that has expanded in the rear-view mirror until they seemed now to hold within them most of her significant life, especially now that they existed on the far side of another all-consuming relationship: the marriage to a man that had seemed to her at the time a definitive turning-over of her life, a gleeful flight across a burning bridge. She didn’t think that now. But equally she didn’t know how to think herself back to the person she had been before. (pp. 42–43)

Gibbs perfectly captures the sense of feeling unmoored, ‘turning hopelessly in the current’ in the hope of finding something stable to hold on to. The novel explores the messy business of relationships, connections and communications in a lively, intelligent way. There is a clever play on the subjunctive as Jenny agonises over her half-written speech for the conference and wonders whether it will ever be completed at all.

The need to face up to our mortality is another theme, as is our relationship with art and creativity. There is a captivating scene in the middle of the book where Jenny is taken to see a Dutch painting, and the realisation she experiences is beautifully observed.

All in all, this is a very erudite novel – smart, witty and elegantly conveyed. I liked it a lot.

Lie With Me is published by Penguin Books, The Large Door by Boiler House Press; my thanks to the publishers/authors for kindly providing review copies.

The Blue Room by Georges Simenon (1964, tr. Linda Coverdale, 2015)

I have written before about Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian writer with a talent for illuminating the dark side of the human psyche with all its inherent complexities. This is another of his romans durs or ‘hard’, psychological novels. An intoxicating tale of passion and obsession in which the past and present are blended together to great effect – it might just be my favourite Simenon to date.

As the novella opens, we are dropped into a conversation between two lovers, Tony and Andrée, cloistered together in a hotel room in Triant, a small-town community in rural France. It is clear that the couple have just finished making love, a violent, passionate ritual that occurs in secret each month – always at the same hotel (owned by Tony’s brother), always in the blue room of the novella’s title.

Both parties are married but not to one another. Tony – a handsome, virile self-made man who owns an agricultural machinery business – is married to Gisèle, the perfect wife and mother to the couple’s daughter, Marianne. Andrée, on the other hand, is a more complex character than her lover. A passionate, manipulative woman at heart, she is married to Nicolas, a wealthy man of failing health whose formidable mother owns the local grocery store.

As the pair relax after their lovemaking, Andrée begins to ask Tony a series of seemingly innocent questions about his feelings for her, speculating about the future as one might do in this type of situation. However, little does Tony know of the significance of this conversation or the importance Andrée chooses to attach to Tony’s answers in the dreamlike atmosphere of the moment. As we soon learn, it is a scene that Tony must revisit in his mind time and time again as the story unfolds…

[Andrée:] ‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He had hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle? (p.5)

[…]

[Andrée] ‘Would you like to spend your whole life with me?’

[Tony] ‘Sure.’

He had said that, he did not deny it. He was the one who had reported that conversation to the magistrate. But the important thing was his tone of voice. He was just talking, without meaning anything by it. It wasn’t real. In the blue room, nothing was real. Or rather, its reality was of a different nature, incomprehensible anywhere else. (p.64)

From a very early stage in the novella (p. 5), it becomes abundantly clear that in the present moment, Tony is being questioned concerning an investigation linked to his liaison with Andrée. The opening scene at the hotel has already happened; it is in the past, and Tony is being forced to revisit it through a series of interrogations by magistrates, psychologists and other members of the judicial team.

One of the most compelling things about this novella is the way Simenon seamlessly blends elements of the present-day investigations and recollections of past events in a way that makes the overall narrative feel so compelling. The focus here is very much on the psychological – in other words, Tony’s sate of mind as he worries away at each development and conversation, repeatedly turning them over in his mind. As a consequence, the interrogations never feel in the least bit dry as they flow naturally within the framework of the story, sketching the details of the characters’ motivations and movements on the days in question.

What starts as a passionate, sensual novella becomes increasingly tense as the narrative unfolds. Simenon is adept at revealing just the right amount of information at each stage – enough to keep the reader guessing about the exact nature of the crime(s) and Tony’s involvement in crucial events virtually to the very end.

This is a very cleverly constructed story with complex, interesting characters at its heart. Andrée is a particularly intriguing individual. Considered aloof and distant by Nicolas in the past – he has known her since childhood – she is, in fact, forceful and manipulative at heart. It was Andrée who initiated the affair with Tony during a chance meeting by the roadside one evening the previous year.

In fact, it was she who had possessed him, and her eyes had gleamed with as much triumph as passion. (p. 22)

In addition to the tension and passion, the atmosphere of village life in rural France is also beautifully evoked; from the sights and landmarks of the countryside to the sounds outside the window during the couple’s illicit trysts at the hotel. There are echoes of another Simenon, too – The Krull House, which focuses on a community’s resentment of immigrants and the havoc this can wreak. Tony is considered something of an outsider in the community; his parents having come from Italy to settle in the region. In his youth, Tony left the village to find employment elsewhere, only to return ten years later to set up his business in the locality. Both of these points work against him in the eyes of the community.

In summary, this is a taut, uncompromising novella on the dangers of seemingly casual affairs. An utterly compelling book that grips the reader from its intriguing opening chapter. I loved it – very highly recommended indeed.

The Blue Room is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

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. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

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

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

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

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

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Like many other readers, I have been drawn to Muriel Spark and her rather off-kilter view of the world in recent years, partly prompted by Ali’s celebration of her centenary in 2018. The Driver’s Seat is most definitely at the surreal end of the Sparkian spectrum – in fact, positively unhinged might be a more appropriate way of describing it. I can’t quite decide if it’s utterly brilliant or completely bonkers. A bit of both, I suspect, although I’m very much leaning towards the former. As soon as I’d finished this book, I immediately wanted to go back and read it all over again – one of the signs of a great book, I think.

As the novella opens, we encounter Lise – the central character in this twisted story – shopping for new clothes for a forthcoming holiday. Right from the very start, there is an anxious, unsettling tone to the narrative, one that mirrors Lise’s erratic behaviour when a sales assistant tries to identify something suitable for her. In the first shop, Lise tries on a rather garish dress, which she appears to like until the assistant mentions that the material is resistant to stains. On hearing this, Lise becomes extremely agitated (unreasonably so), and she simply cannot get out of the dress quickly enough. The very idea that she should need a garment made from stain-resistant fabric is completely abhorrent to her. At this stage in the game, we don’t know why Lise is reacting in this way, although the significance of this point becomes somewhat clearer towards the end of the story.

Spark’s descriptions of Lise are gloriously off-kilter, portraying her in a manner which suggests a frenetic energy and a buttoned-up quality to her personality all at once. There are mentions of an illness in her past – quite possibly related to her mental well-being as her neurotic behaviour has been noted at work.

She walks along the broad street, scanning the windows for the dress she needs, the necessary dress. Her lips are slightly parted; she, whose lips are usually pressed together with the daily disapprovals of the accountants’ office where she has worked continually, except for the months of illness, since she was eighteen, that is to say, for sixteen years and some months. Her lips, when she does not speak or eat, are normally pressed together like the ruled line of a balance sheet, marked straight with her old-fashioned lipstick, a final and a judging mouth, a precision instrument, a detail-warden of a mouth; (p. 9)

Continuing her frantic search for a suitable outfit, Lise enters another store where she finds the perfect dress – another striking garment in clashing colours and a vivid, asymmetric design.

She swerves in her course at the door of a department store and enters. Resort Department: she has seen the dress. A lemon-yellow top with a skirt patterned in bright V’s of orange, mauve and blue. ‘Is it made of that stain-resisting material?’ she asks when she has put it on and is looking at herself in the mirror. ‘Stain-resisting? I don’t know, Madam. It’s a washable cotton, but if I were you I’d have it dry-cleaned. It might shrink.’ Lise laughs, and the girl says, ‘I’m afraid we haven’t anything really stain-resisting. I’ve never heard of anything like that.’ (p. 10 –11)

Not content with buying one eye-catching garment, Lise tops things off with a statement coat in a colour scheme that completely clashes with the dress she has already selected. Naturally, Lise doesn’t see things this way. In her somewhat deranged world, the two items go very well together, the clashing colours proving an intuitive match for her rather peculiar style.

More weird behaviour follows as Lise makes her way to the airport to catch a flight to an unspecified Mediterranean destination – possibly Naples based on various references to the area in the book. There are strange encounters with the check-in staff and other passengers in the terminal – think The League of Gentlemen or Inside No. 9 – a feature that continues during the journey. While boarding, Lise makes a beeline for a particular man, seating herself next to him on the plane. However, something about Lise’s behaviour disturbs the individual in question, and he moves to a different seat just as the plane is about to take off.

Suddenly her other neighbour looks at Lise in alarm. He stares, as if recognizing her, with his brief-case on his lap, and his hand in the position of pulling out a batch of papers. Something about Lise, about her exchange with the man on her left, has caused a kind of paralysis in his act of fetching out some papers from his brief-case. He opens his mouth, gasping and startled, staring at her as if she is someone he has known and forgotten and now sees again. She smiles at him; it is a smile of relief and delight. His hand moves again, hurriedly putting back the papers that he had half-drawn out of his brief-case. He trembles as he unfastens his seat-belt and makes as if to leave his seat, grabbing his brief-case. (p. 27)

I don’t want to say too much about what happens to Lise once she arrives at her destination; I’ll let you discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book. Certain aspects of her trajectory are made very clear from an early stage in the story, although the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the narrative are revealed more gradually over time. What I will say is that Lise appears to be searching for someone in particular, a boyfriend of sorts. At first, we begin to wonder whether this individual is real or merely a figment of Lise’s imagination, particularly given her erratic behaviour.

Interestingly, we never really get to know Lise as a person, her inner self or emotional feelings – even when she tells another character something about herself, it’s almost certainly a fabrication of sorts. There is an unstable, self-destructive aspect to Lise’s nature, a kinetic energy that propels this woman towards her inevitable destination. In some respects, Lise is a fish-out-of-water in the liberated age of the late 1960s. Sex is of no real interest to her; in fact, she positively rejects the idea when various men start making advances towards her.

The novella’s ending is quite brilliant, casting an entirely new light on Lise’s reasons for the visit and her actions while there. Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art.

(Several other bloggers have reviewed this novella including Max, Caroline and Ali. If they’re of interest, you can find my other posts on Spark’s novels here.)

The Driver’s Seat is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss and Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Brief thoughts on a couple of relatively recent reads, both of which explore the theme of overbearing, abusive men and the alarming power they exert over impressionable young women.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018)

Just as good as I expected it to be given the tidal wave of positive reports and reviews. This is a taut, skilfully-crafted novella in which the twin horrors of past and present-day abuse come together to devastating effect.

The story takes place in the midst of a heady summer at some point in the 1970s or ‘80s (I can’t quite recall which). Sixteen-year-old-old Silvie and her parents are participating in a student encampment in the Northumberland countryside, complete with its wild surroundings and natural terrain. The camp is being run by Professor Slade, an archaeologist with an interest in the Iron Age world; more specifically, its way of life, mysterious rituals and ancient beliefs. During their stay, the participants must live their lives as the ancient Britons once did – existing in the wild, hunting for food and observing Iron Age traditions.

I don’t want to say very much about Silvie or what happens to her at the camp – it’s best you discover that for yourself if decide to read the book. (Throughout the narrative, Moss carefully reveals specific information about Silvie and her family in a way that never feels calculated or manipulative.) What I will say is that the final chapters shook me to the core – this is a striking book in more ways than one.

There is some beautiful writing about the natural world here, particularly in the author’s evocative descriptions of the countryside: the feel of the ground underfoot; the wild plants and berries along the way; the images of water breaking up the terrain.

You move differently in moccasins, have a different experience of the relationship between feet and land. You go around and not over rocks, feel the texture, the warmth, of different kinds of reed and grass in your muscles and your skin. The edges of the wooden steps over the stile touch your bones, an unseen pebble catches your breath. You can imagine how a person might learn a landscape with her feet. (p. 27)

All in all, an excellent novella. It has that blend of beauty and brutality which I love, a little like Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome or Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

Dorian has written about this novel in more detail here.

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim (1921)

A thoroughly chilling tale of the innocence of love and the oppressive nature of tyrannical men. Quite different from her other, lighter books – The Enchanted April in particular.

Devastated by the sudden death of her father, Lucy Entwhistle – young, vulnerable and terribly innocent – comes into contact with Everard Wemyss, a man also recently bereaved and seemingly in need of a kindred spirit for support. At forty-four, Everard is much older and worldly-wise than Lucy, putting him in a position of authority and control. As such, he takes charge of the Entwhistle funeral arrangements, relieving the pressure on Lucy at a traumatic time.

Aside from Lucy, everyone at the funeral assumes Everard is an old family friend, returning to pay his respects to the late Mr Entwhistle. At this point in time, only Lucy knows about Everard and his personal circumstances – more specifically, the recent death of his wife, Vera, following a mysterious fall at the couple’s country home. (A little later it emerges that the incident has created something of a scandal around Everard, a point intensified by the open verdict at the inquest into Vera’s death.)

Dazed by the trauma of grief, Lucy finds herself strongly drawn to Everard with his confident, capable manner and kinship in a shared sense of loss. However, as Everard inveigles his way into the Entwhistles’ company, a more sinister side to his character begins to emerge – something the reader is privy to even if Lucy is not.

She had the trust in him, he felt, of a child; the confidence, and the knowledge that she was safe. He was proud and touched to know it, and it warmed him through and through to see how her face lit up whenever he appeared. Vera’s face hadn’t done that. Vera had never understood him, not with fifteen years to do it in, as this girl had in half a day. (p. 26)

Much to the concern of her benevolent Aunt Dot, Lucy soon agrees to marry Everard, believing him to be a source of comfort, reassurance and love. However, it is only once the couple are married that the true nature of Everard’s merciless personality comes to light. In truth, Everard is unpredictable, cruel and intolerant – even the smallest details are liable to spark a tantrum if they are not in line with his orders or wishes.

At first, Lucy is quick to try and forgive Everard for these outbursts, rationalising them to herself as the consequence of his grief. There soon comes a point, however, when these eruptions prove more challenging to excuse…

She was afraid of him, and she was afraid of herself in relation to him. He seemed outside anything of which she had experience. He appeared not to be – he anyhow had not been that day – generous. There seemed no way, at any point, by which one could reach him. What was he really like? How long was it going to take her really to know him? Years? (p. 168)

To make matters worse, Everard thinks nothing of bringing Lucy to The Willows, the foreboding house in the country where Vera fell to her death. Once firmly ensconced in her new home, Lucy must contend with the shadow of Vera, something that feels virtually impossible to ignore in spite of her best efforts. The house is littered with reminders of the first Mrs Wemyss – from her books in the sitting room, to her portrait in the dining room, to the place where she fell to her death, just outside the library window.

Vera is a very powerful novel, one that highlights the destructive nature of tyrannical men when their behaviour is left unchecked and allowed to run rampant. The tone is chilling and sinister, all the more so when we learn that the story was inspired by von Arnim’s own troublesome marriage to Earl Russell, brother of the philosopher Bertrand Russell. There is a childlike innocence to Lucy, with her trusting nature and wide-eyed view of the world, something that leaves her open to abuse by the autocratic Everard.

At first, I was a little surprised by the novel’s ending, but looking back on it now it all feels sadly inevitable. This is a cautionary tale that still holds some relevance today in spite of the radically different times. Definitely recommended, particularly for fans of character-driven stories with a dark or disturbing edge.

Several others have written about Vera, including Ali and Simon.

My copies of Ghost Wall and Vera were published by Granta Books and Hesperus Press respectively; personal copies.