Tag Archives: Penguin Books

The Love Department by William Trevor

I’ve been on a bit of William Trevor kick over the past few years, starting with his early novels, The Boarding-House (1965) and The Old Boys (1964), both excellent; then moving on to his final novel, Love and Summer (2009), a book I absolutely adored. The Love Department (1966) is another of Trevor’s early works, and while I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as the others, there’s still a great deal to enjoy here.

Like its predecessors, The Love Department is something of an ensemble piece, set in England in the mid-1960s. The central character is Edward Blakeston-Smith, a rather innocent young man who has just left a monastic retreat after a period of recuperation for a nervous condition. In his eagerness to prove he is no longer a child, Edward applies for a job with the ‘love department’, a hugely popular agony aunt service run by a leading newspaper based in London. Heading up the service is Lady Dolores Bourhardie, an eccentric figure who believes in the preservation of love within marriage, largely irrespective of a woman’s dissatisfaction with her husband.

Following a brief yet unsuccessful trial in the love department office, Edward is enlisted to perform a special mission in the field. He is to track down Septimus Tuam, an infamous trickster who has been stirring up trouble in the suburbs of Wimbledon, preying on vulnerable ladies with the ultimate aim of tapping them up for money. In short, Edward must find this enemy of love, follow him as he goes about his business and report back in full to Lady Dolores, preferably with a comprehensive dossier of Tuam’s targets and movements. At first Edward is rather reluctant to take on this mission, preferring the relative safety of the office to life in the wild; however, needs must when the devil drives, so he sets off with the aim of finding his prey.

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into Tuam’s modus operandi, a technique which usually involves the ‘accidental’ laddering of a woman’s stocking with the tip of his umbrella. In this scene, Tuam – a rather attractive young man – is in the midst of setting up a potential victim, a smartly-dressed young woman whom he spots in a café. When Tuam offers to buy the lady a new pair of stockings, his target is rather reluctant to accept…

‘My dear, we cannot say goodbye like this. I have utterly ruined your beautiful stocking. I do insist, I really do, that you step across the road to Ely’s and see what they have for sale. I’m well known in the store.’ Septimus Tuam had taken the liberty of seizing the woman’s elbow, while she, feeling herself propelled from the café and on to the street, was thinking that a hatchet-faced young man whom she had never seen before had paid for her coffee and was now about to buy her stockings.

‘I must ask you to release me,’ she said. ‘Let go my elbow: I do not intend to go with you to Ely’s.’

‘Oh, come now.’

‘Please. You are greatly embarrassing me.’

‘Nonsense, my dear. My name is Septimus Tuam. And may I be so bold –’

‘Excuse me,’ said the woman to two men on the street. ‘I am being annoyed.’

The men turned on Septimus Tuam and spoke roughly, while the woman, glancing haughtily at him, strode away. He felt humbled and depressed and then felt angry. He crept away with the sound of the men’s voices echoing in his ears, hating momentarily the whole of womankind, and reflecting that his failure had cost him two and sevenpence. (pp. 28–29)

Edward’s investigations into Tuam bring him into contact with a wide range of characters, most notably Eve and James Bolsover who have been married for ten years. The Bolsovers’ marriage has eroded over time, something that Eve finds herself reflecting on as she goes about her days. While James is wrapped up in his work and the deteriorating health of his father, Eve is bored and frustrated in her role as a wife, the spark having gone out of their relationship through a gradual process of decay. As ever with Trevor, there are some poignant insights into the small tragedies of life throughout the novel, particularly in relation to the erosion of love.

Eve wondered if these wives loved their husbands now; and what the history of love had been in the marriages. She wondered if Mrs Linderfoot in Purley had woken one morning and seen that there was no love left, and had climbed on to a sofa and stayed there. She wondered if the Clingers ever spoke of love, or how Mrs Poache and the Captain viewed their wedding day. She looked across the room and saw her husband, his head bent to catch what Mrs Poache was saying. He was still a handsome man; the decay was elsewhere. (p.116)

The novel has a similar tone to Trevor’s other early works, one of black comedy – in this instance, a darkly humorous satire pitting the protectors of love within marriage against the threats to its preservation. There is a marvellous set-piece in the middle of the book when the Bolsovers host a dinner party for three of James’ work colleagues and their wives – all the men are members of the board. The Clingers turn up with their pet monkey, which is confined to a separate room. Unfortunately for the hosts, the monkey ends up attacking Mrs Hoop, the Bolsovers’ disgruntled charwoman, who milks the situation for everything she can get. To make matters worse, old Beach – Mrs Hoop’s drinking partner – turns up brandishing a broom, adding considerably to the fuss and mayhem. Even poor Edward is dragged into the fray through a bizarre coincidence, one of several in the book. (If I had a criticism, I would say that some of these seem a bit forced or contrived, more so than in Trevor’s other early novels.)

While the narrative is rather farcical at times, the individual scenes are never less than well observed. The characterisation too is excellent, from the sinister Septimus Tuam, a confidence trickster who shows no remorse at abandoning a woman who proves burdensome, to Mrs Hoop, a woman who despises her employer for her apparent lack of concern.

Trevor has a great affinity for life’s eccentrics, for people on the fringes of society, expertly capturing the pain and loneliness of an existence on the margins. His books are full of insights into the human condition, our hopes and dreams, our failings and foibles. Probably not the best place to start with this author, but a very diverting read nonetheless!

(I read this book for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month which is running throughout March. For another take on this novel, please see Kim’s review.)

The Love Department is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

The American writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her short story, The Lottery (The New Yorker, 1948), a piece that highlights the cruelty and violence that can stem from mob psychology. Dark Tales (published by Penguin Classics in 2016) is a collection of seventeen of Jackson’s later short stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. The stories themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society.

In The Possibility of Evil – the opening story in the collection – the seemingly upstanding Miss Strangeworth takes it upon herself to be the guardian of decency in her home town, the place where her family has lived for generations. However, our protagonist goes about her mission in the most underhand of ways, sending poison-pen letters to various residents, warning them of the evil that dwells within their midst.

Miss Strangeworth never concerned herself with facts; her letters all dealt with the more negotiable stuff of suspicion. Mr Lewis would never have imagined for a minute that his grandson might be lifting petty cash from the store register if he had not had one of Miss Strangeworth’s letters. Miss Chandler, the librarian, and Linda Stewart’s parents would have gone unsuspectingly ahead with their lives, never aware of possible evil lurking nearby, if Miss Strangeworth had not sent letters to open their eyes. Miss Strangeworth would have been genuinely shocked if there had been anything between Linda Stewart and the Harris boy, but, as long as evil existed unchecked in the world, it was Miss Strangeworth’s duty to keep her town alert to do it. It was far more sensible for Miss Chandler to wonder what Mr Shelley’s first wife had really died of than to take a chance on not knowing. (pp. 6–7) 

Jackson excels at creating characters and situations that seem perfectly normal and respectable at first sight, only to reveal themselves to be somewhat off-kilter as the narrative unfolds. In What a Thought, one of the most striking pieces in this collection, a seemingly blissful domestic scenario takes an alarming turn when the protagonist, Margaret, is gripped by a sudden urge to lash out at her husband.

She flipped the pages of her book idly; it was not interesting. She knew that if she asked her husband to take her to a movie, or out for a ride, or to play gin rummy, he would smile at her and agree; he was always willing to do things to please her, still, after ten years of marriage. An odd thought crossed her mind: she would pick up the heavy glass ashtray and smash her husband over the head with it. (p. 94)

In the minutes that follow, Margaret must wrestle with two competing influences over her actions: an insatiable desire to murder her husband, and the notion that she is being ridiculous and irrational. After all, Margaret loves her husband; what on earth would she do without him?

Several of these stories explore themes of confinement and entrapment, from the explicit physical state of being trapped in a room to the more subtle psychological sense of being constrained within the limits of domesticity.

In The Good Wife, an overbearing husband keeps his wife locked away in her bedroom following a suspected affair – something his wife denies. Moreover, the husband opens and reads all his wife’s letters, frequently replying to them on his partner’s behalf.

In The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith, a newlywed becomes the subject of curiosity amongst her new neighbours following her recent marriage. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Mr Smith may be hiding something sinister from his past. Do the neighbours warn Mrs Smith of the speculation surrounding her husband or abandon the young woman to a potentially dangerous fate? You’ll have to read the story for yourself to find out.

Running through these stories, there is a sense that Jackson is highlighting the relatively limited roles woman are allowed to play in society – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. In The Beautiful Stranger, a dutiful wife is worried about the return of her husband from a business trip, fearing his dissatisfaction and anger following an earlier quarrel. However, the man who appears is not John, the woman’s husband, but a beautiful stranger full of warmth and generosity. Like many others in the collection, this is a creepy little story, underscored with a sense of eeriness and unease.

In other stories – often those containing elements of fantasy – characters appear to be trapped in houses (The Visit), paintings (The Story We Used to Tell) or recurring scenarios (Paranoia). In the latter, a man becomes increasingly convinced he is being followed by a stranger in a light-coloured hat on the way home from work – a journey of some importance as it is his wife’s birthday. As the action plays out, Jackson ratchets up the sense of unease, culminating in a twist that I didn’t see coming. This is an unnerving story with a sting in its tail, a very effective little piece.

The Visit is another highlight in the collection – quite Gothic in style, it features a young ingenue with a curious mind, a large house replete with an imposing tower, and at least one character who may or may not be a ghost. (As is the case with many of the best short stories, Jackson leaves enough scope for the reader to bring their own sense of imagination into play; and The Visit is a great example of where this can work so effectively.)

Before wrapping up, there are two final stories I would like to mention. In The Bus, an elderly woman is abandoned at night in the middle of nowhere by a bus driver who claims to have arrived at her stop. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) for our protagonist, she is picked up by a couple of passing truckers and dropped at a nearby inn. What starts as the journey from hell turns even more sinister once the woman steps into the building – it appears oddly familiar in many ways, almost like a remodelled version of her old home, complete with recognisable touches. This is another nightmarish story where the central character seems locked in a loop, desperately seeking the safety of home.

Also deeply unsettling is The Summer House, in which a couple decide to stay at their holiday home beyond the traditional end of season, much to the surprise of the locals. All too soon, the couple find themselves running out of vital supplies – food, kerosene, a functioning car – while the permanent residents seem very reluctant to help. Once again, Jackson proves herself adept at developing a growing sense of anxiety as the story plays out.

Overall, Dark Tales is a very good collection of stories, one that showcases Jackson’s eye for the twisted and off-kilter in seemingly everyday situations. A deliciously disquieting read for a dark winter’s night.

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.

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky is a powerful, visceral novel set in the squalid towns and desert landscapes of North Africa in the years following the end of the Second World War. The narrative has a somewhat fractured feel, reflecting the emotional state of its main protagonists, Port and Kit Moresby, an American couple of the like found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction, particularly Tender is the Night.

The Moresbys are unmoored, both physically and emotionally, travelling south through North Africa with little purpose or ultimate destination in mind. Eschewing America and Europe in the aftermath of the war, the couple have come to Africa as an escape, hoping to find some kind of meaning in an ever-changing world.

There is a sense that Port views himself as an intrepid traveller, keen to explore the mysteries and remoteness of an unfamiliar land. He is perpetually restless, continually searching for something, although quite what that something is remains rather unclear.

Kit, for her part, is acutely aware of the emotional distance between herself and Port, their marriage having crumbled to dust in the preceding years. Brittle and highly strung by nature, Kit lives a life governed by superstitions, a series of omens that dictate her mood and ability to function. There are times when the feeling of doom surrounding Kit becomes so strong that it results in a form of stasis, almost as if she is experiencing a strange kind of paralysis.

While the Moresbys share much in the way of feelings and emotions, they are divided by their outlooks on life, a situation typified by the following passage.

It made her [Kit] sad to realize that in spite of their so often having the same reactions, the same feelings, they never would reach the same conclusions, because their respective aims in life were almost diametrically opposed. […]

And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it. But in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much: the terror was always there inside her ready to take command. It was useless to pretend otherwise. And just as she was unable to shake off the dread that was always with her, he was unable to break out of the cage into which he had shut himself, the cage he had built to long ago to save himself from love. (p. 98-99)

Accompanying the Moresbys on this trip is their friend, Tunner, a somewhat opportunistic chap who appears to be tagging along for the ride. While Tunner has designs on Kit, his motives are ultimately shallow and devoid of any meaningful emotion. In truth, Tunner’s advances are driven predominantly by vanity and a sense of pity for the beautiful Kit. During the course of the journey, both of the Moresbys are unfaithful in rather casual and ultimately unfulfilling ways.

As the party travels south, the unrelenting heat of the desert and rather basic living conditions begin to take their toll, particularly on Port and Kit. There are long, uncomfortable train journeys and equally gruelling bus rides through barren landscapes and rough terrain. The hotels become dirtier and increasingly rancid and with each successive move. Consequently, the sense of unease becomes more palpable by the day, adding to the brooding atmosphere at play. There are disagreements between the couple with Port disappearing into the night, wandering the streets and alleyways of the shadowy towns where he encounters prostitutes and their handlers, both eager to exploit a foreign traveller. Meanwhile Kit longs for the culture and civilisation of the Mediterranean, an environment where her suitcase full of evening gowns might actually get an airing. Instead, she must submit to weevil-infested soup and rabbit stew with added fur, just two of the many hazards to be navigated by the Moresbys during their stay.

While all this might sound rather bleak, there are some moments of light relief here and there – for the reader, at least. Turning up again and again during the journey – much to the Moresbys’ annoyance – are the Lyles, a middle-aged Australian woman and her grown-up son, Eric. While Mrs Lyle is snobbish, obnoxious and insufferable, her son, Eric, is possibly even more unpleasant – a spoiled, untrustworthy brat, intent on tapping Port for some sort of loan. Their presence in the narrative adds an element of farce, accentuating the rather desperate nature of the Moresbys’ plight.

The Sheltering Sky is a potent, terrifying book, one that leads the reader into the heart of darkness, an existential journey in which any form of reconciliation or atonement remains tantalisingly out of reach.

One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Bowles vividly captures the inner lives of his central characters as the unforgiving nature of the environment permeates their souls. The hallucinatory feel of Port’s night-time ramblings, as he lies ill with a virulent fever, is brilliantly portrayed – as is Kit’s own terrifying descent into darkness in the days and weeks that follow, an experience that leaves her utterly broken and shell-shocked, possibly for good.

Before her eyes was the violent blue sky – nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed. (p. 336)

Bowles’ prose is stunning, both lucid and evocative. I love this description of Kit from the beginning of the book, one that captures something of her disturbed mindset through the intensity of her eyes.

Small, with blonde hair and an olive complexion, she was saved from prettiness by the intensity of her gaze. Once one had seen her eyes, the rest of the face grew vague, and when one tried to recall her image afterwards, only the piercing, questioning violence of the wide eyes remained. (p. 6-7)

The sense of place and suffocating atmosphere are also powerfully imagined, rich in authenticity and detail, qualities that undoubtedly reflect Bowles’ own experiences of travelling through Morocco and Algeria during the period in question.

Boussif was a completely modern town, laid out in large square blocks, with the market in the middle. The unpaved streets, lined for the most part with box-shaped one-storey buildings, were filled with a rich red mud. A steady procession of men and sheep moved through the principal thoroughfare towards the market, the men walking with the hoods of their burnouses drawn up over their heads against the sun’s fierce attack. There was not a tree to be seen anywhere. At the ends of the transversal streets the bare waste-land sloped slowly upward to the base of the mountains, which were raw, savage rock without vegetation. (p. 89-90)

This is a fateful story of fractured souls, a couple who cannot meaningfully connect with one another, failing to realise the depth of their feelings until it is far too late. It is a tense, emotionally-draining read, brilliantly rendered by an imaginative writer. I can understand why it is considered a 20th-century classic.

The Sheltering Sky is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.