Tag Archives: Penguin Books

The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

I’ve become rather fascinated with Shirley Jackson in recent years – a writer whose work taps into the dark side of American suburban life. The Road Through the Wall was Jackson’s debut novel, a slim yet effective story focusing on the inhabitants of a seemingly ordinary street, the sort of setting that seems fairly innocuous on the surface despite the elements of cruelty lurking beneath. While it’s not my favourite of Jackson’s works, The Road is still very much worth reading, especially as a precursor to the masterpieces that followed – an interesting debut that feels very much of a piece with this author’s subsequent work.

First published in 1948 (shortly before the appearance of The Lottery), the novel is set in Pepper Street, a suburban avenue in the fictional town of Cabrillo, some thirty miles from San Francisco. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, especially the women in the neighbourhood.

The Desmonds are Pepper Street ‘aristocracy’, a respectable, upwardly mobile family who seem destined to move a more desirable area in the future.

Beyond the hedge the Desmonds lived in a rambling modern-style house, richly jeweled with glass brick. They were the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, and their house was the largest; their adopted son Johnny, who was fifteen years old, associated with boys whose families did not live on Pepper Street, but in neighborhoods where the Desmonds expected to live someday. (p. 2)

Various other families are introduced in the novel’s prologue – some on their way up in life, others on their way down.

The year is 1936, and it’s the start of the summer holidays, a time when the children can roam the streets – playing games and forming cliques as youngsters are apt to do. What Jackson does so well in this novel is to show how the prejudices and petty jealousies of the adults filter down to the mindsets and behaviours of their children, ultimately creating friction between the various families in the street. In short, the children’s actions are shaped almost entirely by their parents’ snobberies and preconceptions.

The Perlmans are shunned by the other residents of Pepper Street, largely because of their Jewish heritage which marks them out as being ‘different’ from the norm. When Harriet Merriam’s mother realises that her daughter is friendly with Marilyn Perlman, she forces young Harriet to stop seeing the girl. Clearly, there are ‘standards’ to be maintained, however interesting our new friends may seem to be…

“We must expect to set a standard. Actually, however much we may want to find new friends whom we may value, people who are exciting to us because of new ideas, or because they are different, we have to do what is expected of us.”

“What is expected of me?” Harriet said suddenly, without intention.

“To do what you’re told,” her mother said sharply.

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“You may,” her mother said, “in fact I insist,” she added with relish, “that you see her once more, in order to tell her exactly why you are not to be friends any longer. After all,” Mrs Merriam went on dreamily, “she ought to know why she can’t hope to be your friend any longer.” (pp. 148–149)

Mrs Merriam also punishes her daughter for writing harmless love letters and keeping secret journals, things than many children do as natural ways of expressing themselves, especially during adolescence. Mrs Merriam, however, is disgusted by her daughter’s behaviour, viewing her writing as shameful and repugnant. (There is a sense that Jackson may be drawing on some of her own childhood experiences here, particularly as Geraldine Jackson – Shirley’s mother – was driven by a strong desire for conformity.)

Also excluded from various social gathering are the Martins, a simpleminded family who remain rather passive in relation to their neighbours. Mrs Merriam would prefer it if fourteen-year-old Harriet could distance herself from the two Martin children, George (also 14) and Hallie (9). However, the fact that the two families live next door to one another makes any segregation virtually impossible, especially as the children tend to play communally.

In this novel, Jackson shows herself to be adept at exposing the flaws in the veneer of normality. Behind the seemingly respectable facades, there are instances of emotional bullying, longstanding resentments and thinly-veiled prejudices. Snobbishness and casual racism are widespread, particularly amongst the women. Those who consider themselves above the fray are especially guilty of hypocrisy – seizing the moral high ground with one breath while sneering and spreading malicious gossip with the next.

As the novel draws to its dramatic conclusion, Jackson takes it up a notch, accentuating the sense of foreboding that runs through the whole narrative. When a mysterious disappearance occurs during a garden party, the finger of suspicion falls on Tod Donald, rather odd, awkward boy who is considered to be something of a misfit. The fact that he has already crept into the Desmonds’ house and rummaged through Mrs D’s dress closet only adds to reader’s suspicions.

Jackson is careful to leave a degree of ambiguity in the novel’s ending, raising questions about the exact nature of the incidents towards the end. What is clear though is her understanding of humanity, the capacity for cruelty and violence that can lie therein. A taut, unsettling novel from this uncompromising writer – well worth seeking out, especially for Jackson devotees.

The Road Through the Wall is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.  

Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

Central to this novel – Brookner’s fifth – are the Dorns, a wealthy Jewish family living in London during the first half of the 20th century. It’s a quiet, character-driven book, rather European in style – an approach that reflects the family’s origins and mitteleuropean traditions. It also represents something a break from Brookner’s previous novels, each of which featured a lonely unmarried woman at its heart. A widening of scope, so to speak, building on some of the supporting themes from the earlier Providence.

Head of the family is Sofka, a stately matriarch beholden to traditional rituals, a practice typified by her celebrated marzipan cake, usually served with coffee on a Sunday afternoon. Sofka’s husband is no longer alive – a flirtatious man who engaged in various dalliances (and possibly some excessive gambling) prior to his early death several years before.

Frederick is the eldest of Sofka’s children – a natural boulevardier who prefers the captivating company of women to the dull environment of business. It’s a temperament that his mother encourages, reminiscent as it is of her late husband’s salacious charm. At sixteen, young Alfred is already destined to spend the best part of his life managing the family firm; his serious, bookish nature marking him out as the dutiful one, despite any other, more personal aspirations he may be harbouring. Aiding Alfred in this respect is Lautner, the faithful right-hand-man and longstanding employee at the factory; his knowledge and experience prove indispensable at first, although Alfred soon supersedes him in standing.

Completing the family are Sofka’s daughters, Mimi and Betty, who couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. At seventeen, Mimi is the prettier of the two girls, but she is also the more passive in temperament, favouring the piano over more sociable pursuits. Betty, on the other hand, has her sights set on Paris, preferably as a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a role where she can put her high-spirited, flirtatious nature to evident good use.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. (p. 10)

Brookner uses quite an interesting framing device to help present her narrative, bookending the novel with a pair of wedding photographs, separated by a period of some 30 to 40 years. The opening picture captures a moment in time, possibly in the mid-1920s, showing Sofka, the Dorn children plus various family and friends. An unnamed narrator casts their eye over this initial photograph, pausing to speculate whether any signs of the children’s destinies were detectable at this point – particularly to Sofka. As the remainder of the novel unfolds, we gain insights into the Dorns’ lives, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, all captured in Brookner’s supremely elegant prose.

One aspect that seems to be of interest to Brookner is the question of familial duty vs personal fulfilment. Who will fare better in life? Will it be Frederick, the rather flamboyant womaniser, or Alfred, the family’s dutiful provider? Betty, the outgoing, incorrigible flirt, or Mimi, the accepting, mild-mannered companion? In certain respects, Alfred and Mimi form a natural pair – both remain relatively close to Sofka, both are accepting of compromises in their lives, in the early years at least.

There are similarities too between Frederick and Betty – both are naturally flamboyant and adventurous, characteristics that contribute to their departure from the nest. When Betty is packed off to a Swiss finishing school, she gives Frederick the slip, choosing to remain in Paris to pursue her artistic dream. In short, Betty has arranged to run away with Frank Cariani, a handsome young dancer whom the girls know from London through the piano lessons his father gives to Mimi. When Betty’s disappearance comes to light, Mimi and Alfred – the sensible ones – are swiftly dispatched to Paris to rescue their sister from her foolish adventure. Nevertheless, it is Mimi whom Frank truly prefers – a belief that Mimi clings to as she waits in her hotel room at night, hoping that he will come to claim her in favour of Betty.

Hastily she [Mimi] removes her dress and pulls down her hair; then, in her plain white nightgown, she resumes her seat by the window. Since she can now see nothing she listens all the more intently. She hears the occasional motor car; she hears footsteps in the corridor and the diminishing sound of voices. She seems to hear a clangourous bell, although there are no churches in this district and the bell is probably in her head. The intense darkness envelops her, envelops also her inviolate dream. At some time in that interminable night she lies down on her bed; on her face the smile is tinged with intimations of the most absolute horror. (p. 71)

It’s a quietly devastating scene, one of the most affecting in the book, as the reader realises its significance in shaping Mimi’s destiny. 

Frederick’s escape comes about as the result of his marriage – an event that yields another wedding photograph to add to the family album. The girl in question is Evie, a natural yet unconventional girl whom Sofka finds rather noisy, especially at first.

Who is this person whom Frederik has bought home for coffee and for marzipan cake? She is certainly not a lady and is rather too old to be a girl: Sofka is almost forced to think of her as a woman. Where did he find her? At what party, in what clubhouse on what golf-course or tennis-court did he manage to acquire this all-round, outdoor, noisy, cheery, healthy-looking, loud-voiced, incessantly laughing, large-boned, carelessly dressed person whose name is Eva and who instantly says, ‘Call me Evie’? Why should Sofka call her Evie, even if the woman has unconsciously conformed to Sofka’s family tradition? Why should she call her anything, thinks Sofka… (p. 72)

Nevertheless, Sofka soon warms to her future daughter-in-law, recognising the suitability of the match for Frederick as the wedding arrangements get underway. Following their marriage, the couple depart for the Italian Riviera, where Frederick is to act as General Manager for one of Evie’s father’s hotels – a natural fit for the happy couple as they settle down to their married life.

Of the four siblings in the novel, Mimi is perhaps the one who undergoes the most interesting transformation, her character developing in the most serendipitous of ways. It would be unfair of me to reveal any more about this, other than to say that Mimi ultimately finds a way to shed some of the more self-effacing aspects of her personality, much to her brother Alfred’s disgust.   

While Family & Friends isn’t my favourite Brookner, there’s certainly more than enough for her fans to enjoy here. The prose is elegant, evocative and precise, very much in the style of this author’s other work. Brookner’s characters are always so well-drawn and fully fleshed-out, and yet I didn’t always feel a strong connection with them here. This might be a function of the use of the unnamed narrator, whose relationship to the family we never discover. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished book, an exquisitely-painted family saga that shows how our character traits and personalities can shape our ultimate destinies.  

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with the others from this period. First published in 1969, it is something of a bridge between The Boarding House (1965) and The Children of Dynmouth (1976), both of which I adored.

The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Large coffee-table style books are this woman’s stock-in-trade – a forerunner of the poverty porn images that are rather controversial today.

As the novel opens, Mrs Eckdorf is on route to Dublin, eager to pay a visit to O’Neill’s Hotel, having heard about the establishment from a bartender on a ship. The hotel itself is central to the book; once grand and distinguished (the sort of place frequented by actors and commercial travellers), it has now fallen into disrepute, its faded glory being a kind of metaphor for declining moral standards.

The hotel is owned by Mrs Sinnott, a ninety-one-year-old deaf-mute woman who can only communicate with others through her notebooks. Various other characters – mostly orphans – frequent the hotel, having been drawn to Mrs Sinnott over the years, confiding their stories to the old lady in a way that feels similar to a religious confession. As a consequence, the notebooks represent a rich source of information, documenting the preoccupations of each of Mrs Sinnott’s visitors – their hopes and dreams, their fears and disappointments.

The hotel itself is largely run by O’Shea, an ageing porter who longs for a return to the glory days of the past. Permanently trailed by his greyhound, O’Shea cuts a somewhat tragic figure, albeit one who has Mrs Sinnott’s best interests at heart. Also residing at the hotel is Mrs S’s son, Eugene, a rather thoughtless, feckless man whose prime interests appear to be drinking and gambling – mostly on greyhound races – much to O’Shea’s disgust. 

When Mrs Eckdorf arrives at O’Neill’s, O’Shea takes a shine to her, mistakenly believing that she may wish to purchase the hotel. Perhaps as a consequence of this misunderstanding, O’Shea longs to pour his heart out to Mrs Eckdorf, viewing her as a kind of saviour and potential ally against Eugene.

He’d have liked to repeat the conversation that had taken place that morning in the kitchen between himself and Eugene Sinnott, explaining to her [Mrs Eckdorf] that for the past three years Eugene Sinnott had insisted on giving his mother a pencil sharpener for her birthday and was again insisting on it, that he had gone on about a greyhound race instead of devoting thought to the question of the birthday present.

Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday is fast approaching, a date that Mrs Eckdorf believes is particularly significant – not just to the old lady but to the broader Sinnott family. There are hints of a tragedy that took place precisely twenty-eight years earlier – a story that Mrs Eckdorf is keen to uncover, potentially as the source material for another of her books. With this in mind, Mrs Eckdorf proceeds to inveigle her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for the birthday celebrations in all their unvarnished glory.

As ever with William Trevor, the dialogue is excellent, frequently highlighting the mordant humour that seems so indicative of his early work. It’s a style typified by the following passage in which Eugene Sinnott is virtually powerless in the face of Mrs Eckdorf, complete with all her fake charm and flattery.   

‘Now listen,’ said Eugene, stepping in front of O’Shea. ‘Listen, Mrs Eckdorf, this is a bad time to stay here. Tomorrow there’s an occasion here, a lot of people coming, a family thing. It’d be awkward with a stranger about.’

‘Mr Sinnott, I’m like a mouse.’

‘Added to which, there’s only myself and O’Shea. There’s no cook in the kitchen or anything like that. The dining-room hasn’t been entered since we had a farmer from Monaghan here two months ago, a man O’Shea found wandering –’

‘Oh God, I love your way of talking,’ cried Mrs Eckdorf. ‘All the time this morning I’ve met only the nicest and now it’s best of all. Any old bed will do, and a meat tea I adore.’ (pp. 84–85)

Also on Mrs Eckdorf’s hit list are the other members of Mrs Sinnott family, all of whom are brilliantly drawn by the author in his characteristically insightful style. There is Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, whose primary concern is her son, Timothy John, and his burgeoning relationship with a girl from Lipton’s cheese counter – the wonderfully-named Daisy Tulip. Mrs Sinnott’s daughter, Enid, is a particularly tragic case, trapped in a loveless marriage to the bemused Mr Gregan, a man with absolutely no awareness of just how unhappy and lonely his wife feels on a continual basis. As the novel unfolds, the developments that led to this relationship are revealed, deepening the poignancy of their isolation from one another.

He had explained to her once that a brooch she had seen in a shop in Nassau Street would be of little use to her since there would never be an occasion in her life when she could wear it. (p. 34)

In the hall she shook her head. She held back her sobs. His voice questioned her again, and she said again that she was upset. She said she was fifty-one years of age and had borne no children. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of his growing tomatoes in his field. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him on his bicycle. (p. 37)

Other characters of note include Morrissey, a seedy little pimp who sleeps in one of the corridors of O’Neill’s hotel, effectively using the place as a brothel for various women on his books. Agnes Quin, for her sins, has fallen into Morrissey’s clutches; nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope for Agnes, a young woman who dreams of Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland.

Having installed herself at the hotel, Mrs Eckdorf wastes little time in tracking down these individuals, using her discussions to create a mental picture of their backstories, notably enhanced by the conversations in Mrs S’s notebooks. Naturally, the books prove to be a rich seam of information for Mrs E, a veritable treasure trove just waiting to be exploited… 

As the birthday tea gets underway, Mrs Eckdorf continues to make a nuisance of herself, intruding on the privacy of the occasion, snapping people left, right, and centre for her *art*. Despite several protestations from the Sinnott family, Mrs E is determined to persist — an activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, revealing a disturbed and deluded individual underneath all the bravado.

Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure. (There’s a marvellous farcical sequence in which a Mr Smedley, a cardboard salesman from England, is fobbed off with another of Morrissey’s women when Agnes Quin fails to show. It is the beginning of another undoing – in this instance, that of a relative innocent, ‘a man of vigour’ caught in the fray.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trevor’s interest lies in various aspects of human behaviour, particularly the darker or less appealing facets of our personalities. There is a seedy malevolence to some of these characters, a sense of selfishness and exploitation of others that some readers might not enjoy (despite its authenticity). Nevertheless, there is evidence of sympathy and compassion too, certainly enough to balance the tone. All in all, this is another finely observed novel from one of my favourite writers – I loved it.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, which runs throughout March.

Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality by John le Carré

Something a little different from me today. Less a review as such, more a sequence of observations on the early George Smiley novels from John le Carré. I’ve been reading (and in some cases re-reading) them recently, broadly in chronological order, although I’ve skipped The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a classic Cold War spy thriller which I read back in 2018.

For those of you unfamiliar with le Carré’s work, George Smiley is a career intelligence officer within the British overseas intelligence agency, commonly known as ‘the Circus’ due to its base in London’s Cambridge Circus. His first appearance comes in Call for the Dead (1961), a very enjoyable novella that serves as a good introduction to Smiley and certain elements of his backstory – in particular, the troublesome nature of his relationship with flighty ex-wife, Ann.

Following a routine security check by Smiley, Foreign Office civil servant, Samuel Fennan, apparently commits suicide, triggering a meeting between Smiley and Maston, the Circus’s head. All too soon, Smiley realises he is being set up to take the blame for Fennan’s death, something he finds both troubling and suspicious, particularly as his interview with the civil servant had ended quite amicably.

The arrival of a letter from Fennan to Smiley, posted shortly before the man’s death, adds to the mystery, suggesting that Fennan had something pressing to pass on to Smiley following their initial meeting. When Smiley is warned off the case by Maston, he begins his own investigation into Fennan’s network, bringing him into contact with the East Germans and their agents.

Le Carré clearly has things to say here about the intelligence agencies, the way they use people as pawns on a chessboard, illustrating a lack of humanity at the heart of the system. In this scene, Fennan’s widow is expressing her views to Smiley, not holding back in her perceptions of the institution.

The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it? The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins. (pp. 20-21, Call for the Dead)

The third book in the series, The Looking Glass War is particularly strong on this theme – the way that agents can end up as collateral, ultimately viewed as expendable in the cut-and-thrust of the game.

The descriptive passages are excellent, something I had completely forgotten about until I went back to the first book. Moreover, there are some marvellous touches of humour in le Carré’s writing, another aspect of his craft that had temporarily slipped my mind.

The Fountain Café (Proprietor Miss Gloria Adam) was all Tudor and horse brasses and local honey at sixpence more than anywhere else. Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as ‘My Friends’. Miss Adam did not do business with friends, but simply robbed them, which somehow added to the illusion of genteel amateurism which Miss Adam was so anxious to preserve. (p. 26, Call for the Dead)

While Call for the Dead might not be le Carré’s most polished novel, it is still highly compelling and convincing. A well-crafted literary spy novel with some memorable moments of tension along the way. Plus, it’s a great introduction to Smiley with his quiet, perceptive disposition and expensive yet ill-fitting clothes! As something of a segue into the second novel in the series, here’s a description of the man himself, taken from a passage near the beginning of book two.

‘Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for. Had a very nasty war. Very nasty indeed.’

Well, he looked like a frog, right enough. Short and stubby, round spectacles with thick lenses that made his eyes big. And his clothes were odd. Expensive, mind, you could see that. But his jacket seemed to drape where there wasn’t any room for drape. What did surprise Rigby was his shyness. Rigby had expected someone a little brash, a little too smooth for Carne, whereas Smiley had an earnest formality which appealed to Rigby’s conservative taste. (p. 28, A Murder of Quality)

A Murder of Quality (1962) is somewhat atypical in style for a le Carré. In short, it is a murder mystery as opposed to a spy novel, the type of detective story that wouldn’t be entirely out of place amongst the British Library Crime Classics. The book can also be viewed as a barbed commentary on the English class system – in particular public boarding schools with their cruelty and elitist attitudes.

As the novel opens, Smiley is contacted by a former colleague, Ailsa Brimley (aka Brim), who now runs a small journal, The Christian Voice. Ailsa is worried about a letter she has received from a loyal subscriber, Stella Rode, in which Rode claims that her husband intends to kill her. The fact that the Rode family have supported the Voice for several years only adds to Ailsa’s feelings of responsibility towards Stella. Consequently, Ailsa asks Smiley to investigate what’s behind the letter before she alerts the police.

When Smiley contacts Carne, the public school where Stella’s husband works, he discovers that the murder has already been committed. All the more reason for Smiley to pay a visit to the school to uncover the events surrounding Stella’s death…

What le Carré captures so brilliantly here is the snobbishness that exists within the school environment, the internal politics between the masters and, perhaps more tellingly, between their wives. It seems that Stella Rode did not conform to Carne’s traditional conventions and high standards. In short, she had lowered the tone with her doyleys and china ducks, much to Shane Hecht’s dismay.

‘…Stella Rode was such a nice person, I always thought…and so unusual. She did such clever things with the same dress…But she had such curious friends. All for Hans the woodcutter and Pedro the fisherman, if you know what I mean.’

‘What is she popular at Carne?’

Shane Hecht laughed gently: ‘No one is popular at Carne…but she wasn’t easy to like…She would wear black crêpe on Sundays…Forgive me, but do the lower classes always do that?’ (p. 93, A Murder of Quality)

There is some nice development of Smiley’s character in this book, with the retired intelligence office emerging as a man with a conscience, someone who can find it difficult to reconcile the means with the end. He also knows the value of being able to assimilate, to blend into the background without being noticed. His quiet, perceptive manner coupled with an innate insight into human nature and motivation makes him an excellent spy – a keen observer of people, alert to signs of danger and duplicity. His understated investigative style is a pleasure to see in action, laying some of the groundwork for the subsequent novels.

This is a very well-written, satisfying mystery with just enough intrigue to keep the reader interested – needless to say, there is more to the case than meets the eye. Moreover, it’s a darkly humorous book – worth reading for the satirical sideswipes at the upper classes, particularly the public-school set.

The George Smiley novels are published by Penguin; personal copies.

My books of the year, 2020 – part 3, short stories

As if you weren’t fed-up of seeing books-of-the-year lists by now, here I am, back again with another instalment of my own! But before we get to the books themselves, a little explanation… My original intention, with these annual round-ups, had been to post two pieces – the first on my favourite novellas and non-fiction from a year of reading and the second on my favourite novels. Nevertheless, as I was looking back at my choices earlier this week, I noticed that I had neglected to include any short stories in my final lists. Not because they weren’t good enough to make the cut – I read some truly excellent collections in 2020 – but for some reason they’d been squeezed out, mostly by other, more prominent books.

So, in an effort to redress the balance, here are my favourite short story collections from a year of reading – all highly recommended indeed. While a couple of these collections are relatively recent publications or reissues, the vast majority of the stories themselves hail from the mid-20th-century – a pattern that reflects my general reading preferences. A longing perhaps for a simpler, less manic world, despite many of the difficulties encountered by women in those less enlightened times.

As ever, I’ve summarised each book below, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links. Hopefully, you’ll find something of interest in the mix.

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

A collection of seventeen of Jackson’s stories, several of which first appeared in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and other publications in the 1960s. As the title suggests, the tales themselves are rather creepy and unnerving, illuminating the sense of darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of suburban society. Confinement and entrapment are recurring themes, 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 some respects, Jackson was highlighting the relatively limited roles woman were allowed to play in society at the time – wife, mother, homemaker and supporter, with precious little opportunity for personal fulfilment. An excellent selection of stories with a serious message.

After Rain by William Trevor

Once again, William Trevor proves himself to be an incredibly astute chronicler of human nature. Here we have stories of bittersweet regrets and missed opportunities, of the acceptance of life’s disappointments and duties, of crushed hopes and dashed dreams. Moreover, Trevor writes brilliantly about the sense of duty or stigma that guides his protagonists’ lives. Like much of the best short fiction, these pieces leave enough space for the reader to bring their own reflections to bear on the narratives, opening up the possibilities beyond the words on the page. What is omitted or left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly expressed. A superb collection of stories, possibly up there with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as an all-time favourite.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier

A characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide. She also excels at building atmosphere and tension, a style that seems particularly well suited to the short story form.

The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant

In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. Central themes include the failings of motherhood, the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment. These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

Wave Me Goodbye, Stories of the Second World War

A fascinating anthology of stories by women writers, most of whom were writing during the Second World War (or the years immediately following its end). When viewed as a whole, this collection offers a rich tapestry depicting the different facets of women’s lives during this period – from stoic mother and caregiver, to headstrong Land Girl or factory worker, to intrepid journalist or correspondent. We see individuals anxiously awaiting the return of loved ones; women grieving for lives that have been lost, and marriages that have faded or turned sour. The mood and atmosphere on the Home Front are vividly conveyed, through stories of nights in the air raid shelters and the emotional impact of the Blitz. Plus, there are glimpses of Europe too, from the ravages of war-torn France to the tensions in Romania as the conflict edges ever closer. Includes pieces by Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Barbara Pym and many more.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness. Moreover, there is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from happiness and gaiety to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye.

Saturday Lunch at the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

Mortimer drew on some of her own experiences for this collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relation – many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the veneer of domestic life. There are similarities with the Shirley Jackson and the Daphne du Maurier, particularly in the opening story, The Skylight, where much of the horror in this chillingly tense tale stems from the imagination. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these stories, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment. Nevertheless, Mortimer also has a sharp eye for humour, something that comes through quite strongly. In summary, these are pitch-perfect vignettes, subverting traditional images of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision.

So that’s it from me for 2020. I wish you all the very best for 2021, wherever you happen to be.

The #1956Club – some recommendations of books to read

As some of you will know, Karen and Simon will be hosting another of their ‘club’ weeks at the beginning of October (5th – 11th October to be precise). The idea behind these clubs is to encourage us to read and share our thoughts on books first published in a particular year as a way of building up a literary overview of the period in question. This time the focus will be 1956, which falls squarely within my sights as a lover of mid-20th-century fiction.

I have a new 1956 review coming up during the week itself; but in the meantime, I thought it would be nice to do a round-up of some of my previous reviews of novels published in 1956. Who knows, it might even tempt you to read something from the list…

 

The King of a Rainy Country by Brigid Brophy

This was Brigid Brophy’s second novel, a semi-autobiographical work narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl named Susan, whom the author once described as a ‘cut-down version’ of herself. Witty, engaging and deceptively light on its feet, the novel captures the freshness of youth, a sense of going with the flow to see where life takes you. The initial setting — London in the mid-1950s — is beautifully evoked, capturing the mood of Susan’s bohemian lifestyle. It’s a lovely book, shot through with a lightness of touch that makes it all the more engaging to read. Every relationship is coloured by a delightful sense of ambiguity as nothing is quite how it appears at first sight.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

A brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. We first meet Laura – a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still hangs over the family’s home. To have any hope of moving forward, Laura must delve back into her past, forcing a confrontation with long-buried emotions. Lovers of Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Brooker or Brian Moore will find much to appreciate here. 

The Barbarous Coast by Ross Macdonald

A compelling and intricate mystery featuring many of the elements I’ve come to know and love in Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels. More specifically, twisted, dysfunctional families with dark secrets to hide; damaged individuals with complex psychological issues; themes encompassing desire, murder and betrayal – all set within the privileged social circle of 1950s LA. Here we find Archer on the trail of a missing wife, a quest that soon morphs into something much darker, taking in multiple murders, blackmail and cover-ups. Highly recommended for lovers of hardboiled fiction, this novel can be read as a standalone.

A Certain Smile by François Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of a young girl’s ill-fated love affair with an older married man, one that epitomises the emotions of youth, complete with all their intensity and confusion. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicting forces at play; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Another ideal summer read from the author of Bonjour Tristesse.

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Coward)

When Frenchman Daniel Mermet hits a beautiful young woman while driving one night, the incident marks a turning point in his life, setting the scene for this intriguing noir. Part mystery, part love story, this novella is beautifully written, shot through with an undeniable sense of loss – a quality that adds a touch of poignancy to the noirish tone. I’ve kept this description relatively short to avoid any potential spoilers; but If you’re a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll likely enjoy this. 

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

An insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seems destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has an interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then rewinding to 1942, 1937 and 1927 (to their honeymoon). In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently. While it’s not my favourite EJH – the tone can seem quite bitter and claustrophobic at times – the structure makes it an interesting choice. 

A Legacy by Sybille Bedford

This semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of two very different families connected by marriage. As long-standing members of Berlin’s haute bourgeoisie, the Jewish Merzes are very wealthy and very traditional. By contrast, the aristocratic von Feldens hail from Baden, part of Germany’s Catholic south; they are comfortably off but not rich. Set against a backdrop of a newly-unified Germany, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, alighting on various points in the late 19th century and the years leading up to the First World War. One of the most impressive things about A Legacy is the insight it offers into this vanished world, the glimpses into the rather insular lives of the highly privileged Merzes in Berlin, coupled with the eccentricities of the von Felden family in the south. Bedford’s prose can be quite allusive and indirect at times; however, for readers with an interest in this milieu, there is much to appreciate here – the descriptions are amazing. 

Will you be joining the #1956Club? If so, what are you thinking of reading? Do let me know…

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup (1975), in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s 1972 novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. It really is a terrifically funny book, a throwback to the golden age of British comedy in the 1970s.

In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Headmaster. (It turns out that the previous Head, Mr Chadband, has been granted a leave of absence, supposedly for the pursuit of professional studies. However, from one or two hints revealed during the book, the exact nature of these ‘studies’ appears to be somewhat dubious.)

The story unfolds through a combination of sources, including excerpts from Harpole’s journal; entries in the official school log-book; memos between Harpole and Mr Tusker, the Assistant Education Officer at the Local Authority; letters from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith Wardle; and various other documents. Interspersed with these vignettes are observations from an unnamed individual who has been commissioned to compile an independent report on Harpole’s tenure as Acting Head. It’s a very engaging technique, one that enables a surprisingly vivid picture to be pieced together from a variety of different perspectives, especially with the benefit of reading between the lines.  

As one might imagine, there are many trials and tribulations to be faced when running a school. During term-time, the well-intentioned Harpole must deal with a plethora of problems from disgruntled parents to sensitive members of staff and pupils, all set within an environment hampered by petty bureaucracy and constrained resources.

Some of the novella’s most amusing scenes are conveyed through the administrative memos from Harpole to Tusker and vice versa. In this passage, Tusker is responding to a complaint by Mr Theaker, the school caretaker, who has taken umbrage at being asked to hoist the Union Jack flag on a daily basis. The resultant memo from Tusker to Harpole is typical of this official’s communications, characterised by their antagonistic, narrow-minded style.

TUSKER TO HARPOLE

I was called upon to-day by the industrial disputes officer of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, complaining that you have instructed your caretaker, Mr E. E. Theaker, to hoist a flag each morning.

I would point out that the Local Educational Committee has laid down the principal duties of its caretakers are to maintain (a) Heat (b) Cleanliness (c) Security, and that Other Duties should only be undertaken when and if time permits. In view of this, no doubt you would like to re-consider the ill-considered position you have taken up, and I shall expect to hear what course of action in this vexatious matter you propose to take.

I note that you have not yet informed me why you require a second flag. (p. 7)

Theaker – a man who is something of a law unto himself – proves to be the cause of another incident when one of the teachers, Mr Pintle, discovers that his precious teaching aids for History lessons have disappeared from the school’s storeroom…

[HARPOLE’S] JOURNAL

…Just as I was going home, Pintle, almost incoherent, rage intermingled with grief, burst accusingly in. This being the season of the year when he does the Normans, he had been to the Surplus Apparatus and Staff Illustration Store to put back his Viking longship (made of 3,500 matchsticks) and to take out his cardboard Norman Keep. Apparently the Store was empty and the Keep (which he had made in his first year out of college) had gone. I hurried back with him and the little room was certainly empty of educational apparatus and now housed brushes, mops, cleaning paraphernalia, a child’s desk and an old armchair.

As I gazed unbelievingly at this, Theaker came round the corner. He was taken aback but rallied, declaring defiantly before I had time to speak, ‘Well, it was only full of junk.’ (p. 36)

This journal entry captures something of the book’s character, a humorous, idiosyncratic style that runs through much of Carr’s work.

By conveying Harpole’s approach and leadership of the school, Carr is able to touch on various social issues of the day, weaving them into the narrative in a wonderfully satirical way. The damaging impact of corporal punishment; the negative effects of streaming; and the unfairness of social discrimination, especially against girls, all feature at one point or another in the book.

Poverty, malnutrition and lack of support at home are also topics that Harpole must turn his mind to, especially when the Widmerpools (surely a nod to the odious Kenneth Widmerpool from A Dance to the Music of Time) move into the catchment area. The junior Widemerpools are a notoriously unruly bunch, with reading ages well below the expected levels. A programme of intensive reading produces some excellent results, if only this encouraging run of progress could be maintained…

In addition to these knotty sociopolitical issues, there are more light-hearted activities for Harpole to contend with, including Sports Day, school outings, and an amorous governor to name but a few.

Alongside Harpole himself – who emerges as a principled, well-intentioned man, battling against an archaic, bureaucratic system – the pen-portraits of the other teachers are beautifully sketched. There is young Miss Foxberrow, an energetic Cambridge graduate with progressive ideas; Mr Croser, a rather smug young teacher with strong moral standards; Mrs Grindle-Jones, a traditionalist rapidly approaching retirement; and Miss Tollemarche, whose note-taking on the attendance register is hopelessly inaccurate. Each one presents a particular challenge for Harpole in their own individual way.

Also of note are the letters from Miss Foxberrow to her sister, Felicity, commenting on Harpole and the various developments at the school. These too are wonderfully humorous, revealing something of Miss Foxberrow as a character and her growing admiration for the Temporary Head. Finally, on the personal front, there are the notes from Harpole to his fiancée, Edith, in which he relates the potential theft of a missing spanner and the subsequent lack of interest in the case from the police – another source of amusement in this sharply satirical tale.

In summary, this is a marvellously funny book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A period piece imbued with nostalgia.

My copy of The Harpole Report was published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My first experience of this novel was back in the mid-‘80s, shortly after it had won the Booker Prize. I was in my early twenties at the time – clearly much too young and lacking in life experience to fully appreciate the book’s many nuances and subtleties. At thirty-nine, Edith Hope (the central character) seemed middle-aged, old before her time – something I found difficult to connect with in the foolishness of my youth. Revisiting it now, I see it as a very different book – much more interesting and closely observed than it seemed on my first reading. The level of precision is remarkable, particularly in relation to detail and character. 

As the novel opens, Edith Hope – an unmarried writer of romantic fiction – has just been packed off by her respectable, interfering friends to the Hotel du Lac, a rather austere, traditional hotel of high repute in the Swiss countryside. Right from the start, it is clear that Edith has been banished from her sector of society, sent away to reflect on her misdemeanours, to become herself again following some undisclosed scandal.

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name, remained standing at the window, as if an access of good will could pierce the mysterious opacity with which she had been presented, although she had been promised a tonic cheerfulness, a climate devoid of illusions, an utterly commonsensical, not to say pragmatic, set of circumstances – quiet hotel, excellent cuisine, long walks, lack of excitement, early nights – in which she could be counted upon to retrieve her serious and hard-working personality and to forget the unfortunate lapse which had led to this brief exile, in this apparently unpopulated place, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home…(p. 8)

(The reason for Edith’s exile is eventually revealed, but not until the last third of the book, so I shall endeavour to avoid any spoilers about this.)

It is late September, out of season, and the hotel is a sparse, soulless place, a bastion of respectability and privacy. The sort of place that doctors know about, where troubled or troublesome relatives can be sent for a period of rest and recuperation. New residents are occasionally accepted, but only on the recommendation of known parties.

At the end of her first evening, Edith is ‘adopted’ by Iris Pusey, a glamorous, well-dressed woman of commanding personality and indeterminate age. In return, Edith soon realises that she is to be an audience for Mrs Pusey’s views – a series of opinions, reminiscences and judgements on various aspects of life. This Edith is happy to do, partly because it allows her to observe an ‘alien species’, the study of human behaviour being a key component of her craft. Moreover, Mrs Pusey is accompanied by her grown-up daughter, Jennifer, a less-polished version of Mrs P, but equally striking in her own, rather girlish way.

The Puseys spend their days shopping for clothes, viewing their annual trip to the Hotel du Lac as a necessity in their social calendar. Luckily for Mrs Pusey, she is extremely wealthy, her late husband having left enough money for mother and daughter to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Edith is rather fascinated by Jennifer whose age also proves difficult to define. (She is in fact thirty-nine, something that comes as quite a surprise given her childlike demeanour.)  At times, Jennifer seems very young, like a little girl still devoted to her mother; at others, a more mature side of her personality emerges, revealing her to be something of an odalisque aware of her sexual attractiveness.

There are other guests at the hotel too, women whose lives have been defined by more dominant members of their families – primarily men. Consequently, these women have little influence or agency of their own. There is Monica, the tall, beautiful lady with a dog, whom Edith encounters shortly after she arrives at the hotel. Lady Monica, whose relationship with food is dictated by an eating disorder, has been sent to the hotel ‘to get herself in working order’ to produce a baby. Monica’s husband is desperate for an heir, and should one not be forthcoming soon, Monica will likely be dismissed, thereby enabling Sir John to make ‘alternative arrangements’.  

Mme de Bonneuil is also of note here. Deposited at the hotel by her unfeeling son and his self-centred wife, this elderly lady will soon be dispatched to her winter quarters in Lausanne where a long, dark season surely beckons. With her sequined veil and walking stick, Mme B cuts a poignant figure, particularly as the move to Lausanne edges ever closer.  

Central to the novel is Edith and her consideration of the kind of life she can carve out for herself. As a writer of romantic novels, Edith is continually exploring the lives of women. ‘What behaviour most becomes a woman?’ What is deemed to be respectable or acceptable?

Edith’s position in relation to these points is brought sharply into focus with the arrival of Philip Neville, a perceptive, sophisticated man who is intrigued by Edith. He swiftly surmises her position, identifying her single status as a disadvantage. While her career as a writer has enabled Edith to live an independent life, she remains somewhat annexed from polite society – pitied by her friends, some of whom have tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to arrange suitable matches. (Little do they know that Edith has a married lover, David, a man she is deeply in love with, despite the fact that he will never leave his wife.) This separateness is something Edith is acutely aware of – even so, the extent to which Mr Neville intuits her situation cuts like a knife.

‘What you need, Edith, is not love. What you need is a social position. What you need is marriage.’

‘I know,’ she said.

‘And once you are married, you can behave as badly as everyone else. Worse, given your unused capacity.’

‘The relief,’ she agreed.

‘And you will be popular with one and all, and have so much more to talk about. And never have to wait by the telephone again.’

Edith stood up. ‘It’s getting cold,’ she said. ‘Shall we go.’

She strode on ahead of him. That last remark was regrettable, she thought. Vulgar. And he knows where to plant the knife. (p. 101)

As the novel reaches its denouement, Mr Neville proposes to Edith. It is not a proposal borne out of love – instead, he is offering her a partnership based on mutual self-esteem. Following the messy breakdown of his previous marriage, Mr Neville is looking a wife, someone he can trust, someone who will not let him down or embarrass him in the future. In return, marriage will give Edith a respectable social position, something that will confer on her an air of confidence and sophistication. Furthermore, she will retain the freedom to write, to continue with her career as desired. Both parties will be free to see other people should they wish, as long as they remain discreet.

In the end, Edith must choose the kind of life she is to lead. Will she return to her solitary existence at home, complete with its small pleasures, its sense of freedom and independence? Or will she agree to compromise, to marry for the benefit of social acceptability? (There is also the question of whether it will be possible for Edith to go back to her familiar life in England, should she wish to do so. This is not at all certain given her recent history.) Ultimately, an unexpected discovery forces Edith’s hand, revealing unpalatable truths about two of the hotel’s residents, while also signalling what may lay ahead for Edith should she opt for a particular path.

I could have written a very different piece to this, one that explores Edith’s dilemma in light of the events that prefaced her exile; but that would have revealed too many spoilers, I think. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book, one that throws up so many questions and points for debate – especially on the options open to women in the 1970s/’80s and how these have changed. This time around, I absolutely loved it.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I’ve written before about Yuko Tsushima, the Japanese writer whose dreamlike novella, Territory of Light, was one of my highlights from last year. In her work, Tsushima frequently explores the lives of women on the fringes, individuals who defy societal expectations of marriage and motherhood – themes which are prominent again here.

First published in Japan in 1978, Child of Fortune revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako. As the novel opens, Kōko is living alone in her apartment, Kayako having recently moved in with her Aunt Shōko, Kōko’s sensible older sister. Ostensibly, Kayako cited a need to focus on her schoolwork as the reason for the change in living arrangements; nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if the real reason was somewhat more complex than this…

For much of her adult life, Kōko has been defying her relatives’ wishes by raising Kayako on her own, away from the traditional family unit. The more conventional Shōko clearly considers her sister’s approach to motherhood to be ill-judged and reckless. Kōko’s job giving piano lessons to children is hardly steady, offering little in the way of financial stability for the future. In short, there is nothing that Shōko would like more than to meddle with her sister’s lifestyle – after all, it is Shōko who will need to step in if things go wrong.

–That’s not what I call a real job– Kōko’s older sister had said to Kayako. –It’s only part-time. What makes her think she can support herself and a daughter on her pay? If anything goes wrong she’ll turn to us in the end. Which means in fact that she’s relying on us all along. Of course she has to, she couldn’t expect to make ends meet otherwise, so she should stop being so stubborn and simply come and live here. We’d be delighted to have her. She is my only sister, after all. Really, for someone who’s thirty-seven she has less sense than you, Kaya dear.– (p. 3)

As Kayako is drawn further into the fold of Shōko’s family, Kōko is left feeling marginalised and isolated – somewhat alienated from her own daughter. 

Kayako now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights. She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning. She would set off to take a practice test, or to meet a friend, or for some such reason. Each time, Kōko felt she was being tormented for her own weakness – it was always the same, always a turned back that she was forced to look at. She wanted to keep her daughter with her on Sunday morning at least. But to tell her so might be taking as nagging, and then Kayako mightn’t come near her at all. (p. 4)

The picture is further complicated when Kōko realises that she might be pregnant, the consequence of a fairly casual approach to a liaison with Osada, a friend of her former husband. While Kōko seems to have invited this situation, there is one thing she begins to ponder…

Only one thing gave her pause, a slight concern – after all – about what people would think. And even that small hesitation seemed unlikely to survive her highhanded view of life, for, living as she chose until now, she’d come to care little about appearances at this stage. Maybe she was reaching an age where it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age, she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died. Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point worrying about what people thought. She would soon be thirty-seven. The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko. (p. 40)

I’m keeping this post quite brief, mainly because the book itself is quite compact and best experienced in person rather than secondhand through a review. As the narrative unravels, we come to realise just how conflicted and vulnerable Kōko really is. Memories from the past begin to resurface: a childhood marked by the loss of her congenitally disabled brother at the age of twelve; the breakdown of her marriage to Kayako’s father; the disappointment of a lover returning to his pregnant wife. These things and more begin to flit through Kōko’s mind.

Child of Fortune is another haunting, beautifully-written book from Tsushima, one that explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations. (The setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here.) It is by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(This is my first read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Child of Fortune is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

My fascination with the work of William Trevor continues apace with his 1976 novel, The Children of Dynmouth, the story of a malevolent teenager and the havoc he wreaks on the residents of a sleepy seaside town. It’s a brilliant book, one that veers between the darkly comic, the deeply tragic and the downright unnerving. I can definitely envisage it being one of my highlights of the year.

The novel revolves around Timothy Gedge, an ungainly fifteen-year-old boy who spends much of his time hanging around the town of Dynmouth, pestering people with his unfunny jokes and unwelcome small talk.

Timothy has grown up as a latch-key child, left to his own devices with very little in the way of family support. The boy’s mother and older sister are as thick as thieves, locked in their own private clique, largely at the exclusion of Timothy himself. Moreover, there is no male role model for Timothy to look up to, his father having upped and left the family home not long after he was born. Perhaps as a consequence of this, Timothy has turned out to be a very strange boy indeed – a point that Quentin Featherston, the local vicar, frequently considers.

He was a strange boy, always at a loose end. His mother was a good-looking woman with brassy hair who sold women’s clothes in a shop called Cha-Cha Fashions, his sister was six or seven years older than Timothy, good-looking also, employed as a petrol-pump attendant on the forecourt of the Smiling Service Filling Station: Quentin knew them both by sight. In adolescence, unfortunately, the boy was increasingly becoming a nuisance to people, endlessly friendly and smiling, keen for conversation. He was what Lavinia called a latch-key child, returning to the empty flat in Cornerways from the Comprehensive school, on his own in it all day during the school holidays. Being on his own seemed somehow to have become part of him. (p. 9)

At first, Timothy comes across as being a bit slow, a child with learning difficulties or behavioural issues. However, as the narrative unfolds, a more sinister facet of his personality soon begins to emerge. There is a malevolent side to the boy, a deliberately vicious streak that manifests itself in several ways. Timothy loiters around the town, watching people’s movements, peering through their windows, and listening in to private conversations – all with the intention of using any information gained to its full advantage. More specifically, Timothy knows why Commander Abigail likes to hang around the beach on the pretence of going for a swim; he knows that Miss Lavant loves Dr Greenslade from afar, setting an imaginary place for him at her dining-room table; and he knows that Mr Plant is having an affair with Mrs Gedge, one of several women the local publican appears to have on the go at once. Funerals are another source of fascination for Timothy, to the extent that he hangs around at the graveside, even when the deceased is unknown to him.

Things take a particularly unsettling turn when Timothy hatches a plan to enter the ‘Spot the Talent’ competition at the forthcoming Easter Fête. The performance will centre on a re-enactment of a macabre historical event involving the murder of three women in a bath – an incident Timothy learned of during a school trip to Madame Tussauds  He is convinced it will be a huge hit at the church-sponsored Fête, bringing the house down in the process. The boy’s fantasies even extend to the possibility that Hughie Green might be in the audience, scouting for contestants for Opportunity Knocks, a staple of the TV schedules back in the ‘70s.  

With a view to obtaining the props he needs for his act, Timothy proceeds to blackmail some of the residents he has had under observation. A pair of curtains from Mr Dass; a tin bath with the help of Mr Plant; and a dog-tooth suit from Commander Abigail, the latter being particularly vulnerable to potential exposure. Somewhat conveniently, Timothy is in the habit of popping over to the Abigails’ house every Wednesday evening, notionally under the pretence of doing a few odd jobs for the elderly couple; however, in reality, the boy is there for a free dinner and a chance to pilfer some money. It is during one of these evenings that a drunken Timothy begins to turn the screws on the Commander, while poor Mrs Abigail is left to watch the proceedings unfold with a mixture of distress and bewilderment.

‘You’ve no right to spy on people,’ the Commander began to say. ‘You’ve no right to go poking –’

‘I’ve witnessed you down on the beach, sir. Running about in your bathing togs. I’ve witnessed you up to your tricks, Commander, when she’s out on her Meals on Wheels.’

He smiled at her, but she didn’t want to look at him. ‘I wouldn’t ever tell a soul,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t, Commander.’

She waited, her eyes fixed on the flowered tea-pot, frowning at it. Whatever he was referring to, she didn’t want to hear about it. She wanted him to stop speaking. She felt herself infected by her husband’s panic, not knowing why she felt like that. They would keep the secret, the boy said. The secret would be safe. (p. 64)

The way that Timothy preys on the more vulnerable residents of Dynmouth is particularly cruel. In an attempt to procure a wedding dress for his act, Timothy targets two twelve-year-olds, Stephen and Kate, who are now half-brother and sister following a marriage between Stephen’s widowed father and Kate’s divorced mother. A gap of three years can seem vast at this age, and Timothy – a boy on the cusp of adulthood – uses this differential to his full advantage. He maliciously embellishes the events surrounding the death of Stephen’s mother, sowing the seeds of doubt in the youngsters’ minds. It’s a terribly cruel trick, skilfully played.

What Trevor does so well here is to expose the darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of respectable society – perhaps most notably, the men who interfere with young boys under the pretence of an innocent game. There is much sadness to be uncovered too – the desperate loneliness of Miss Lavant’s solitary life; the abandonment of the Dasses by the son they indulged in his youth; and the real reason for the emotional distance that characterises the Abigails’ marriage. There are harsh, uncomfortable truths lying dormant here; things the Dynmouth residents would prefer not to know about or tackle.

The rhythms and preoccupations of small-town life are beautifully captured too, from the desolate views of the windswept promenade, to the sleepy matinees at the down-at-heel cinema, to the much-anticipated return of Ring’s Amusements for the summer season. Dynmouth is the type of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, complete with all the petty squabbles this environment can breed. The following passage could have come straight out of a Barbara Pym novel, such is its wonderful combination of dry comedy and keen insight.

‘I think I’m going to try and cut the grass,’ Quentin Featherston said as he and Lavinia washed up the dishes after the Mothers’ Union tea-party, which had been even more trying than usual. When Miss Poraway had mentioned a Tupperware party Mrs Stead-Carter had gone much further than she’d ever gone before. She’d pointed out that it was stupid to talk about Tupperware parties as a means of raising funds since funds raised at Tupperware parties naturally went to the manufacturers of Tupperware. Miss Poraway said there were other parties of a similar nature, at which suede jackets and coats were modelled, and sometimes underclothes. In greater exasperation Mrs Stead-Carter said she’d never heard anything as silly in her life: the Mothers’ Union in Dynmouth had neither Tupperware nor suede clothes nor underclothes at its disposal, Miss Poraway’s whole line of conversation was a waste of time. (p. 101)

In the end though, the reader is left wondering about Timothy Gedge (a boy who could be a younger incarnation of Muriel Spark’s Dougal Douglas). Is Timothy as much of a victim of circumstance as he is a perpetrator of evil? How much of his character has been shaped by nature vs nurture? Is there the possibility of redemption in his future? These are just some of the questions for the reader to ponder…

The Children of Dynmouth is published by Penguin Books: personal copy.