Tag Archives: UK

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.

Two Recent Reads – On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Thoughts on a couple of recent reads – both excellent, both published this year.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming (2019)

I’ve been reading a few memoirs recently. Rather unusual for me as my preferences lean quite heavily towards fiction, often from the mid-20th-century. Nevertheless, I found myself drawn to this book when it came out earlier this year, prompted by a flurry of positive reports and reviews. Now that I’ve read it, I suspect it may well end up being one of the highlights of my reading year; it really is very good indeed.

In brief, On Chapel Sands is the story of Laura’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. Five days later, Betty was found safe and well in a nearby village. She remembers nothing of the incident, and nobody at home ever mentions it again. Another fifty years pass before Betty learns of the kidnapping, by now a wife and mother herself with a rich and fulfilling life of her own.

The book combines the threads of a tantalising mystery – who took Betty from Chapel Sands that day and why? – with elements of memoir. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the various members of Laura Cumming’s family, their personalities and motivations, their secrets and personal attachments. It also raises questions of nature vs nurture. How much of Betty’s character was there from birth, a sense of coming from within? And how much was shaped by the attitudes of her parents (in particular, her dictatorial father, George, with his controlling manner)?

The failings of human nature constitute another key theme here – a fear of shame and the desire to maintain appearances both play their part in dictating Betty’s path in life.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this story 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.

The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago. Then it seemed to me that all we needed was more evidence to solve it, more knowledge in the form of documents, letters, hard facts. But to my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album. (pp. 12–13)

Only by repeatedly sifting these details, returning to them again and again, is Cumming able to come to some kind of resolution about the nature of her mother’s past. The need to consider all the alternatives, to view the situation from various perspectives, is crucial to unravelling the enigma at its heart.

When viewed as a whole, this book is a loving testament to Laura’s mother, a woman whose warmth, generosity and compassion shine through the text. This deeply personal story also conveys a vivid portrait of a small, close-knit community in the early 1930s, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business – except, perhaps, the central individual concerned. All in all, this is a remarkable story, exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2019)

This book caught my eye when it ended up on the Booker shortlist, largely because it was one of two contenders that seemed to be attracting the most positive reviews at the time (the other being Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). So, when Girl won the Prize itself – a controversial decision as we know – I felt I had to read it.

In short, Girl, Woman, Other is a vibrant portrayal of twelve different characters – mostly black, mostly women – who together offer an insight into a sector of British society over the past hundred years. Here we have women spanning a variety of ages and walks of life, from nineteen-year-old Yazz, a street-smart young woman just starting out at University, to ninety-three-year-old Hattie, keen to remain self-sufficient in her home on the family farm. In between there are mothers and daughters, cleaning entrepreneurs and theatre directors, teachers and bankers, many of whom are forging unfamiliar paths in life – hopefully for others to follow suit.

Over a sequence of thirteen chapters – one for each character and a final after-party scene – Evaristo teases out the connections between various characters, some clear and direct, others more tenuous.

These women are bright, dynamic, resolute and determined, largely irrespective of the hand they’ve been dealt by society at large. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many have encountered abuse and prejudice over the years, and yet they have managed to find their own ways through it, often with the aid of sheer grit and perseverance. I suspect there is more than a hint of Evaristo herself in Amma, a fifty-something director of ground-breaking feminist theatre. Having lived most of her creative life on the radical fringes, Amma now finds herself joining the establishment with her new play due to open at the National, hopefully to great critical acclaim.

What I love about this book is the way Evaristo prompts readers to look beyond the traditional stereotypes of black women typically presented to us in films, TV and other cultural media, encouraging us to see her characters for who they really are – rounded individuals with a multitude of thoughts and feelings.

Yazz wishes the play had already opened to five-star universal acclaim so that she can watch it stamped with pre-approval, it matters because she’ll have to deal with the aftermath if it’s slagged off by the critics and Mum’ll go on an emotional rampage that might last weeks – about the critics sabotaging her career with their complete lack of insight into black women’s lives and how this had been her big break after over forty years of hard graft blah di blah and how they didn’t get the play because it’s not about aid workers in Africa or troubled teenage boys or drug dealers or African warlords or African-American blues singers or white people rescuing black slaves

guess who’ll have to be on the end of the phone to pick up the pieces?

she’s Mum’s emotional caretaker, always has been, always will be

it’s the burden of being an only child, especially a girl

who will naturally be more caring. (pp. 49 – 50)

The narrative explores many themes of relevance to our society over the past century, delving into class, race, gender, sexuality, feminism and social mobility, with some of the dialogue in the novel offering a vehicle for raising key issues and prompting debate.

In summary, this is a thoroughly absorbing, cleverly-constructed novel featuring a myriad of interesting voices – by turns exuberant, striking, funny and poignant. There is a richness of experience on offer here which makes it feel highly pertinent to our current times. In spite of the diversity of modern multicultural Britain, Evaristo shows us that maybe, just maybe there is more that connects us as individuals than divides us. A thoroughly inspiring story in more ways than one.

On Chapel Sands is published by Chatto and Windus, Girl, Woman, Other by Hamish Hamilton; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing reading copies.

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

My first experience of Iris Murdoch’s fiction but hopefully not my last. Under the Net – Murdoch’s debut novel, first published in 1954 – is a subtly clever blend of the picaresque and the philosophical, all set within the bohemian milieu of London and Paris in the early 1950s.

The novel is narrated by Jake Donaghue, an impoverished hack writer who scrapes a living by translating mediocre French novels into English when in need of some ready cash. As the story opens, Jake arrives back in London following a trip to France only to discover that he is being thrown out of the flat where he has been living virtually rent-free for the past couple of years. The flat in question is owned by Jake’s friend, Magdalen, who is worried that her new fiancé – a wealthy bookmaker and businessman known as Sacred Sammy – might not like the idea of Jake being back on the scene.

As a consequence, Jake – accompanied by his accommodating assistant, Finn – must find a new place to live, a quest that sets off a sequence of misadventures, chance encounters and close shaves, all of which shape his outlook on life in subtly different ways.

There are some wonderful characters in this novel from the talented Anna Quentin, a folk singer with a stake in an experimental theatre, to her sister, Sadie, a glamorous actress whose motives may not be quite as innocent as they initially seem. Perhaps the most notable of all is the kindly Mrs Tinckham, a rather eccentric lady who runs a newsagent’s shop near Charlotte Street – a dusty, higgledy-piggledy kind of place that is always full of cats.

In the midst sits Mrs Tinckham herself, smoking a cigarette. She is the only person I know who is literally a chain-smoker. She lights each one from the butt of the last; how she lights the first one of the day remains to me a mystery, for she never seems to have any matches in the house when I ask her for one. I once arrived to find her in great distress because her current cigarette had fallen into a cup of coffee and she had no fire to light another. Perhaps she smokes all night, or perhaps there is an undying cigarette which burns eternally in her bedroom. An enamel basin at her feet is filled, usually to overflowing, with cigarette ends; and beside her on the counter is a little wireless which is always on, very softly and inaudibly, so that a sort of murmurous music accompanies Mrs Tinckham as she sits, wreathed in cigarette smoke, among the cats. (p. 12)

This novel is witty, engaging and fast-paced, much more so than I expected – the humour in particular comes as a complete surprise. Along the way, the action takes in various scuffles, the theft of a manuscript, a break-in, a kidnap, and a spontaneous night-time dip in the Thames. (There is some glorious writing about London here, really atmospheric and evocative.) On one level it’s all tremendous fun.

Nevertheless, there is room for some debate and self-reflection too. Central to the novel is the exploration of one of Wittgenstein’s theories, the idea that our deepest emotions remain trapped ‘under the net’ of language, inaccessible to others in spite of our best efforts to express them through dialogue or the written word. Jake’s philosopher friend, Hugo, acts as a conduit for Murdoch’s exploration of philosophical themes – discussions that Jake has knowingly appropriated to write a book of his own, The Silencer, a past transgression which he now regrets.

The novel is also an exploration of the fickle nature of love – the kind of story where A loves B, B loves C, C loves D, and D loves A. Everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person; if only Anna could feel differently about Jake, perhaps everything would be okay.

Anna was something which had to be learnt afresh. When does one ever know a human being? Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it. But then what one achieves is no longer knowledge, it is simply a kind of coexistence; and this too is one of the guises of love. (p.277)

As the novel draws to a close, we find Jake in a better place, more at ease with himself than at the outset. In short, he is optimistic, eager to find regular work and open to the experiences of life, complete with its various ups and downs.

All in all, this feels like an excellent, lively introduction to Iris Murdoch’s work. I haven’t even had time to mention the Marvellous Mister Mars, a performing Alsatian who manages to get Jake out of the trickiest of situations in the nick of time…he’s almost certainly worth the entry price alone.

Under the Net is published by Vintage Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, books 10-12

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may know that I’ve reached the end of my little project to read Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, a wonderful twelve-part series which explores the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. It’s been a hugely enjoyable and satisfying experience, easily one of my bookish highlights in recent years. Having ‘lived’ with these characters for the best part of six months, I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that the cycle is complete. The idea of revisiting it at some point in the future is very tempting indeed.

As with my previous Powell posts, I’m going to touch on some of the highlights from the final volumes in the series – hopefully relatively spoiler-free, although there may be the occasional mention of a key development here or there.

Books Do Furnish a Room (book 10 in the sequence), sees Jenkins in a contemplative, melancholic mood as he returns to his old University to gather material for a forthcoming book on Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. It’s a tone reflected in the bleak and wistful atmosphere of post-war British life, replete with its deficiencies and uncertainties.

This is a very ‘literary’ instalment in the series, one that revolves around books, writers, critics and publishers – in particular, those connected to the newly-established publishing house Quiggin & Craggs. Jenkins is engaged by Q&C to commission and manage literary reviews, a role which brings him into contact with the author X Trapnel, an idiosyncratic character who enjoys perpetuating his own somewhat legendary urban myth. (For the interested, it is well-documented that Powell drew on the figure of the talented but troubled writer Julian Maclaran-Ross, author of the excellent novel Of Love and Hunger, as inspiration for this character.)

X Trapnel – or ‘Trappy’ as he is affectionately known – is a marvellous creation, undoubtedly one of Powell’s finest across the series. In spite of his hand-to-mouth existence and frequent shuttling from one down-at-heel Bloomsbury hotel to another, Trappy gives the impression of being something of a dandy with his tropical suit, grey suede brothel-creepers and flamboyant, skull-topped walking stick.

The walking stick struck a completely different note. Its wood unremarkable, but the knob, ivory, more likely bone, crudely carved in the shape of a skull, was rather like old Skerrett’s head at Erridge’s funeral. This stick clearly bulked large in Trapnel equipment. It set the tone far more than the RAF greatcoat or tropical suit. For the rest he was hatless, wore a dark blue sports shirt frayed at the collar, an emerald green tie patterned with naked women, was shod in grey suede brothel-creepers. These last, then relatively new, were destined to survive a long time, indeed until their rubber soles, worn to the thinness of paper, had become all but attached from fibreless uppers, sounding a kind of dismal applause as they flapped rhythmically against the weary pavement trodden beneath. (p. 106, book 10)

Naturally, Trappy’s preferred mode of transport is the taxi – not only to avoid descending to the undesirable level of the bus or tube but to provide some protection from loitering bailiffs hoping to serve writs for outstanding debts. Irrespective of his precarious financial position, Trappy never hesitates in spending his last few shillings on a taxi, a touch that adds to the air of panache he chooses to adopt when facing the outside world. As a character, he is continually playing a role, always performing to the gallery in one form or another.

Once again, Jenkins’ (or Powell’s) astute powers of observation come to the fore in capturing this individual’s trademark characteristics, complete with all their various tensions and contradictions.

Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, and opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age. Each of these ambitions had something to recommend it from one angle or another, with the possible exception of being poor – the only aim Trapnel now achieved with an unqualified mastery. (pp. 144-145, book 10)

As with previous volumes, humour plays a vital role in these books, balancing the poignant developments with some lighter moments here and there. Nevertheless, there is an undercurrent of sadness running through the twilight of the series, a sense of loneliness and disenchantment in an uncertain, shifting world. Allusions to classical Greek myths also play their part, particularly in books 11 and 12, Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies respectively.

Several familiar faces make welcome reappearances here, most notably Quiggin, Sillery, Widmerpool and Pamela Flitton. There are some classic ‘Pamela’ moments in these books, powered by this character’s unpredictable, fiery nature – a veritable tour-de-force of hostility and disdain. In this scene, Widmerpool (now a member of the House of Lords) tries to capture Pamela’s attention following his arrival in Venice, albeit rather unsuccessfully.

Pamela threw him a glance. Her manners suggested that a man – a very unprepossessing man at that – was trying to pick her up in a public place; some uncouth sightseer, not even a member of the Conference, having gained access to the Palazzo because the door was open, was now going round accosting ladies encountered there. Widmerpool persisted. (p. 105, book 11)

The spectral Mrs Erdleigh – first glimpsed in book 3, The Acceptance World – also pops up again, just when you least expect it.

Age – goodness knows how old she was – had exalted Mrs Erdleigh’s unsubstantiality. She looked very old indeed, yet old in an intangible, rather than corporeal sense. Lighter than air, disembodied from a material world, the swirl of capes, hoods, stoles, scarves, veils, as usual encompassed her from head to foot, all seeming of so light a texture that, far from bringing an impression of accretion, their blurring of hard outlines produced a positively spectrum effect, a Whistlerian nocturne in portraiture, sage greens, sombre blues, almost frivolous grays, sprinkled with gold. (pp. 241-242)

Alongside these regulars, Powell adds some new characters to the mix – most notably two Americans, the biographer Gwinnett and the film producer Glober, both of whom share an interest in X Trapnel’s work. Oddly enough, these two men also become entangled with the infamous Pamela, albeit in their rather different ways.

Another memorable character making his mark is Scorpio Murtlock, the enigmatic leader of a strange cult with a penchant for night-time rituals and various risqué practices. The battles for power, which have always formed an important thematic strand within the series, are in evidence once again, this time with Murtlock’s cult playing a crucial role.

With the final two volumes in particular, there is a sense of the series drawing to a close, of the old guard moving on in mind, body and spirit. The twin spectres of ageing and impending mortality haunt these books with funeral services offering the main opportunities to catch up with old acquaintances and to reminisce about the past.

Widmerpool continues to loom large in the proceedings, although his standing and reputation in society are now very much in decline. The final chapters of the sequence bring a strong sense of closure to his story, culminating in a remarkable denouement that feels at once both shocking and strangely fitting, particularly given this character’s rather idiosyncratic personality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is an element of the narrative coming full circle, harking back to our very first image of Widmerpool emerging out of the mist during an afternoon run at school. A truly memorable end to this richly rewarding series.

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A week or so ago, I wrote about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1972 novel, Odd Girl Out, which I mostly enjoyed. The preceding EJH, Something in Disguise (1969) proved to be a less satisfying read for me, a somewhat uneven novel compared to either After Julius (1965) or Odd Girl Out. More about the reasons for this a little later.

Disg

In short, Disguise could be thought of as a family saga, one that delves into the challenging nature of relationships, particularly those between husbands and wives. Central to the family is May, whose first husband was killed many years earlier in the Second World War. May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.

Both partners have grown-up children from their former marriages. May has two: twenty-four-year old Oliver, a bright, easy-going chap who would much rather find a wealthy young woman to marry than earn a living by getting a job; and twenty-year-old Elizabeth, a caring, idealistic young woman looking to make her own way in life. (As the novel opens, Elizabeth somewhat reluctantly leaves the Surrey home to join Oliver at his flat in London, chiefly as a means of escape from Herbert and his annoyingly boorish ways.)

Completing the ‘family’ is Herbert’s daughter, Alice, a shy, guileless young woman just setting out on married life with her much older husband, Leslie – another conceited bore with little concern for others. (In truth, Alice is so desperate to get away from her father that she accepts a proposal of marriage from the first man who shows an interest in her, almost from fear that there may never be another.) The following quote – taken from a discussion between the couple on their wedding night – captures Leslie’s attitude in a nutshell.

[Leslie] ‘Well – it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect me to be completely inexperienced at my age – now would it?’

[Alice] ‘No.’

‘I’m not – you see. Not at all inexperienced: quite the reverse – you might say. I’ve been – intimate – with quite a number of women. I’ve never known them well,’ he added hastily, ‘you understand what I mean, don’t you Alice?’

‘Yes.’

‘I mean, naturally, they weren’t the sort of women you’d expect me to have known well. That wasn’t their function if you take me. But it does mean that I know a good deal about a certain side of life. That’s necessary for men. For women – of course – it’s different. I don’t suppose – well I wouldn’t expect you to know anything at all about that.’ He finished his brandy and looked at her expectantly. ‘No.’

‘Of course not.’ He seemed at once to be both uplifted and disheartened by this. (p. 38)

Much of the novel’s ‘action’ revolves around Elizabeth and her relationship with John Cole, a wealthy, attentive man whom she meets in the course of her work, cooking dinners for private clients in the upmarket areas of London. In short, John sweeps Elizabeth off her feet, whisking her away to a villa in the South of France, one of his many luxurious properties in exotic places. Their affair is passionate, idyllic and rather unrealistic – to the point where it all begins to feel rather silly. Nevertheless, there are significant challenges for the couple along the way, not least in the form of John’s daughter, Jennifer, a spoilt brat who does her utmost to thwart her father’s new relationship. The fact that Elizabeth is the same age as Jennifer herself makes the situation seem all the more galling.

Meanwhile, back in Surrey, May is starting to feel the strain of life on her own with Herbert, without any of the children present to offer their support. As the days slip by, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. A visit from Elizabeth – who is left reeling from Jennifer’s impact on her relationship with John – should prove beneficial to May. However, both women shy away from opening up about what is really going on in their lives, preferring instead to pretend that everything is okay.

In spite of this novel’s flaws – the rather uneven quality, the unrealistic scenarios, the overly romanticised view of certain relationships – there are some real moments of insight here, particularly in the portrayal of May’s relationship with Herbert. The following observation is very telling, hinting at the Colonel’s selfish, duplicitous nature, something that becomes increasingly apparent as the novel progresses. (The novel’s title, Something in Disguise, does feel rather apt.)

Herbert was sitting in his large chair with his head thrown back listening to the cricket news from a small and badly serviced radio resting on the arm of his chair. A whiskey and soda lay within his grasp. When he became aware of Elizabeth, he went through the bizarre and contradictory motions of not getting up out of his chair although he knew he should: or, possibly, seeming to get up out of his chair and then not managing it because he was listening too hard to the radio. Elizabeth took advantage of this pantomime to make signs at the drink and herself, and with the barest flicker of hesitation, he seemed to agree. Luckily for her, the drink was still unlocked… (pp. 180-181)

Some of the secondary characters are particularly well-drawn, most notably Alice, who is utterly miserable in her new life with Leslie, trapped in a pokey bungalow not far from her husband’s family. Rosemary (Leslie’s nosy sister) is utterly believable, in spite of only being glimpsed in brief. Pregnant, lonely and homesick, Alice misses her cat, Claude, terribly, a situation made all the more painful by the gift of a demanding puppy from Leslie’s beloved mother – a well-meaning gesture that completely misses the mark.

Ultimately, the novel builds to a rather dramatic denouement with two shocking incidents playing out virtually simultaneously. Once again, there are credibility issues here with least one of the developments – that involving Elizabeth and John – feeling somewhat brutal and unnecessary.

Having now read a few of this author’s novels, I am coming to the realisation that many of the scenarios created by EJH are deliberately designed to highlight the rather unrealistic, idealised vision of marriage held by society at the time. There is a sense that she is highlighting the foolishness of the women who fall into these traps – particularly those who buy into the highly romanticised vision of love at first sight, many of whom discover that the reality is much less fulfilling than the idealistic vision they were led to believe. Equally, others drift from one doomed relationship to another, hopelessly clinging to unsuitable men in spite of the knowledge that they will almost certainly end up damaged as a result. There are glimpses of hope amidst the pain and oppression of delusion, but these are relatively few and far between.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

Odd Girl Out by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’m a bit hit-or-miss when it comes to Elizabeth Jane Howard, After Julius being the hit and The Long View the miss. (Getting It Right, which I read earlier this year and never got around to writing up at the time, fell somewhere between the two.) Odd Girl Out (1972) broadly fits into the ‘hit’ category for me, albeit with a few caveats here and there. It’s a novel about sexual attraction and secret relationships, largely played out against the comfortable background of the privileged middle classes in 1970s Berkshire.

Odd 1

Edmund and Anne Cornhill, both in their late thirties/early forties, have been happily married for ten years, content with themselves and one another in their own secluded world. Edmund travels to London each day where he works as an estate agent, a role that often involves the assessment of grand country houses. Meanwhile, Anne amuses herself by pottering in the garden, shopping for treats, and cooking delicious meals for Edmund to enjoy on his return.

As with any longstanding relationship, there are occasional niggles to be smoothed out. Anne wishes Edmund wouldn’t insist in bringing her breakfast in bed every morning (in truth she considers it a waste of valuable time), while Edmund promptly ignores Anne’s suggestions on which shirt-and-tie combination he should wear that day, preferring to select his own clothes instead. Nevertheless, the marriage is a comfortable one, both parties feeling fulfilled and contented.

All this begins to change when Arabella comes to stay, destabilising the Cornhills’ idyllic lifestyle in her own rather naïve and charming way. Arabella is young, beautiful and vulnerable, recovering as she is from the after-effects of a very recent abortion. (No spoilers here as this is made abundantly clear from the start.) The link between Arabella and the Cornhills is a somewhat tenuous one. In essence, she is the daughter of Edmund’s former stepmother, Clara, a frightful, self-centred woman who treats the girl like an unwanted appendage or nuisance to be dealt with, preferably by way of a convenient marriage.

Armed with her youth and progressive outlook, Arabella is more sexually liberated than either Edmund or Anne, a point that leads to the virtually inevitable affair. Edmund is utterly beguiled by Arabella, to the point that he starts behaving like a lovesick teenager in her presence, desperately trying to extend the time they can spend alone together. What is somewhat more surprising is Arabella’s impact on Anne, who also finds herself affected by the young girl’s presence in the house, albeit in a rather different, more unpredictable way.

It was extraordinary how she [Arabella] could stream with tears and go on looking beautiful and not have to blow her nose, Anne thought. She wanted to feel ‘poor little thing’, but there was something about Arabella’s appearance and state that went well beyond that. She put out her hand to stroke Arabella’s hair, and touching it, felt vaguely frightened. (p. 107)

Alongside the main narrative thread, there are some interesting secondary stories, too – perhaps most notably that of Janet, the downtrodden wife of Arabella’s former lover, Henry, an unsuccessful actor and prize brute. While Janet does her best to feed her children on little more than thin air, Henry proceeds to abuse her, making her life a misery at every possible opportunity. If anything, I would have liked a lot more of Janet, but sadly it wasn’t to be – a relatively minor quibble in the scheme of things, but a missed opportunity nonetheless. Anne’s backstory reveals another abusive relationship: a hasty previous marriage with a most unsuitable partner, Waldo, now fortunately out of the picture in Canada.

Overall, this is a very well-written novel about the fickle, complicated nature of love. As far as Arabella sees things, pretty much everything in life is simple – not necessarily easy, but simple. In reality, however, love, desire and sexual relationships are much more complicated than this – a point that Arabella eventually discovers to her peril. (I can’t help but wonder if this is another story that draws on some of EJH’s own rather bruising relationships with abusive, self-absorbed men – it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.)

The period detail is rather wonderful, too. There are some glorious touches from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s here, including martinis, Sancerre, salmon trout, chilled soup, kaftans, pant suits and holidays in Greece – like an upmarket version of Abigail’s Party in certain respects. As ever with EJH, the descriptions of settings, rooms, furnishings and other minutiae are perfectly observed.

In summary, this is an elegant novel with touches of real sadness and poignancy. Recommended to readers of relationship-driven fiction with a domestic setting.

This is the first of two pieces about EJH I’m planning to post over the next few weeks – more about my responses to another of her novels to follow.

Odd Girl Out is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn – part 2, the individual books

Earlier this week, I posted a piece with some overarching thoughts on Edward St Aubyn’s five-part sequence of books, The Patrick Melrose novels. (If you missed this, do consider going back to read it – you can find the link here.) In short, the series charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It’s also one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

In this follow-up post, I’m going to touch on the individual novels, just to highlight one or two points about each one. Inevitably, this will include the broad arc of Patrick’s story. However, the traditional notion of plot is not the main driving force here; instead, the series is more about character, personal experience and psychological insight. If you’re thinking of reading the series, hopefully this will give you an idea of what to expect from it.

The first book, Never Mind, explores Patrick’s childhood – in particular, the torturous summer he spends with his sadistic father, David Melrose, and wealthy, alcoholic mother, Eleanor, at the family’s (or rather Eleanor’s) house in the South of France – Patrick is just five years old at this point. It is a shallow, privileged world, one in which disdain, ignorance and abject neglect are allowed to flourish and fester.

There are a number of key incidents in this book, most notably Patrick’s first experience of sexual abuse at the hands of his father – a practice that continues unchallenged for the next three years. Eleanor, on the other hand, is either too week or drunk to intervene. (There is a suggestion in the books that Eleanor is aware of David’s ongoing abuse of her son but is too frightened to do anything to stop it.)

Naturally, on account of the subject matter, this is a difficult book to read, devastating in its emotional intensity and impact. The abuse scene is all the more powerful for its subtlety and understated nature, a technique that leaves it to the reader’s imagination to complete the distressing picture.

Max has already written an excellent review of this book, which I would encourage you to read as it delves into many of the book’s strengths. Before moving on, I’d just like to highlight one aspect of St Aubyn’s style that stood out for me – namely, his ability to convey such astute insights into character through the smallest of actions or details.

…he [David] leaned over and picked up a half-smoked Montecristo cigar. One was ‘supposed’ to remove the paper band from the cigar, and so David left it on. To break even the smallest rules by which others convinced themselves that they were behaving correctly gave him great pleasure. His disdain for vulgarity included the vulgarity of wanting to avoid the appearance of being vulgar. (p. 90, Never Mind)

Book two, Bad News, finds Patrick at twenty-two, flying to New York to collect his father’s ashes whilst in the throes of multiple addictions. Strung out on various cocktails of speed, cocaine, heroin and alcohol, Patrick tries to reconcile his feelings about David’s death, a process that takes him to a nightmarish abyss, characterised by the relentless chorus of voices that haunt his hallucinatory dreams.

There is some brilliant writing about the physical and emotional impact of drug addiction here, particularly given the pernicious demons from Patrick’s past. However, it is the acerbic gallows humour that really stands out for me – passages such as the following in which Patrick discusses his father’s argumentative nature with an old family friend, Anne, following a viewing of the body at the funeral parlour.

‘So you liked being with him in a place he didn’t complain about.’

‘Exactly,’ said Patrick. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck, and for a while I expected him to sit up in his coffin, like a vampire at sunset, and say, “The service here is intolerable.” Then we would have had to go to three or four other funeral parlours. Mind you, the service was intolerable. They sent me to the wrong corpse.’

‘The wrong corpse!’ exclaimed Anne.

‘Yes, I wound up at a jaunty Jewish cocktail party given for a Mr Hermann Newton. I wish I could have stayed; they seemed to be having such fun…’ (p. 41, Bad News)

By book three, Some Hope, thirty-year-old Patrick has experienced some success in conquering his drug addiction, a habit he now recognises as concealing a deeper struggle – the fight to avoid turning into his father.

In many ways, this novel reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s marvellous series, A Dance to the Music of Time, which I have written about here. Some Hope revolves around a glamorous party hosted by the Melroses’ old acquaintance, Bridget – also present at the house during that fateful summer portrayed in Never Mind.

It is, in one sense, a biting social satire in the style of Powell and Waugh, replete with casual cruelties and cutting remarks. The guest of honour at the party is Princess Margaret, a woman who behaves in the most callously to various guests, particularly the French Ambassador, who comes close to creating a diplomatic incident, and Bridget’s young daughter, Belinda. To accentuate the Powell comparison even further, there is even a scene featuring a painting by Poussin – surely a nod to the title of Dance.

In book four, Mother’s Milk, we find Patrick in his early forties, living with his kind and grounded wife, Mary, and their two young children, Robert and Thomas. It is a book about mothers and the influence they bring to bear on their children. More specifically, Eleanor’s failures of Patrick throughout his life; the negative impact of Patrick’s maternal grandmother on Eleanor herself; and finally, Mary’s very different approach to motherhood, one that reflects her nurturing nature and unbridled capacity for love.

While Patrick knows he has already passed on some of his preoccupations and anxieties to Robert, there may still be time to take a different approach with Thomas, one that prevents the toxic fallout from tainting the life of his youngest son.

He [Patrick] was obsessed, it was true, with stopping the flow of poison from one generation to the next, but he already felt that he had failed. Determined not to inflict the causes of his suffering on his children, he couldn’t protect them from the consequences. Patrick had buried his own father twenty years ago and hardly ever thought about him. At the peak of his kindness David had been rude, cold, sarcastic, easily bored; compulsively raising the hurdle at the last moment to make sure that Patrick cracked his shins. It would have been too flagrant for Patrick to become a disastrous father, or to get a divorce, or to disinherit his children; instead they had to live with the furious, sleepless consequence of those things. (pp. 88-89, Mother’s Milk)

As the series draws to a close with the final book, At Last, there are signs that Patrick may be able to find some kind of way forward, a sense of release from the traumas and frustrations of the past. At the age of forty-five, he is attending his mother’s funeral, an opportunity to let go of longstanding anger and resentment. Surely his mother’s passion for philanthropy, for using her money to try and save the disadvantaged children of the world, stemmed from a subconscious feeling that she had failed to protect her own son. As the full horror of Eleanor’s life with David is finally revealed, Patrick realises that it is not the end of closeness but the end of longing for such feelings of intimacy and protection that he must mourn.

By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this series is a masterpiece of modern fiction. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Patrick Melrose novels are published by Picador; personal copies.